Conundrums Inthe Differentiated Literacy Classroom

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    CONUNDRUMS IN THE DIFFERENTIATEDLITERACY CLASSROOM

    RUTHANNE TOBINUniversity of Victoria

    Based on extensive professional experiences in working with lit-eracy teachers to develop their skills in differentiated instruction,the author identifies six conundrums or puzzling challenges that'frequently arise as teachers adopt a more responsive approach tomeeting the needs of at-risk literacy learners in their regularclassroom. The six conundrums fall under two categories: foun-dational and instructional. Foundational conundrums includeteaching for understanding versus teaching skills; universaldesign versus differentiated design and assessing growth versuscomparative assessment. Instructional conundrums include pro-viding a robust literacy program versus activities based program;flexib le small group instruction versus whole class approach andliteral feedback versus validating feedback. In addition to exam-ining these challenges, the author also suggests some ways tonavigate these dilemmas with the goal of better meeting theneeds of all literacy learners.

    Teachers are seeking practical and the-oretically sound ways of responding to thediversity and range of literacy needs in theregular elementary classroom . In the pastseveral years in my capacity as teachereducator, I have worked extensively withnovice and experienced teachers to exploreways of feasibly addressing this range ofneeds and backgrounds. In doing so , I havedrawn on a model of differentiated instruc-tion (Tomlinson, 1999) to help teachersplan and enact responsive teaching in thelanguage arts curriculum . During theseinitiatives, teachers learning to differenti-a te have enc oun te red a num ber o fconundrums. In this article, I identify sixof the most common conundrums andexamine how teachers may consider anddeal with these as they develop the skillsof differentiation.

    What is Differentiated LiteracyInstruction?

    Differentiation instruction (DI) meansthat teachers create different levels ofexpectations for task completion, andemphasize the creation of environmentswhere all learners can be successful (Wal-dron & McLeskey, 2001). DI addressesthe "how to " question for teachers and callsupon educators to be responsive to learn-e r s . Exa m ples of d i f fe ren t ia t ing inlanguage arts include:(1) using reading m aterials at varying lev-els(2) using literacy centers w ith varied tasksdesigned to match stud ents' readiness,interests and/or preferred modes oflearning(3) meeting in small groups to re-teach anidea or skill (Tomlinson, 2003).

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    160/Reading Innprovement

    At the heart of differentiating instruc-tion in language arts is the need to prov idelearners with choices about what they readand in the design of their work products sothat they are a better match for learners.This is particularly important for strug-gling students who can most benefit fromadditional supports, tailored activities, andexplicit and extended instructional read-ing time with the teacher. In DI all learnersfocus on the same essential understand-ings but are provided with m ultiple accessroutes to make sense of and demonstratethese understandings.

    Differentiating does not mean that ateacher is taking into account the individ-ual intere sts, profiles, and readiness of thethirty students five hours per day in everycurricular and instructional decision. Tosuggest that would be ludicrous. Rather,differentiating means that a teacher isapproaching the literacy curriculum andher s tud ents wi th a r e sp on s ive d i s -position- an orientation to planning, deci-sion-making, curriculum selection andinstructional flow that is flexible andopportunistic.

    Conundrums, ConundrumsWhile the principles and philosophybehind D I have been well-articulated (seefor example Tomlinson, 2004; Tomlinson,& M cTighe, 2006), less well documentedare the challenges/ dilemmas that typicalteachers contend with as they shift fromon e-s ize - f i t s -a l l to a d i f fe ren t ia teda ppr o a c h . The t yp i c a l c onu ndr um sencountered fall under two categories:foundational and instructional. Founda-tional conundrums include teaching for

    versal design versus differentiated design;assess ing growth versus compara t iveassessment. Instructional conundrumsinclude providing a robust literacy pro-gram versus an activities-based program;flexible small group instruction versuswho le class approach; literal feedback ver-sus validating feedback. Each of thesedilemmas calls on teachers to consider boththeir beliefs and practices related to liter-acy learning and teaching.

