Cheryl Sigmon

Teaching Literacy
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Differentiated Instruction and Ability Grouping

There is no evidence that ability grouping is necessary for Differentiating Instruction. Here's how teaching all children to read, write and grow in literacy can be accomplished within the Four-Blocks Literacy framework.
by Cheryl Sigmon
Regular contributor to the Gazette
May 1, 2008

A desperate teacher wrote to me recently with the plea, “My school says I have to differentiate my instruction. I really don’t want to go back to ability grouping my students. What can I do to avoid this?” She’s a successful Four-Blocks teacher whose students have performed well in recent years on standardized tests.

This teacher apparently isn’t alone in her concern since I hear this frequently in schools where I work. And, by the way, the question certainly isn’t being asked exclusively by Four-Blocks teachers, even though they are generally concerned because the desire to teach without ability grouping is usually behind their decision to teach that way.

My advice to her and to others with this same conflict is simple on one level and more complex on another. First of all, the short answer is, emphatically—NO! You do NOT have to ability group students to differentiate their instruction. The two don’t necessarily equate. There are numerous ways to differentiate instruction; ability grouping (or dynamic grouping as some call it) is but one choice a teacher can make.

There are four basic ways that a teacher can differentiate instruction in the classroom. Based on the work of people like Carol Ann Tomlinson and others who’ve been at the forefront of the DI discussion, teachers can successfully differentiate instruction through a variety of different methods—not just through ability grouping. Believe it or not, there still is NO evidence that ability grouping is necessary to teach all children to read, write and grow in literacy.

Luckily, Four-Blocks was also at the forefront of differentiating instruction. Before the term DI came into being, we referred to it as multilevel instruction. It was how we chose to manage a classroom of varying performance levels, different personalities and unique learning styles. We didn’t chose to return to the whole group instruction of the 70s, but rather we addressed the differences in an efficient, effective way. And, also in a compassionate way—without ability grouping students.

Let’s look briefly at the ways that current research is saying differentiation might be accomplished. Let’s also see how Four-Blocks, a balanced literacy model, addresses these factors. Because of time and space within this article, only a few examples of each factor will be included. Hopefully, however, you’ll get the idea of just how varied are the ways in which a teacher can choose to differentiate—all without ability grouping.

First, differentiating through content allows the teacher to determine the depth to which each student will explore concepts and ideas and the rate at which each student covers the material. In other words, content is what is taught. In Four-Blocks guided reading, for example, teachers use grade level and easier text each week finding the widest range of material possible to which students can apply the skills and strategies that are taught. Both skills and strategies and content can be delivered effectively this way at differing readability levels.

On the days when grade level text is used which is more difficult for the lower achieving students, there are formats chosen to support and scaffold learners. Those formats include partner reading, teacher read-aloud, echo reading, choral reading, ERT, independent reading, playschool groups, literature circles, and three-ring circus among others. On easier days, all students still benefit from gained knowledge of content and from skill/strategy application, but they use easier materials that help them additionally to build fluency.

The book club grouping format can also be an opportunity to allow students exposure to varying levels of sophistication and difficulty with content acquisition. In this format, different materials are used by different groups. Usually the materials are “chosen” by the students according to their interest. Three to four different materials are generally selected by the teacher and advertised to the students. The students then peruse the materials and decide on their order of interest in the materials. The buy-in is additionally gained by allowing the students to eliminate one choice all together. So, if four choices are given, the students turn in their top three choices in the order in which they are interested in joining a club to read one. Then, the teacher makes the final decision, based on which students are best suited to which materials. The teacher instructs the lesson to be followed by students reading the materials and then returning to the whole group to debrief on the lesson. An ideal opportunity for differentiating instruction!

The second approach to differentiating instruction is through the processhow the material is taught. One good example in Four-Blocks is how the activity of Making Words provides differently for different children. Most teachers, even those who don’t employ Four-Blocks, are familiar with this activity. There are three steps that should be included.

