Differentiating Instruction: Comprehension Part II

Part Two
Danny Brassell, Ph.D.
Differentiating Instruction
During Part I of this series, the groundwork was laid.  Basing instructional decisions on students’ readiness, interests, profiles of learning and environments was examined.  Now, let’s look at the second part of the equation for effectively teaching comprehension to every student:

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.
CAP stands for:
        Activities (process) and

Here are just a few ideas on how teachers can differentiate content for their students:
  • Reading Partners/Reading Buddies;
  • Choral Reading/Antiphonal Reading;
  • Flip Books;
  • Split Journals (Double Entry – Triple Entry);
  • Books on Tape;
  • Highlights on Tape;
  • Digests/ “Cliff Notes”;
  • Note-taking Organizers;
  • Varied Texts;
  • Varied Supplementary Materials;
  • Highlighted Texts;
  • Think-Pair-Share/Preview-Midview-Postview.

I have found that teachers prefer to know a number of tricks they can use to differentiate content for their students.  Obviously we don’t have time or space here to explore each of these but I encourage you to pick a few you don’t currently use and consider their possibilities for your students.

Once you’ve selected various content to use, remember to always present the curriculum through interdisciplinary “big ideas” versus disconnected small facts. Teachers need to think of their curriculum like a jigsaw puzzle: students are much more likely to “get it” when they see the big picture. By planning before, during and after instruction, teachers “think through” all the potential pitfalls students encounter in their reading. No matter how careful teachers are in their planning, though, they always have to be prepared for the unexpected. Good teachers constantly adjust the curriculum to match the needs of various students.

Challenge students.  Vygotsky (1978) came up with the concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD).  Basically, he theorized that we learn best when we are around people who are a little smarter than us. The way I would teach this to my students was by singing, “Hey ZPD! Yeah, you know me!” My mother summarized the theory in this way, “stop hanging out with those idiots.” You usually turn out like the people you hang out with, so I advised my students to be careful of the friends they chose.

I love rubrics! When teachers clearly state expectations (and are specific about requirements), students prosper. Many students fail not because they do not understand a specific topic but because they fail to understand the teacher’s specifications and the educational objectives.  I found that negotiating contracts to provide appropriate learning activities for students motivated students to read better because they understood the expectation for their success.

Teachers can empower their students by allowing them to help set and enforce norms and develop standards. I believe that during the first month of school teachers should train their students how to run the classroom, and the rest of the year good teachers allow students to run the classrooms. Students comprehend better when they are forced to actively perform daily routines (rather than being allowed to passively nod in agreement that they understand). By creating centers, teachers can encourage students to take a more active part in their learning. Centers, however, are only one trick at increasing students’ active participation in the classroom.

Activities (Process)
Utilize active, hands-on learning. Allow students to work collaboratively and independently (flexible grouping). The more you get your students out of their seats and working together, the better. I taught predominantly ESL students in my first year as a teacher, and, given my limited Spanish ability and the varying abilities of my students, I depended on my students to help one another as much as possible. I found that many of my students’ reading comprehension skills improved by working with peers and asking a lot of questions/sharing personal interpretations of texts.

Vary strategies. Different students respond differently to different strategies. What works really well for one student, we have found, may not help another student at all. Offer students plenty of time for reflection and goal setting to see if their strategies work. For example, when I was in college I had a fraternity brother who said he had been studying for a final exam for almost two straight days, and he failed the exam. I told my fraternity brother, “I don’t have to study a single minute, and I can fail an exam.” While my fraternity brother did not appreciate that response, my point was that my fraternity brother needed to adopt some better study habits because his current habits were not producing his desired results. Good teachers teach strategies explicitly so students have an “easy way out” of tough spots when they have a difficult time understanding what they read.  Students need to understand which strategies work best for them. By aiming high and scaffolding weaknesses, any student can become a better reader.

Consider integrated curriculum, problem-based learning and service learning.  Students perform better when they have an audience, so facilitate activities that students can use to help the classroom, school or community. By making use of higher level thinking and questioning strategies, teachers teach for meaning, not rote memorization. Students can get just as much out of performing a play about a book they read as they can from writing a book report, but the play will probably “stick in their heads” a lot longer.