    Foundational ConundrumsTeaching for understanding vs. teach-ing skil ls. One of the most p revalen tquestions that arises in differentiated lit-eracy classes is how to em phasize teachingfor understanding while still addressingthe many reading skills students need tobecom e f luent com preh end ers . A DIapproach calls for teachers to be crystalclear on the essential understandings first,and then to design opportunities to prac-tice or engage in skills to support theessential understandings. A critical find-ing related to accelerating the growth ofstruggling readers, suggests an instruc-t iona l emphas i s on the fo l lowingcomponents, fluency in reading connect-ed tex t , comprehens ion of t ex t ,phonological awareness, and phonologi-cal decoding (Mathes, Dentn, Fletcher,Anthony, Franc is , & Scha tschne ide r ,200 5). A differentiated approach basesinstruction on the observed needs of stu-dents in each of these areas. The teacherattends to behaviors that indicate the con-structions/understandings that each studentis forming and responds contingentlythrough scaffolding (Mathes et al., 2005).

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    Conundrums Differentiated Literacy... /161cessful differentiators in literacy clearlyidentified essential understandings relatedto reading comprehensions (i.e. identify-ing story structure, connecting with storycharacters) as well as content goals (i.e.connecting plant growth with environ-menta l condi t ions) . They in troducedtargeted skills that they wished to devel-op with their students while carefullymonitoring their students' com prehension(Tobin, 2007). Teaching for understand-ing means that teachers clearly identifiedthe big ideas/concepts related to literacylearning and content and realized thatimportant skills such as decoding, picturecueing, question-posing w ere all taught inservice to gaining an understanding of theconcepts/ideas within the text.

    Universal design vs DifferentiafeHinstruction . Universal design and differ-entiated instruction are highly compatibleconcepts. Differentiated instruction fallsunder the larger catagory of universaldesign. In fact, the core of good differen-tiated literacy lessons is an understandingof the importance of universal design. Uni-versal design refers to "designed-in"flexibility to accommodate the instruc-tional needs of as many d iverse learners aspossible at the very beginning stages ofplanning and organizing for instruction.The underlying premise of universal designis that the largest number of people possi-ble should benefit from the products andenvironments without the need for addi-t iona l mod i f ica t ions beyond thoseincorporated in the original design. Uni-versal design in literacy learning assumesand anticipates individual differences atthe outset. For example, in a class enrollinga few English Language Learners (ELL);

    context cues, repetition, visual support,removal of extraneous words in instruc-t ions , vocab u la ry deve lop m en t andexpansion of background knowledge areall critical to their success (Alvermann,2000; Law & Eckes, 2000). A teacher usinguniversal design draws on all of these com -ponents when instructing the whole class.This is similar to the easy grip hand les onkitchen utensils that were originally devel-oped for individuals with disab ilities. Itturns out we all find such utensils easierto use (Nolet & McLaug hlin, 2000). Suchis the case with the strategies for the ELLstudents essential for them yet they alsomake learning easier for all students.

    With universal design in place, teach-ers may then differentiate for individualswho need support beyond the considera-tions built-in for the whole class. In theexample of theELL students, some of themmay need a pre-reading of less-complextext on the topic of inquiry before the unitbegins as a more effective way of intro-ducing the vocabulary and assessing theirreadiness for the unit. This would alsoenable the teacher to plan differentiatedlearning opportunities for these studentsin the upcoming theme or un it.

    In summary, the sequence of planningneeds to emphasize universal design firstto advance the literacy of a maximumnumber of learners from the outset. Dif-ferentiated instruction goes a step furtherto tailor often small but significant adap-tations to ensure success for individualstudents sometimes outside the wholegroup context.Assessing growth vs Comparative,assessm ent. Many teachers worry and

