4 Strategies to Support Readers in Mixed-Ability Classrooms

Dr. Natalie Saaris
October 11, 2017

An increasing number of teachers find themselves in classrooms where students are at drastically different levels of reading proficiency. A teacher may well have a gifted student, a few students who are reading below grade level, and a special education student all in the same class. Is it possible to adequately challenge and support all these students?

Carol Ann Tomlinson (2017), author of several books on differentiation, observes that there are three ways to address diverse learning needs in a heterogeneous classroom:

  1. Keep the students together and teach to the middle
  2. Group students according to their ability
  3. Keep students together and meet everyone where they are

In the first instance, some students are inevitably bored, and others end up frustrated. In the second instance, we risk creating within-school segregation whereby some students are offered challenging courses while others receive an education that “ensures they will end up at the tail end of the learning spectrum” (Tomlinson & Javius, 2012). The third option ensures that all students are adequately challenged and supported; it's an ideal scenario that most teachers aspire to. But can we make this ideal differentiation happen in more classrooms? Below are four tips for creating a more equitable, differentiated learning environment.

1. Create multiple ways to access the text

Many struggling readers suffer from impairments and challenges that can be mitigated with the right supports. For example, a dyslexic student can benefit from modifications in the physical layout of the text; shortening the length of the line and changing the weight of the font makes it much easier to read. As another example, disfluent readers benefit from hearing the text read aloud so that they can hear what expert reading sounds like and identify unfamiliar vocabulary words (Liben & Paige, 2016). These are supports that are readily available and that can make a significant difference for students’ comprehension.

Whenever possible, give students the option of reading on a digital device that offers accessibility settings, text-to-speech, translation, and a dictionary. Students who need the supports can use them to access the text, while students who don’t can forgo them. It’s an easy way of creating a more inclusive reading experience for all students.

If students are reading a text on paper, see if there is an audio version of it that they can use if they need it. Research shows that students’ reading comprehension does not catch up to their oral comprehension until about the eighth grade, which means that students in middle school can understand advanced content if they hear it, even if they can’t quite make sense of it while reading (Korbey, 2013). Whether they are simply growing readers or struggle with reading impairments, accompanying audio with the text will create more opportunities for students to access the text and be part of the conversation.

2. Ask higher-order, open-ended questions

There is a common misperception among teachers that low-performing students are unable to achieve greater depth of thinking. Too often, teachers confine low-performing students to recall questions and rote exercises that give them little opportunity to independently construct meaning. This creates a dilemma for teachers who have a mixed-ability classroom: "do I ask questions that require complex thinking (normally reserved for advanced students), or do I ask primarily recall questions (generally emphasized for lower-ability students)?"

Though establishing meaning is certainly the first step in getting to greater depth of thinking, all students would benefit from more questions that get them to construct knowledge, make connections, evaluate, and apply. It is a misconception that lower-performing students cannot get to more complex analysis, and this misconception often puts lower-performing students into cycles of rote, surface-level learning that prevents them from accessing deeper learning.

"Virtually all students would benefit from the kind of curriculum and instruction we have often reserved for advanced learners—that is, curriculum and instruction designed to engage students, with a focus on meaning making, problem solving, logical thinking, and transfer of learning."

- Tomlinson & Javius (2012)

Open-ended questions not only make the content that teachers present more interesting, they also provide points of entry into the conversation for students who are all too often shooting for the one correct answer. Instead of asking, “What does this character do at this point in the story?” (recall question with one correct answer), ask students, “How does this character change throughout the narrative?” (higher-order question with more than one correct answer). Though the latter question might seem more complex, it actually creates more avenues for struggling students to answer, reveal their thinking, and develop the expertise to construct meaning from text. These questions enable lower-performing students to access the rigor of instruction that is normally reserved for advanced students, and make it possible to discuss the same ideas even with multiple levels of ability.

3. Give students options in your assessment

Effectively differentiating instruction to meet students where they are requires greater flexibility in how we measure achievement. For an ELL student who hesitates to speak up in class, basing a participation grade solely on in-class discussion limits the student’s opportunity to succeed. Likewise, expecting students who have limited working memory to put together extended analysis on the spot is a surefire recipe for frustration.

We need to redefine the pace and product of student learning to create more opportunities for engagement. In many cases, giving students more time to collect their thoughts yields more complex thinking and greater confidence. Teachers could ask students to prepare for discussion by annotating specific elements of a text or writing out their answers to discussion questions prior to presenting them to the class. Students who need more time due to processing limitations or ELL students who need extra time to look up words for their ideas would greatly benefit from this preparation.

For students who are hesitant to speak up in class, relying on virtual discussions (via a chat or shared digital notes) would also create new avenues to connect and participate. Particularly for adolescents who are already immersed in the digital communication of social media, this is a natural way to express their ideas and engage in conversation.

4. Differentiate your scaffolds

What makes scaffolding so tricky is that it has to be robust enough to help students access the text but not so heavy-handed that students aren’t challenged to think independently. Given the complexity of providing various degrees of scaffolding, many teachers choose to level texts instead. By adjusting the complexity of the text, every student can access the reading without the need for additional scaffolds.

Unfortunately, leveling creates other instructional problems: students who read leveled texts are not being exposed to the complex texts they need to navigate in college and beyond. Ultimately, scaffolding is the more pedagogically sound choice given that it increases expectations for students and helps them understand how to make sense of rigorous reading. But how do you make differentiated scaffolding manageable given the work it requires?

“There is substantial evidence that [...] at any given achievement level, students who are “tracked up” or who are exposed to a more rigorous curriculum learn more than same-ability students who are “tracked down” or offered a less challenging course of study.” 

- Shepard et al, 2005

Reading on a digital platform that enables differentiated scaffolding is one great option. You can create notes and offer sentence stems to the students in your class who need them, while making them invisible to the students who don’t. Actively Learn provides this feature to teachers on the premium plan.

Another option is to pool resources with other teachers who are teaching the same texts: one teacher can create a set of scaffolds for ELL students (like a preview of challenging vocabulary and an explanation of unfamiliar context), one teacher can create scaffolds for struggling readers (such as sentence stems and embedded questions that chunk the text), etc. Using this system enables each teacher to specialize in the needs of a particular subset of students and more effectively support them in accessing the text.

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Works Cited:

Korbey, H. (2013, May 14). Why Reading Aloud to Older Children Is Valuable. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/05/14/why-reading-aloud-to-older-children-is-valuable/

Liben, D., & Paige, D. B. (2016, October 21). What is Reading Fluency? – Achieve the Core Aligned Materials. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from https://achievethecore.org/aligned/what-is-reading-fluency/

Rose, D. H., Meyer, A., Strangman, N., & Rappolt, G. (2002). Teaching every student in the Digital Age: universal design for learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Shepard, L., Hammerness, K., Darling-Hammond, L., Rust, F.  (2005). Assessment. In L. Darling-Hamond and J. Bransford (Eds), Preparing Teachers for a Changing World (pp. 275-326). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Tomlinson, C. A., & Javius, E. L. (2012, February). Teach Up for Excellence. Retrieved October 09, 2017, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb12/vol69/num05/Teach-Up-for-Excellence.aspx

Tomlinson, Carol Ann. (2017.) How to Differentiate Instruction: Twenty Years and Counting. [Webinar]. 

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