The first step involves having students manipulate certain letter tiles to build words at their desks. This is done at the direction of the teacher who guides to be sure that the students understand how words are formed and that patterns are a large part of building words in the English language system. The teacher usually starts with 2 letter words and progresses to 3 letters, 4 letter words and far beyond until all of the letters are used to build the big word—sometimes called the mystery word. Whereas all students are with the teacher during the 2 and 3 letter words, some students begin to lose their way momentarily as more complex words are built by more advanced students who need greater challenges. So, with the big word garden, some students will be fine making Ed, end, den, rag, nag, while more advanced students will make rage, anger, danger, range, and finally garden. Weaker students, however, usually have support that they need by watching other students or being helped in various ways.

Another example of differentiating the process might be this example in Guided Reading. If the students are textmapping a chapter of social studies, the lower achieving students might be involved in the task of marking the chapter (color coding the text features and corresponding sections of text that has been constructed in a scroll fashion) while the higher achieving students are reading various sections and writing questions on sticky notes to place within the text of the scrolls. Each student will get the information necessary and will practice and apply what is most crucial for their development at this point.

A third approach is how the students’ grasp of the material is measured—also called the product. Four-Blocks accommodates learners perfectly for individual assessment. Two of the four blocks have built-in assessment time in the form of conferences that occur daily—Self-Selected Reading Block and Writing Block. This is quality one-on-one time for the teacher to work with each student. This usually occurs at least weekly in both of these areas.

In the Guided Reading Block, because teachers aren’t “tethered” to students, they are free to gather information on students either by pulling them aside individually, interacting with small groups, or by inconspicuously taking anecdotal notes while kid-watching. Also, in the Working with Words Block, many of the activities are structured so that teachers can gain valuable information and immediate feedback as they observe students complete activities. For example, during Making Words, teachers can easily see which students respond independently to directions and which students need the assistance of their neighbors. There are also many opportunities for teachers to require different tasks of students that will appropriately challenge them and that will reveal their level of understanding.

Lastly, manipulating the environment can greatly aid students in their potential to learn. Teachers who have studied learning style research realize how vital the environment can be to encourage students at their own maximum potential. The classroom needs to accommodate those students who need rigid furniture as well as those who learn best in a more comfortable setting. Self-selected reading is a good example of how that is easily accomplished in a Four-Blocks class. Many teachers allow students to choose how they wish to read—whether at their desks or stretched out on the floor. Both the Writing Block and the Guided Reading Block allow for much needed movement during the block—from whole group setting to more individualized groupings and then most often returning to whole group settings. Movement plays such an important function in learning! Also, there are so many aids within the environment to support students at whatever point they are in their development—Editor’s Checklists to remind students of basics in writing, Word Walls to support students who haven’t yet mastered sight words, desks in cooperative groups to encourage interaction… and the list goes on and on.

So, look closely at these factors—content, process, product, and environment—to see how you can differentiate instruction for your students. If you’re a Four-Blocks teacher, analyze what you’re already doing so that you can begin to defend to others that you are, in fact, differentiating instruction successfully for ALL students in your classroom. The fact that you’re doing it in a way that’s manageable for you is a great bonus!

Happy reading and writing! ---------Cheryl



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About Cheryl Sigmon...

Cheryl Sigmon has been an educator for nearly 30 years as a classroom teacher, a Dept. of Ed. language arts consultant, and currently as a seminar presenter, trainer and consultant in schools and districts around the US and Europe. She owns her own consulting firm, Sigmon & Associates, Inc., that brokers consulting services. She is co-author with Pat Cunningham and Dottie Hall of the bestselling Teacher's Guide to Four-Blocks and author of Modifying Four-Blocks for Upper Grades. Also, she is the author of numerous other professional books on literacy, including a writing mini-lesson series, Just-Right Writing Mini-Lessons (grade 1, 2-3, 4-6) and her newest comprehension mini-lesson series, Just-Right Comprehension Lessons (grades 1-6) with Scholastic Publishing Co.

Visit Cheryl's website at http://www.cherylsigmon.com.

On a personal note, she and her husband, Ray, live in SC, where they enjoy their stateís beautiful beaches and spend time with their three daughters, two grandchildren, and a multitude of grand-dogs and grandĖcats!


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