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    162 /Rea ding Improvement

    tiated practices with evaluation practicesespecially in a context of increasing stan-dardization and testing. Exemplary literacyteachers evaluate student work and awardgrades based on effort and improvementnot just achievemen t, ensuring that all stu-dents have a chance to get good grades(AUington, 2002). This implies that teach-ers have a sound kno wledge of students torecognize growth and estimate studenteffort. Improvement can be noted by show-ing students where they began and wherethey ended using rubric-based evaluations.Pressures regarding evaluation should notblind teachers to the realities that studentswho are of the same age differ in theirreadiness to learn, their interests and theirstyles of learning (Tomlinson, 2003). Moreimportantly such differences have a majorimpact on what students need to leam andthe pace and support required to meet sig-n i f i c a n t l e a r n ing ou t c om e s(Lawrence -Brown, 2004) . Toml inson(2000) argues that educational approach-es tha t ignore divers i ty in favor ofstandardization are unlikely to be suc-cessful in meeting the needs of the fullrange of students. Evaluation practicesneed to be examined in light of the effectthey will have on academically diversepopu lations. Standards or learning out-comes are meant to inform and guide thecurriculum not "b e' the curriculum. Dif-ferentiation calls on literacy teachers toallow time, opportunities and support formaking sense of text, ideas and skills. Dif-ferentiation shows us how to teach thesame standard to a range of learners byusing a variety of teaching and learningm odes. Identifying the essential under-standings and skills in language arts and

    intentionally targeting these during instruc-tion bodes well for achieving outcom es orstandards. Ignoring that students do nothave prerequisite skills and carrying onwith Grade level materials and conceptswithout addressing the gaps invites fail-ure and frustration. This is akin to racingat breakneck speed to the airport to catcha flight ignoring the fact that you forgot topick up your traveling passengers.

    Students need to develop confidencethat teachers are teaching and evaluatingfor succ ess, not to catch them at what theydon't do well. To ensure success for allstudents requires a knowledge of the cur-riculum and familiarity with students'understanding, skills, interests and back-g r ou nd . W i thou t t h i s , t e a c he r s a r eill-equipped to successfully teach suchlearners. The primary purpose of evalu-ation giving feedback about whatstudents do well and how to improve ontheir weaknesses needs to be kept at theforefront. The grades need to reflect thedegree of growth and achievement. Tom-linson (2005) suggests aligning studenttasks with student needs and noting thatthe assignment or task has been differen-tiated. I echo her advocacy of report cardsthat include checklists of escalating com-petencies and indications of growth incombination with comparative marks orlevels (such as 1,2,3) to indicate below, at,or above grade level. If the current reportcard does not facilitate this type of equity,ensure that a note on the report card callsattention to this com plete pictu re. Ulti-mately evaluation should require eachindividual to be their personal best not

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    Conundrums Differentiated Literacy... /163Instructional ConundrumsRobust literacy program vs. Activitiesbased program . Assessment of the robust-ness or substance of the overall literacyprogram as teachers strive to be moreresponsive often involves a move awayfrom using literacy activities as the dri-v ing force behind ins t ruc t ion . Anactivity-based program often has childrenengaged in many different language and

    literacy activities but these are often dis-connec ted f rom the ove ra rch ingunderstandings and goals of the program.They are also frequently not based on stu-den ts' needs, interests or profiles. Researchclearly shows that responsive literacyteaching p lays a critical role in the successof diverse learners (Vaughn, Bos &Schumm, 2000; Mathes, et a l . , 2005).Responsive literacy teaching focuses onan apprenticeship to mo del, guide, coach,scaffold and fade strategies and prompts toaccelerate independence w hile the studentsengage in reading and writing meaningfultexts. As teachers become clear about theirgoals, they m atch these up with m eaning-ful, varied literacy response options andstrategies that promote critical thinkingandproblem -solving. In a recent study of dif-ferentiated instruction in language arts,researchers found that teachers often mis-takenly viewed a lesson as adequatelydifferentiated as long as students weredoing something related to the theme withlittle consideration of whether or how thestudents were reaching particular ou tcomesor practicing the targeted skill. In fact, attimes the activity was iiicongruent withthe overall goals of the lesson (Tobin &M clnnes, 2008). For example, in some of

