Posts Tagged ‘differentiating instruction’

Differentiating Instruction in Writer’s Workshop

In Writer’s Workshop, students are provided a structured time to write in the social context of the classroom, with the expertise of their teacher as a “guide on the side.” In most Writer’s Workshops, students select their own writing projects and work at their own pace. Typically, a one-hour workshop would include some of these components: a mini-lesson on a writing skill, a brief “status of the class” check-in and goal-setting time, writing time with peer conferences and/or mini-conferences with the teacher, and time for published work or work in progress to be publically presented to the whole class.

Critics of Writer’s Workshop often complain that Writer’s Workshop can be inefficient and/or a class management nightmare. Some teachers have tried Writer’s Workshop, but have given up because the workshop is interest-based, not standards-based or because it is student-centered, not teacher-centered.

Neither of those criticisms concerns me greatly. However, I do feel that the traditional model of Writer’s Workshop is not as conducive to differentiated instruction as it could be. Tweaking one of the above four components does makes sense to me.

The Mini-Lesson

The traditional approach to the Writer’s Workshop mini-lesson is summarized as follows:

The secret to giving effective mini-lessons is asking yourself this question: “What single problem am I trying to help these writers solve?” The best way to do this is simply to take note of the specific problems your students are having, and to ask them from time to time what they would like help with. You don’t have to turn your whole class over to the students, but from time to time, maybe every few weeks or so, ask your students to give some thought to the difficulties they’ve been having, and what kind of help they want next. Then base your lessons on that information. A good rule of thumb for deciding on when to give a particular lesson is this: if more than a third of your class really needs to know about something in order to make progress, it’s time for a mini-lesson.

from “Welcome to Writer’s Workshop” by Steve Peha

The problem with this approach is that it begs a few questions:

Is there a single problem that all of the writers need to solve? Apparently not, if the “more than a third” criteria is followed. By this standard, the mini-lesson would be given to one-half to one-third of the students from whom the problem is not an issue.

Do the student writers really know “what they would like help with” and “what kind of help they want next”? Isn’t this more like the blind leading the blind? Students truly don’t know what they don’t know.

My suggestion is that mini-lessons should be differentiated according to the needs of all students and that the teacher has the expertise to best determine those needs. But, what data should teachers depend upon to plan differentiated instruction?

Advocates of the traditional approach to Writer’s Workshop favor this implicit approach:

In Writer’s Workshop, teachers don’t test their students on every new concept presented. They don’t have to. If the mini-lessons are delivered in a thoughtful and entertaining way that addresses legitimate student needs, and students are given encouragement and ample writing time to try out the new things they’ve learned, the concepts will begin to show up in their writing, which is exactly where we should be looking for them.

from “Welcome to Writer’s Workshop” by Steve Peha

Several problems arise when teachers rely too heavily on implicit formative writing assessments. First of all, this approach is highly inefficient. It may take many writing samples before a teacher can accurately deduce the discreet writing issues a student writer may have. Secondly, writers use their strengths, not weaknesses, so writing samples may not even present the information that a teacher needs to address relative weaknesses. Thirdly, even with “encouragement and ample writing time to try out the new things they’ve learned” the concepts may not ever show up in a student’s writing, if the student never learned the skill from the mini-lesson. Wouldn’t it make more sense to assess students on the discreet writing skills, design mini-lessons or assign targeted worksheets, then determine whether a particular skill has been mastered or requires re-teaching?

On a personal note, I use Writer’s Workshop three days a week with my seventh-graders. Over time, I learned to adjust my writing instruction to what students were and were not learning. Many mini-lessons turned into multiple-day lessons as I re-taught and struggled to find ways to get my students to learn what seemed so easy for me to teach. I learned the value of quick, informal formative writing assessments. Writer’s Workshop and differentiated instruction need not be mutually exclusive teaching designs.


Teaching Essays


The author’s TEACHING ESSAYS BUNDLE includes the three printable and digital resources students need to master the CCSS W.1 argumentative and W.2 informational/explanatory essays. Each no-prep resource allows students to work at their own paces via mastery learning. How to Teach Essays includes 42 skill-based essay strategy worksheets (fillable PDFs and 62 Google slides), beginning with simple 3-word paragraphs and proceeding step-by-step to complex multi-paragraph essays. One skill builds upon another. The Essay Skills Worksheets include 97 worksheets (printables and 97 Google slides) to help teachers differentiate writing instruction with both remedial and advanced writing skills. The Eight Writing Process Essays (printables and 170 Google slides) each feature an on-demand diagnostic essay assessment, writing prompt with connected reading, brainstorming, graphic organizer, response, revision, and editing activities. Plus, each essay includes a detailed analytical (not holistic) rubric for assessment-based learning.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

