Teaching a Class With Big Ability Differences
How do you teach the same concepts and skills to students who have a wide range of abilities and interests while still maintaining consistency? Is it possible to have different learning profiles? And how do you accomplish this in real-world classrooms with limited time to prepare for lessons?
There are several answers, including differentiated instruction, which has been extensively documented (see “Recommended Resources” at the end of this post) Before going into detail about specific tactics, I’d like to discuss two fundamental tenets of forensic investigation:
When it comes to instruction, differentiation is a method of meeting the needs of all students by altering the content that students learn (content), the process by which students accumulate information (process), how students demonstrate knowledge or skills (product), and the people and places where learning takes place (learning environment).
Differentiation is not a collection of instructional recipes to be followed. Differentiation, according to differentiation expert Carol Tomlinson, is “a way of thinking about teaching and learning” that helps teachers ensure that all students have appropriate classroom experiences.
Following along with this thought process, here are some specific techniques you can employ to meet the needs of students with a variety of abilities.
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1. START SLOW
Some children are uncomfortable when they are exposed to comprehensive student-centered instruction for the first time. One of my favorite high school students ate an entire roll of cherry Tums on the day I introduced my choice-based curriculum. Dr. Kathie Nunley recommends gradually integrating a student-centered curriculum into the classroom by having students “choose between two or three assignments” that can be completed before the end of the semester.
2. INTRODUCE COMPACTING FOR HIGH ACHIEVERS
When elite achievers master concepts at a faster rate than their peers, compressing the curriculum helps to alleviate the tedium that they experience. To determine whether or not these learners should be allowed to skip specific chapters or activities, the University of Connecticut’s Gifted Program recommends using pre-assessments. Then, as an alternative to a compacting contract, offer “mini-courses on research topics” or “small group projects” as alternatives.
3. PROVIDE CHOICE
The ability to choose is both motivating and empowering. Allow students to select from the following options:
how they learn with others—individually, in pairs, in small groups, or as a class—and how they communicate with them.
Using menu-based tools such as choice boards or activity menus, teachers can differentiate the difficulty levels of assignments. Interactive Learning Menus, a digital version of the paper version, provide links to in-depth assignment descriptions, examples, and rubrics. MentorMob and BlendSpace are both online tools that allow you to curate and remix content to create Learning Playlists for your students.
what kind of content they are studying As a result of using Literature Study Circles, an entire English class can investigate and discuss the theme of “gender and identity” by selecting one of several books carefully chosen by the instructor to address that theme.
What quiz questions they respond to is up to you. On page one of a test, you might see something like, “Choose three of the following five questions that you feel most confident answering.” Students can also vote on when an exam should be completed.
Individual learning contracts outline what, when, and how they will learn and when they will learn it. Students will require extensive instruction and patience as they draft their contracts, so be prepared for that possibility.
4. BAKE ASSESSMENTS INTO EVERY CLASS
The importance of student-centered instruction is only as great as the importance of its assessment. Teachers must be aware of where students are in their academic journey, how they learn best, and what they are interested in learning about. These evaluations may be of assistance:
Educator Chandra Manning recommends two graphic organizers for collecting information about students’ interests: “Who I Am” and “All About Me Gazette,” both of which are available on her website.
Following the conclusion of a lesson, students complete the “3-Minute Pause” reflection protocol.
The use of teacher-student conferences can assist teachers in quickly determining how learners are progressing and what additional support they require.
According to differentiation expert Deborah Blaz, student-created rubrics can assist instructors in identifying schema strengths and weaknesses. Blaz extends her rubrics by including an additional column with more difficult criteria for advanced students.
Multiple-choice, short answers, timelines, matching, true or false, graphic organizers to label, and sentences that are partially completed are all question types that should be included when creating tests to accommodate students’ preferences.
Assign students the task of visually documenting their academic progress “by putting together a ‘benchmark timeline’ of weekly assignments.” The timeline is initialed by students every Friday, indicating where they are in the task sequence.”
Professor Helen Barrett defines a learning portfolio as “a purposeful collection of student work that demonstrates the student’s efforts, progress, and accomplishments in one or more areas,” according the definition.
5. PROVIDE HIGH- AND NO-TECH SCAFFOLDING FOR READING
Rewordify, a text compactor, simplifies and shortens readings so that students with a wide range of comprehension abilities can comprehend and discuss the same article, regardless of their background knowledge.
Informational texts in Newsela, the Smithsonian Tween Tribune, and News in Levels—the latter of which also provides audio versions of the articles as additional support—are all good places to start when looking for readings that have been adjusted for high, medium, or low Lexile levels.
Give out Comprehension Bookmarks (see pp. 13–26) to readers who might be having trouble understanding a complicated text.
6. OFFER TARGETED SCAFFOLDING FOR YOUNG WRITERS
For academic writing, provide a temporary word bank of transitions, an essay structure graphic, or sentence frames to aid in the writing process.
In addition to analyzing essays for sentence economy and variety, the free SAS Writing Reviser also identifies clarity and grammar issues. The free SAS Writing Reviser integrates seamlessly with Google Docs. Advanced writers can use the SAS tool to diagnose fragments, run-on sentences, and dangling modifiers in their compositions, while struggling writers can use the SAS tool to analyze and assess their compositions’ sentence variety and use of passive voice.
Rather than adapting to our classroom, classroom instruction should adapt to learners through the use of student-centered strategies that are tried and true.