    these researched Grade 3/4 classrooms,teachers would often have struggling stu-dents draw a picture in response to theirreadings. The stated goal was to engagechildren in writing authentic text that con-nected their lives to the characters in thestory. W hile drawing can be a worthwhileresponse option when embedded within arobust literacy lesson, children are notengaging in writing and may be furthermarginalized in their writing developmen tbecause of an inappropriately differenti-ated lesson. A better option is to givereluctant or struggling writers a model ofa written response which scaffolds theirlearning as well as providing them withfading prom pts. The robustness of a liter-acy program can be assessed by asking acouple of key questions:1. Are studen ts' literacy learning opportu-nities connected to my goals/outcomes?2. Are these opportunities likely to resultin meaning making?Flexible small group instruction vsWhole class instruction. In most class-room s, whole class instruction remains thepredominant instructional grouping for-mat. Whole group instruction plays animportant role in literacy learning; in factit is a critical aspect of instruction for pre-senting particular kinds of concepts andskills. How ever, it may be unrealistic toexpect struggling li teracy learners toreceive the support they need to navigatedifficult text that leads to growth in read-ing in the whole group setting only. Wholegroup instruction remains the dominantchoice of teachers regardless ofth e profileof students enrolled in the class and despiteample research documenting the benefits

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    164/Reading Improvementinstruction in wh ich studen t voices are according to interest. One of the ways ofprivileged and learning is augm ented kee pin g small grou ps functio nal and(Elb aum , Vaug hn, Hu gh es, Moo dy, & dynamic is to be clear about the purposeSchum m, 2000 ). of the group and to change the gro up 'sUse of a variety of organ izational for- composition often. Novice teachers of dif-mats is a key underpinning of differentiated ferentia tion mis taken ly ass um e that DIinstruction. The literature clearly indicates merely is an old model of smart and slowthat it is the small grouping and individ- groups as oppo sed to a flexible instruc-ual contex t in which optim um , desirable tional approach to respond to student needs.reading and writing behavio rs are most If this misunderstanding takes hold, repro-likely to occur (Greenwood, Tapia, Abbott, ducing tracking within the classroom can& Walton, 2003). Flexible small groups be an uninte nd ed co nse qu en ce of theand a focus on student interest as a means change effort (Tobin, 200 7). An im por-of maximizing acceleration of reading have tan t e m p ha si s ne ed s to be pl ac ed onshown very positive results (Cunningham, actively avoiding fixed groups while stillHall & De fee, 199 8; Vau ghn, Lin an- providing the benefits of small groupT ho m ps on , K ou ze ka na ni , Pe dro t ty , ins truc tion. This would avoid problemsD ick so n & B lo zi s, 2 00 3 ). Th e latter associated with low expectations for stu-researchers found small group instruction dents in the "low gro up".(3 students) to be just as effective as 1-1 Flex ible grou ping s for strategic pur-instruction in develop ing re ading sk ills poses such as organizing an interest groupsuch as phonem e segmentation, fluency on spiders or an enac tme nt grou p of aand comprehension, while the former study favorite evocative story is likely to facili-documents the success of mixed ability tte com preh ensio n and eng age me nt,groupings (4-5 students) to achieve flu- Enactment groups bring text alive and pro-ency and com preh ens ion in pr ima ry vide much-needed redundancy givingstudents. As a further incentive to work readers another opportunity to make mean-in a variety of organizational formats with ing of text - som etim es as a bridg e toyou ng literacy lear ner s, a long itudin al written responses. In addition to intereststudy of primary students, found that desir- groups, students also benefit from frequentable reading behaviors occurred most often heterogeneous groupings which have beenin the presence of peer tutors, reading part- found to achieve higher measures on read-ne r s , o r t e a c h e r - l e d on e - on - on e , i ng voc a bu la r y , c om pr e he ns ion a ndsmall-group, or independent instructional reading fluency than those grouped sole-arrangements as compared to entire group , ly in hom ogenou s groups (Cun ningham ,teacher-led instruction (Greenwood et al., et al. 1998; Jackson, Parato re, Chard, &2003). Gamick, 1999).