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Assessment-based Individualized Instruction and Differentiated Instruction

Let’s face it. Many teacher are afraid of individualized instruction. We may have tried it once or twice, at the behest of a supervising teacher or evaluator, but found the preparation, class management, and correcting to be overwhelming. It’s not that we teachers don’t buy in the the validity of differentiating instruction according to the needs of their students. After all, any teacher knows that a class full of cookie-cutter students is rare or non-existent. It’s just that we learn how to balance life inside of the classroom with life outside of the classroom. It’s a matter of survival. Plain and simple. So we set our defense mechanisms firmly in place. We track students. We shove the load of remediation on special education teachers or newbies. We tell gifted students to read an extra book or sent them off on field trips. We make excuses, blaming students, parents, class sizes, etc. We frankly give up and focus on doing what we can do-teach to the middle of the class.

But what if there were efficient resources and instructional practices that made adjusting instruction to the level of each student quite do-able without tearing our hair out or turning to Prosac®?

Following are articles, free resources (including reading assessments), and teaching tips regarding assessment-based instruction from the Pennington Publishing Blog. Check out our approach to teaching to the needs of individual students–Assessment-based Individualized Instruction (ABIL). An instructional approach taking the best from differentiated instruction, individualized instruction, and personalized instruction. An instructional approach teachers actually use and keep using. Also, check out the quality instructional programs and resources offered by Pennington Publishing.

Assessment-based Individualized Instruction

Every educational movement needs a catchy new acronym. ABIL will have to do: Assessment-based Individualized Learning. Simply put, it’s the supplemental instruction students need to catch up  while they keep up with grade-level instruction. See how ABIL differs from Differentiated Instruction.

Teaching the Class and Individuals

Perhaps the greatest guilt-inducers for any veteran teacher are these two questions: 1. Do you know the individual needs of your students? 2. Are you teaching to the individual needs of your students?

Let’s provide a bit of context to those questions: Teaching the class is important and takes an enormous amount of energy and skill. Doing it well takes years of trial and error, professional development, and probably some natural ability that just can’t be learned or taught. It’s both an art and a science.

Free Whole Class Diagnostic ELA/Reading Assessments

Download free phonemic awareness, vowel sound phonics, consonant sound phonics, sight word, rimes, sight syllables, fluency, grammar, mechanics, and spelling assessments. All with answers and recording matrices. A true gold mine for the teacher committed to differentiated instruction!

Navigating Differentiated Instruction

A quality English-language arts curriculum designed to differentiate instruction is like a good nav system. Teachers committed to differentiated instruction need to invest in curricular resources with good nav systems rather than band-aiding outdated road maps.

Common Core DI, RTI, and ELL

DI (Differentiated Instruction), RTI (Response to Intervention), and ELL (English Language Learners) or ELD (English Language Development) instructional strategies are all validated in the new Common Core State Standards. Common Core writers have clearly gone out of their way to assure educators that the Standards establish the what, but not the how of instruction.

Don’t Teach to the LCD

Our penchant for helping individuals can work cross-purpose to our overall mission of helping all students. In fact, we often wind up teaching to the LCD (the Lowest Common Denominator). Instead, we need to differentiate instruction to all of our students.

Differentiated Reading Instruction for Gifted Students

It’s time to differentiate reading instruction for all students, including our gifted ones. An entirely different curriculum is not the answer, but gifted students do need to be taught differently to maximize their progress and love of learning. Here are three tips that will make a difference for your gifted students.

The Dos and Don’ts of Differentiated Instruction

With the Response to Intervention (RTI) model now being incorporated into many school districts today, it has become increasingly important to help frame the differentiated instruction (DI) discussion in an objective manner that won’t promote narrow agendas and will encourage teachers to experiment with DI in their own classrooms. At its core, differentiated instruction is simply good, sound teaching. Directly addressing the individual learning needs of our students, rather than teaching a class as though all individuals in it were basically alike, offers our best chance of success for all.

Differentiated Instruction: The What and the How

Our understanding of the characteristics and proclivities of our students should inform both the what and the how of instruction. Consider this: students don’t know what they don’t know. To devolve the what of instruction to student choice is to abrogate our responsibilities as the informed, objective decision-makers.  Teaching professionals know what our students do and don’t know. Furthermore, to delegate the how of learning to students seems akin to educational malpractice.

23 Myths of Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction “is simply a teacher attending to the learning needs of a particular student or small groups of students, rather than teaching a class as though all individuals in it were basically alike (Carol Ann Tomlinson)” However, 23 myths of differentiated instruction continue to dissuade teachers and administrators from embracing this instructional concept.