An optimal differentiated classroom promotes students’ reading comprehension by balancing teacher-chosen and teacher-directed activities with student-chosen and student-directed activities. Teachers need to monitor student progress constantly and be flexible (with time, space, materials and groupings). When teachers collaborate with parents, resource specialists and other community members and help their students understand the group’s shared needs for success, students benefit. I observed a second grade classroom in Japan where the teacher spent the last ten minutes of every day asking students to stand and acknowledge other students who had helped them with their reading. In this way all students were encouraged in their reading in a way that a standardized test could not measure.

Assessments are not just tests. When differentiating instruction, you must consider the students’ needs. The same can be said when assessing students’ mastery of content. A number of product resources can be used to reveal the true “learning profile” of students. Some alternative sources for student data include :
  • journal entries,
  • short answer tests,
  • open response tests,
  • home learning,
  • notebooks,
  • oral responses,
  • portfolio entries,
  • exhibitions,
  • culminating products,
  • question writing and
  • problem solving.

Don’t rely just on the standardized assessments but consider teacher data mechanisms such as anecdotal records, observation by checklists, skills checklists, class discussions, small group interactions, teacher – student conferences, assessment stations, exit cards, problem posing and performance tasks and rubrics.
I have seen teachers implement a variety of product ideas that captured students’ interests and adequately demonstrated student learning. Provide opportunities for projects, creativity, problems and challenges, and always focus on student growth. Initiate student-maintained portfolios and assessments with varied and original products. Support students in creating products for real events/audience through public displays and performances. Emphasize quality of thought and expression vs. accuracy.

Final Thoughts
Good teachers differentiate instruction in a variety of ways to meet the needs of their students. Children become proficient readers in their own ways. It is often difficult for teachers to understand why students cannot comprehend basic concepts. We need to realize that anything is simple…once you understand how to do it. What may be simple to one person may be very difficult to another. To demonstrate this point, try these two games with students:

Tap & Listen: Pair two students, and designate one student a “tapper” and the other student a “listener.” Give the tapper a song to tap the beat to on a desk (e.g. “America, the Beautiful,” “Three Blind Mice,” “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” etc.). Do not tell the listener what the song is. The object of the game is to see if the listener can guess the song that the tapper taps. Most of the time the listener cannot accurately guess the song. The tapper clearly has a song in his/her head, but the taps wind up sounding a lot like random Morse code messages to the listener.

One Up/One Down: Ask for three-four students to come to the front of the classroom. Tell the volunteers that there are only two rules to this game. The first rule is that when it is each student’s turn, s/he must say one of three things: two up, two down or one up/one down. The second rule is that you must alternate your statement on each turn (e.g. if you said “two down” on your last turn, you must say “two up” or “one up/one down” on the next turn).

You begin by keeping your arms hanging beside you and saying “two down.” Each student must then make a statement, and you will tell each student if s/he is “right” or “wrong.” After everyone takes a turn, rearrange the order of the students and play a few more rounds. Then allow the students to leave the room while you explain the game to the rest of the class. Ask the remaining students if they figured out what the game is about (your statement depends on where your arms are, e.g. if both of your arms are above your head, you say “two up,” and if one is in the air and the other is by your waist you would say “one up/one down”).

Both games are meant for teachers as well as students. Each game demonstrates the same point: what may seem basic to one person may appear much more complex to another, and it requires patience in determining how to get a point across in a manner that everyone understands.

In the same way teachers must understand that comprehension is an ongoing process in students. It takes time to develop, and one’s comprehension varies based on one’s experiences. It is my hope that good teachers will recognize the rich diversity of experiences students bring to their classrooms and utilize those experiences in building their students reading comprehension.

Brassell, D., & Rasinski, T. (2008). Comprehension that works: Taking students beyond ordinary understanding to deep comprehension.   Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Education.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes.   Boston: Harvard University Press.

About the Author
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. . His latest book is A Baker’s Dozen of Lessons Learned from the Teaching Trenches  (Shell Education, 2009).