    Gro upin g criteria in a differentiated Hom ogenous groupings are often use-classroom is flexible, sometimes accord- ful with beginning readers in the formating to their reading level or need s, while of Guided Reading which gives teachers

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    Conundrums Differentiated Literacy... /165of readers with similar needs. This is par-ticularly practical in contributing to earlyreading fluency since readers need toencounter text with which they are highlyfamiliar (95% known words) in order todevelop fluency. If Guided Reading usinghomogenous groupings is adopted, it iscritical that students belong to a variety ofother groups that are organized accordingto other criteria.A further cautionary noteis to ensure that students' reading diet iscomposed of more than leveled books fromthe Guided R eading program.

    Explicit demonstrations of the cogni-tive strategies that good readers use wasfound to be a key feature among exem-plary literacy teachers (Allington, 2002).The w hole group approach (which Alling-ton te rms "watch me" or " le t medemonstrate") speaks to the important rolethat explicit demonstration of skills andstrategies play. However, in a differenti-ated classroom teachers do not expect thewhole group demonstration to be sufficientfor all learners. Typical among successfuldifferentiators in one study (Tobin, 2007)was an acceptance that some studentswould need instructions and demonstra-tions given to them individually, or morethan once, with some students still need-ing the first steps in their reading or writingmodeled or scribed to get them started.Central to enabling these kinds of indi-vidual and small group interactions anddemonstrations is the skillful use of flex-ib le groupings tha t an t ic ipa te andacknowledge misunderstandings and needsfor redundancy.Validating feedback vs Literal feedback.While teachers are called upon to giveaccurate feedback to their students so that

    they can improve their performance, teach-ers sometimes interpret this as a need toprovide very literal feedback regarding stu-dents ' task engagem ent or work-in-pro-gress. Such literal feedback, for exa mp le,involves comments on students' not com-mencing their work in a timely m anner, ornot following the teache rs' instructions andexpectations. Such comments as: "Youhav en't even put the date down yet," "Didyou listen to instructions?", or "Get work-ing" do little to accelerate task engagement.An alternative approach involves adopt-ing a vahdating stance or nudging approachtoward students who appear reluctant ordisengaged. Such commments as, "Whatdo you do first, next, now?" and " I'll beback in a few minutes to see how you aredoing," nudge children in ways likely toprotect the learning relationship.

    Teachers who perceive students to below achievers (as is the case for manystruggling students) often come to thinkof these students solely in behavioral terms.Teachers have fewer interactions with themand the interactions they do have lackinstructional content because they feel theydo not know how to address their uniquecharacteristics and needs (C ook, Tankers-ley, Cook, & Landrum, 2000; Jordan &Stanovich, 2001) . Teachers ' a t t i tudestoward at-risk and struggling students havebeen described as simply giving up (Cook,et al., 200 0). Yet, the latest research indi-cates that the learning process is highlymodifiable and shaped by individual stu-dent characteristics in interaction withcontext. Student-teacher discourse is ofutmost importance in identifying studentsas capable members of a classroom liter-

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    166 /Reading improvement

    2002; Butler & Cartier, 2005; Gee, 1996;Rex, 2000). Teachers need tangible ideasfor how to interact in positive and pro-duct ive ways with s tudents who aresometimes challenging to instruct.The teach er's talking can position vul-nerable students for academic success bycarrying out what Rex (2000) describes asinteractional inclusion . In such a contex t,vulnerable students are positioned to be

    observed as capable classroom members.The teacher exercises discretion by care-fully using her own voice to elevatestruggling students' status in the classroom.The teacher's role is to create the condi-tions of active participation and to validatestudents' sense of themselves as success-ful learners. For exam ple, one teacher andher teacher assistant in working withexceptional students would frequently tellthem: "You 're onto something," as wellas encouraging them to show others whatthey were "onto " by preparing an aesthet-ic or creative response to the text, such asa taped conversation, a tableau, or a pic-ture. The idea that they could be "ontosomething," without completion of a sin-gle paragraph, seemed to motivate themto construct something with their ideas thatrelated to the text, while temporarily free-ing them up from the rigor and criteria oftext-based formats (Tobin, 2006). Nudg-ing students through validating disco urse,assuming best intentions ("I see you'restill thinking about what to put downfirst.") often produces better results thanliteral feedback about their disengagement(Tobin, 20 06 ). Using prom pting andinquiring comm ents about the next step inwhich the teacher assumes the best inten-tions sometimes in light of contradictory