12 Reasons Why Teachers Resist Differentiated Instruction

Teachers resist differentiating instruction within their classroom for both internal and external reasons. Knowing why teachers prefer whole group instruction, rather than differentiated instruction can help break down barriers to change and help teachers focus on the individual needs of their students.

Don’t Teach to Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences

Most teachers believe in some form of learning styles or multiple intelligences theories. The notion that each child learns differently, so we should adjust instruction accordingly (learning styles) justseems like such good old-fashion common sense. The theory that each child has different innate abilities (multiple intelligences) just seems to be confirmed by common experience. But common sense and experience are untrustworthy and unreliable guides to good teaching. Despite what the snake oil learning styles and multiple intelligences folk tell us, they are simply wrong. Here are five reasons why.

Learning Styles Teaching Lacks Common Sense

Different strokes for different folks.  Our assumption is that we all learn differently so good teachers should adjust instruction to how students learn. Specifically, we assume that some students are better auditory (or aural) learners, some are better visual learners, and some are better kinesthetic learners. Or add additional modalities or intelligences to the list, if you wish. All we need to do to maximize learning is to adjust instruction to fit the modality that best matches the students’ learning styles or intelligences. It just seems like good old-fashioned common sense. However, common sense is not always a trustworthy or reliable guide.

Assessment-based Re-teaching

  1. It just hit me. I cared more about the quality of what I taught and how I taught it, than what the students needed to learn and if the students learned it. The focus isn’t a distinction without a difference. It’s a game-changer. If you are willing to re-teach what you’ve already taught (and not yet taught) this year, check out my 14 FREE diagnostic ELA and reading assessments with recording matrices. These quick, comprehensive, whole-class tests will give you teachable data to re-teach students what they need.

Mastery Learning in RtI

What if a shaky foundation is what we’re dealing with now? We can’t do anything about the past. Teachers can start playing the blame game and complain that we’re stuck teaching reading to students who missed key foundational components, such as phonics. All-too-often, response to intervention teachers are ignoring shaky foundations and are trying to layer on survival skills without fixing the real problems. Instead, teachers should re-build the foundation. Teachers can figure out what is missing in the individual student skill-sets and fill the gaps… this time with mastery learning. Get Pennington Publishing’s set of diagnostic reading assessments absolutely FREE with the link in this article.

Pre-teach before Assessment

Call it what you wish: summer brain-drain, poor retention, a learning disability, problem with learning styles, developmental delay, or lack of motivation or practice… some students just seem to forget what they have learned before. Good assessments catch students at their best. That’s why it makes sense to pre-teach before teachers assess to help students retrieve prior knowledge and get the assessment results that will help us design efficient instruction.

More Articles, Free Resources, and Teaching Tips from the Pennington Publishing Blog

English-Language Arts and Reading Intervention Articles and Resources 

Bookmark and check back often for new articles and free ELA/reading resources from Pennington Publishing.


Intervention Program Science of Reading

The Science of Reading Intervention Program

Pennington Publishing provides two reading intervention program options for ages eight–adult. The Teaching Reading Strategies (Intervention Program) is a full-year, 55 minutes per day program which includes both word recognition and language comprehension instructional resources (Google slides and print). The word recognition components feature the easy-to-teach, interactive 5 Daily Google Slide Activities: 1. Phonemic Awareness and Morphology 2. Blending, Segmenting, and Spelling 3. Sounds and Spelling Independent Practice 4. Heart Words Independent Practice 5. The Sam and Friends Phonics Books–decodables 1ith comprehension and word fluency practice for older readers. The program also includes sound boxes and personal sound walls for weekly review.  The language comprehension components feature comprehensive vocabulary, reading fluency, reading comprehension, spelling, writing and syntax, syllabication, reading strategies, and game card lessons, worksheets, and activities. Word Recognition × Language Comprehension = Skillful Reading: The Simple View of Reading and the National Reading Panel Big 5.

If you only have time for a half-year (or 30 minutes per day) program, the The Science of Reading Intervention Program features the 5 Daily Google Slide Activities, plus the sound boxes and personal word walls for an effective word recognition program.


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Don’t Teach to the LCD

Teachers get into our profession for different reasons. Some of us truly enjoyed school and have always wanted to be teachers. Some of us value the independence of our own classrooms. Some of us like being part of a team. Some of us like the job security (true until recently). Some of us like the vacations. However, all of us share two common denominators: we enjoy working with students and we want to help make a difference in their lives.

