Differentiating Instruction to Benefit Students Comprehension Part I

by Danny Brassell, Ph.D.
Differentiating Instruction to Benefit Students’ Comprehension Part I

Dr. Danny Brassell is an associate professor in the Teacher Education Department at California State University-Dominguez Hills. A highly-sought national speaker, Dr. Brassell is the founder of The Lazy Readers’ Book Club, www.lazyreaders.com. His latest book is A Baker’s Dozen of Lessons Learned from the Teaching Trenches (Shell Education, 2009). 

Llesenia arrives to the classroom nearly an hour before the first bell rings. She has completed all of her homework perfectly, organized her desk in preparation for the day’s lessons, and helps herself to different learning center activities to pass the time while she awaits the start of school. 

José shows up ten minutes late to class every day. He never has a pencil, and he does not seem to have the ability to sit in his seat for periods beyond eight minutes.  

Anthony completes math exercises well ahead of his classmates, but he struggles during reading time and usually acts up.  

Welcome to Ms. Kwon’s fourth grade classroom. It could be just about any classroom in America. Every classroom is filled with students of mixed abilities and interests. Every student is different. This is the challenge good teachers face: how to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of every student. There is no area that this is more important that in reading comprehension. 

In aiding students’ comprehension, teachers can create classrooms that meet state and federal standards and maintain high student expectations while supporting all students’ learning modalities.  Differentiating through content, activities (process) and product, based on students’ readiness, interests, profiles of learning and environments is key. That can be a lot to remember. Perhaps it is easier to start with a few questions and a few simple acronyms to have the answers to such questions handy: 

  • How can teachers use students’ strengths, interests, and background experiences to facilitate instruction?


  • What role does classroom environment play in comprehension?


Here is a simple mnemonic trick to help always keep differentiation in mind: each student is RIPE for learning when the teacher uses his/her thinking CAP. In this first article, we will address the first acronym (RIPE) which stands for: 



      Profiles of Learning and


Later, in the second article in this series, I’ll define “CAP” and we’ll explore how teachers can vary assignments and assessment strategies to meet the needs of all students.    

Do you routinely accommodate all students in your class? That’s a tall order.  Let’s break down the elements of the acronym RIPE, so you can see concrete ways for you to use these ideas in your classroom. 


Allow students to “show what they know” in a variety of ways. Do you think Joe Montana would be more successful taking a written exam on how to win a Super Bowl, or would he do better if you just gave him the ball with two minutes left to play in the Big Game? Some students will do a lot better if we just “give them the ball.” 

Provide students with plenty of time to explore, understand and transfer learning to long-term memory. Permit students time to revisit ideas and concepts to connect or extend them. Repetition is not necessarily a bad thing. Any parent of a young child will admit that their child always wants to read the same book every night before bedtime. The reason is the child is memorizing the book. Everybody needs to feel like an expert at something, so allow children opportunities to become “experts” and exhibit “specialties.” 

Ensure lessons are developmentally appropriate and tier activities to provide appropriate level of challenge for everyone.  Compact curriculum to provide enrichment and challenge.  

A good classroom should be organized like a good high school athletics program, which usually has a varsity team, a junior varsity team and a freshman team. Not all students are ready yet to perform at the most advanced level, but that does not mean they should be denied the opportunity to practice and perform. Success among peers in reading, I have noticed, leads to greater success. More importantly I have observed that, once students perceive themselves as good readers, they read more. And the more they read, the better readers they become. To get them to read more, though, teachers need to offer plenty of materials and activities that match their students’ interests. 


Incorporate creativity, and offer novel, unique and engaging activities to capture and sustain students’ attention. When my first graders used to get bored, I would tell them that “Australian Pete” was going to read to the class. I’d then leave the room and return with a heavy accent, saying, “G’day, mates! I just got done puttin’ another shrimp on the Barbie, and your teacher said you want me to read to you.” The kids would cheer and yell “Yeah, Australian Pete!” I had changed nothing but my accent, but I captured my students’ attention in a novel way and sustained my students’ attention during our read aloud. 

By providing students real choices in what they learn, how they learn and how they demonstrate learning (flexible and varied), teachers can enhance their students’ reading comprehension skills. Good teachers can teach to standards without sacrificing student interest.  

Figure out the standard that needs to be taught, and brainstorm a variety of ways students can practice learning that standard and showing off what they have learned. The more decisions students are allowed to make in the classroom, the more students participate and pay attention. Offer real-world challenges that are directly connected to the students’ lives, and students will learn more.  

Finally, use multi-media/technology. I have a feeling that computers are a pretty popular learning tool for students. What a wonderful resource to teach students reading comprehension skills. I once worked with a fourth grader who was supposedly illiterate. In one hour of working with the boy, I observed the boy surf the Internet, write a couple of emails, and text message a friend on his cell phone. The child was not illiterate; he was disinterested in school, and I utilized the computer as the best way to capture the boy’s attention. By the way, there are countless online tools and software that can enhance students’ reading comprehension while maintaining their interest. Good teachers are patient enough to watch their students closely to determine how they learn best.  

Profile of Learning 

Focus on students’ learning styles. Gardner (1993) determined that students’ exhibit multiple intelligences. Until schools understand that instruction begins where the students is at and not in the front of the curriculum guide, there will always be some students who struggle. Permit positive movement in your classroom, as many students learn better on their toes.  

Utilize brain-compatible instruction. Sternberg (1998) showed that students’ minds work in different ways, and we have identified three general types of students in all classrooms: book smart kids, street-smart kids and creative thinkers. All of these students need to be instructed differently. 

When teachers emphasize student strengths and develop ways to compensate for weaknesses so they do not inhibit what students can do, their students prosper. In plain English, teachers need to explicitly instruct their students in reading comprehension strategies. By recognizing and honoring cultural diversity, good teachers also demonstrate to students that there is nothing wrong with being different. In fact, all of us can learn from each others’ differences. In fact, many of my African-American students learned to read better because my Latino students taught strategies they learned in Spanish. By facilitating inclusive environments, teachers can better encourage their students to take chances.  


Create a supportive environment of respect environment (teacher-students, students-to-students). By developing a sense of community and facilitating an environment where students feel safe to take risks, teachers can promote the development of a broad range of reading skills and interests. They can do this by setting up their physical classrooms for student-centered instruction, incorporating all senses.  

For example, my passion is classroom libraries, and my classroom libraries have always been aimed at getting students so excited to read in the classroom library that they did not want to do anything else. I did this by allowing students to read anywhere (I had plenty of cushions, carpeting, tents, inflatable rafts and other cool places to read) with anyone (as long as they were reading) and anything (our library boasted a variety of books of different levels and genres, magazines, comics, newspapers, menus, encyclopedias, brochures, etc.). Students listened to soft music as they read, and they could eat and drink while they read. I even brewed coffee so the classroom smelt pleasant rather than vomit, urine and moldy textbooks. 

Provide your students with purposeful materials and resources. Just say “no” to lame worksheets, in favor of materials that students find appealing. Have high expectations for all students, and they are all capable of achieving precisely the reading ability you feel they are capable of achieving. To get students started on this track, teachers need to make their content comprehensible to students. 

Remember that comprehension is the core of why we read.  Check out the second article in this series to learn more about adapting comprehension instruction so that all your students benefit.  

If you want to learn more about different styles of learning and how to maximize those, try these resources: 

    Sternberg, R.J. (1998). Abilities are forms of developing expertise. Educational Researcher, 27 (3), 11-20