    evidence is also useful. For example, theteacher may say: "When you're finishedworking on the first part, could you shareyours with m e?" It may be that the studentis not working on the first part but this mayget him started. This type of com munica-t ion with a t - r isk s tudents sends theimportant message that their intellect andcontributions are valued.In working with reluctant studen ts, let-

    ting them 'off the hook' by owning mis-und erstand ings or offering alternativeexplanations such as: "L et's try this a dif-ferent way", "I probably didn't explainthis too well" " Let me try it again, okay?",or " I didn't put this exactly right" helpslearners save face and re-engage with thelearning task. Routine prompting phrasessuch as the following may go a long wayin encouraging students who are stalled,confused, or unmotivated: "Tell me onething you understand about it [the assign-ment]."; "You probably have lots of goodideas. Tell me the first one and I'll write itdown for you."; "Let's use one of yourgraphic organizers."; "I'll be back in a fewminutes to see the first part."; "Wh at's thenext thing you need to do? Could you starthere?" (Tobin, 2005 a). This dimension ofclassroom interactions is particularly crit-ical for at-risk students, whose perceptionsof how others will respond to their requestsfor help actually determine who they askfor assistance, or from whom they willaccept help (Marsh a l l , 20 01 ; Tob in ,2005a).

    Teachers need to engage students inpublic conversations about their literacylearning in ways that validate their worthand position them favorably within the

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    Conundrums Differentiated Literacy... /167Tom linson's encompassing work on dif- work , but would be more than willing toferentiated instruction, she refers to this work on what is meaningful for them ." Ias the 'ass ignm en t of s ta tu s' in w hich suggest the same may be said of strugglingteachers seek key moments in small group stude nts who find th at the wo rk lackswork when a student makes a worthwhile m ea ni ng b ec au se of its co m pl ex ityco m m en t or su gg es tio n. Th e teach er abstractness or disinterest combined with'repeats what she heard the student say and the ab sence of app rop riate scaffoldingwhy she feels it is a contribu tion to the Ultimately, teachers need to consider howwork ofthe group causing the group to see they share pow er in the classroo m andtheir peer m a different hgh t. ^^ eth er students' needs, interest and readi-

    demie growth. As Fairclough (1995) ^ '!''''"^'''. ""^^ .^^Pl^^^^^y ^"^ stu-purported,teachers'talkpowerf;ilyshapes ^ T '" "'T'- ^""''^ ^ ' ^ ' ^ ' " ^who students think they are, who they think " en consider complexity in their match-y ythey can be , and who they ultimately can ^bec om e. This is particularly true for at- * ^ ^ sometimes overlook the significancerisk popu lations because of their already ^ match ing these with student interest,tenuous status as students challenged by ^^^^ ^ ^ ^" ^^ ^^^^ considering th e nutri-traditional curriculum and som etimes con- ^^"^^ ^^^"^ ^ ^^^^ ^ * * ^i"!^ concern forstructed by educators and researche rs as ^^^^^: Offering literacy response optionsdeficit and inadequate. ^^^^ include equally substantive assign-ments and tasks but draw on students'Summary preferences to work with a variety of mate-My pro fessional dev elopm ent work "^^^ in interesting ways is a critical featurewith t eac he rs su gg ests th at they m ay ^ ^ differentiated classroom. Adopting aencounter predictable dilemmas that need or^ respon sive literacy mo del (fullyto be examined in order tomake the change awa re of the knotty con un drum s) mayto a mo re respon sive literacy program , result in maximum gain for children andThe first three focus teachers' energies on maxim um flexibility in the literacy class-essential understanding s, universal design room ,and assessing grow th in literacy. The nextthree highlight the importance of offeringa robust literacy program, using flexiblegroupings and providing validating feed-back to ensure the success of all studen ts.Winebrenner (2001), in reference to themost frequent complaint she hears aboutunderachievers " They won't do theirwork". suggests that the reality may b e

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    168 /Re ading Improvement

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