These common denominators require some degree of compassion, empathy, and idealism. Admirable and necessary character traits for an educator, if you ask me. However, our penchant for helping individuals can work cross-purpose to our overall mission of helping all students. In fact, we often wind up teaching to the LCD (the Lowest Common Denominator). Perhaps I  had better explain…


  • We may spend an inequitable amount of time, resources, and personal teacher attention on students who need instructional remediation. Our desire to see every student succeed often means that we give more to the neediest. Remedial instruction often includes more instructional time within the school day. “Early Bird” classes in primary, intervention classes in intermediate, middle, and high schools provide that additional time. Our schools fund these special classes, which often include lower teacher to student ratios and more supplies (such as remedial texts) to students who perform lower than grade-level norms. Within the “regular” class setting, students with instructional and/or behavioral challenges receive more personal teacher attention than do other students. Now, few teachers would argue that these students do not deserve this additional time, resources, and personal teacher attention. This would run counter to “who we are” as educators. However, in the real world there are fiscal, legal, and systemic constraints. All students can certainly be labeled as needy—think middle-performing and gifted students… Don’t these students deserve equitable time, resources, and teacher attention? Teachers are less comfortable with the concept of “taking away” instructional time, resources, and personal teacher attention. But, schools are reductive entities. Giving more there takes away from here.
  • We may slow down the instructional pace to ensure that all students have a greater chance at mastering our teaching objectives. Typically, this means that we repeat instruction, provide additional examples, and spend more time on guided practice. Increased success in mastery of the teaching objectives for remedial students often comes at the cost of boring middle-performing and gifted students to tears.
  • We may cater to the perceived needs of remedial students. Beyond special classes, we spoon-feed alternative instruction (pre-teach/re-teach, TPR, student choice, learning styles, and more) within the classroom. Teachers may provide peer tutoring or use instructional aides to monitor progress of remedial students and especially special education students. Teachers repeat or re-explain whole-class instructions to individuals. In catering to the needs of some students, we may find ourselves unintentionally lowering expectations for these students. For example, we may be advised to reduce the class or homework for individual students. We may choose to ignore teaching certain challenging standards. We may adjust tests, grading scales, or the type of assigned work.


  • Commit to spending an equitable amount of time, resources, and personal teacher attention on all students. Often, this means middle-performing students who can get “lost in the shuffle.” Think of the student names that are hardest to learn. They belong to your middle-performing students. I will bet that you quickly and more easily learn the names of your students with instructional or behavioral challenges and the names of your brightest students.
  • Be an anti-tracking advocate. Tracking students assumes that there is such a possibility of a homogeneous class. There is no such animal. For example, as a reading specialist I can assure you that lumping together a group of remedial readers into an intervention class does not make homogeneous instruction possible. Students are remedial readers for a wide-variety of reasons. At the other end of the spectrum, no two gifted students are gifted in the same way. Tracking costs additional money. Reducing class sizes for some raises class sizes for others. Scheduling tracked classes is a nightmare and involves real costs. We can also discuss the negative social stigma for some students that often derives from tracking.
  • Differentiating instruction for all of your students means that all deserve your personal attention. All students need to be personally challenged at the points of their diagnostically assessed instructional needs. Affording equitable personal teacher attention does not necessarily mean that you interact in the same way with each student; however, assigning appropriate learning activities needs to reflect that goal.
  • Speed up your instructional pace. You don’t have to become a “fast-talker,” but becoming consciously aware of how you manage class time, and especially how you deliver instruction, is essential to the success of all of your students. Counter-intuitively, remedial students benefit from a “hurried, yet relaxed” instructional pace. Setting a daily time for differentiated instruction will allow you to judiciously address students who need more time.
  • Guard time-on-task zealously. Use the full amount of class time by designing effective “openers” and “closers.” Train your students to make quick instructional transitions. Know your own proclivities. If you are the “funny teacher,” tell fewer jokes. If you are the “share my personal life teacher,” tell less stories and spend more time on Facebook®. Having a peer observe your time-on-task instructional patterns can be an eye-opening experience. Advocate forcefully for fewer class interruptions.
  • If two instructional activities or methodologies accomplish the same mastery, teach the one that takes less time. To tread on a few cherished traditions: sugar cube or toothpick forts and castles, dioramas, masks, oral book reports from every student, and quite a few science projects just have to go. Process and fun are fine, but we have choices to make as professionals.
  • We know from years of educational research that maintaining high expectations for all students is essential to their success. Guard against those that would provide the “realistic” caveat to that statement. Maintain your idealism that all students can and must learn. Treat students as individuals and know their needs, but don’t cater to them and avoid spoon-feeding. Encourage independent learning and maximum effort from your students.

Teachers are habitual creatures, just as are our students. It takes time to change from teaching to the Lowest Common Denominator to differentiating instruction for all of your students.


The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary  Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary  also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary  program.

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