Differentiation Instruction is tailoring instruction (or learning) to meet individual needs of the students. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products, or the learning environment, the use of ongoing assessments and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction.
These days, classes are not full of the same learning styles or even the same levels of students. Teacher's have to learn to make their classroom a place where all students can feel comfortable learning; teacher's also have to meet students where they are in the learning process. In some cases...teachers may be faced with having a range of about three grade levels in one classroom.
So what now?
I'm going to tell you my views on how to have a successfully differentiated classroom...I am still learning myself though, so if you have any ideas or thoughts--please share!
I believe the most important starting point is finding the true level of all of your students. For us, we use the Rigby assessments for Running Records. (Any form of Running Records are great though!) These are great assessments for finding the *instructional* reading level of students. (Instructional is important--you want to meet them where they are for instruction.) From here...I have a good idea of the obstacles my students may be facing...or where enrichment needs to come in if they happen to be above level. Here is a more extensive link on Running Records. In order to meet the needs of all of your children...you will need to know their starting point.
From there it is time to divide up your students into guided reading groups and get started with small group instruction; I do not believe this is the hard part though--the hard part comes in during centers and whole group time. How does a teacher address the needs of all of her students (ranging many different grade levels) and still meet the requirements of the state skills for each grade level? (in our state--TEKS.)
I have found a few different ways to do this--they may seem simple or difficult...depending on your views, but they have worked (thus far.)
I believe it is always important to teach whole group instruction on the appropriate grade level. One way to help students that may struggle though is to have peer partners...that way if they are needing a little nudge in the right direction--their peer partner (usually a higher level student) can help.
However, for guided practice or center/station time, use activities that your entire class can do; but reach the individual needs of your students with the texts they read for these activities. For Example: Graphic Organizers are amazing for differentiating instruction.
These are just a couple--but I use all different kinds in my classroom (or even better--have the students make their own!) Then...I give them books on their level to read (may be 1st or may be 3rd grade level)...but something they can comprehend. Now as a teacher--you know if your students are getting the skill (even if they aren't reading on grade level quite yet.)
Another great way to differentiate is through games. FCRR (The Florida Center for Reading Research) has a ton of sight word games, vocabulary activities, partner work, graphic organizers, etc. I love it, because it is sorted by grade levels. So if some of your small groups or station groups are at a first grade level, some are at 2nd and some are at 3rd...you can find some activities to stretch their minds but still not frustrate or bore them.
I use graphic organizers and games mainly in stations/centers. I do not grade stations so this is great opportunity for the students to practice their reading on an instructional level for them (so they can hopefully climb to the appropriate grade level) and practice the skill taught so I can see what they understand and where they still need help. I believe the reading levels will come throughout the year...but if the students misses the skill along the way because they couldn't read the story, we have a big problem and LOTS of reteaching to do. In other words...choose your battles. I would watch a child progress on reading level and increase understanding of skills...then to fight the battle of a frustrated child that can't read on grade level (because they are reading on a frustrational level all year) and also can't do the skills because they don't understand one thing they read. Do what is best for the child--always.
Another question I get asked a lot though is...how do you grade students if they are all reading different books and doing different assignments? I think the first thing to address is...do not give the students different assignments (unless it cannot be avoided.) First of all--it isolates the students that are struggling; it also leaves question as to whether the students are actually doing grade level material. Like I said...have the students do the same activity but meet them where they are and work your way up! Grading...that has to be up the teacher and the school. Some schools do not give as much freedom as others. I say, use your professional judgement, but rubrics are great for differentiated instruction. Just a thought. :)
My suggestions are just that--suggestions.
Students cannot learn if they are always a step behind; meet them where they are and go from there. I am not saying we always teach them below grade level...I am simply saying give them the opportunity to learn where they are and meet you where you are, it may be a fine line, but it can be done.