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Differentiated Reading Instruction

In this webcast, Carol Ann Tomlinson, G. Michael Pressley, and Louise Spear-Swerling outline the most effective strategies teachers can use to address the many different needs of each of their students — so that all kids get the chance to learn to read.

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Program description

Robert reads well in Spanish but speaks very little English. Marisa has trouble decoding basic stories. And Ms. Johnson, their second grade teacher, must teach them both to read — along with 23 other students. How? She must differentiate classroom instruction.

This webcast outlines the most effective strategies teachers can use to address the many different needs of each of their students — so that kids capable of learning to read, like Robert and Marisa, won’t fall behind.


Carol Ann Tomlinson is a professor in the educational leadership, foundations and policy department at the University of Virginia. Her career as an educator includes 21 years as a public school teacher, with 12 years as a program administrator of special services for struggling and advanced learners.

G. Michael Pressley is a professor of educational psychology and teacher education. In recent years, his most notable work has been documenting the nature of primary-grade classrooms where engagement and achievement are high.

Louise Spear-Swerling is a professor of special education and the reading and area coordinator of the Graduate Program in learning disabilities at Southern Connecticut State University.

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Discussion questions

  1. After listening to the panel discuss differentiated reading instruction, discuss ways in which you are already providing differentiated reading instruction within your classroom. Provide specific examples of instructional choices and grouping practices that you make to provide students with multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn based on readiness and interest.
  2. The four key aspects of differentiated instruction are modification of content, process, product, and learning environment. Reflect on a lesson or an activity that you use in your own reading program. Provide some examples of how you might modify this lesson to meet the different learning needs of all of your students.
  3. The panelists discussed the importance of using pre-assessment activities to determine the individual needs of your students. Once again reflect on a lesson or a unit that you use in your language arts or reading program. What types of pre-assessment activities could you develop to determine the level of understanding of each student? How could you use this information to differentiate instruction?
  4. Carol Tomlinson tells us that curriculum is the ultimate identifier of potential. Do you agree with this statement? How can a differentiated curriculum help you to identify potential in your students? Conversely, how can a differentiated curriculum help you to better serve those students who struggle with reading?



Delia Pompa: Hello. I’m Delia Pompa. Welcome to this year’s first Reading Rockets teleconference. Today we’re going to talk about a perennial challenge for reading teachers, teaching to the many different levels of young readers in each classroom.

We’ve gathered three of the nation’s leading experts in the field to help us. Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson is professor of educational leadership, foundations, and policy at the University of Virginia. And Dr. Louise Spear-Swerling is professor of special education and the reading area coordinator of the graduate program in learning disabilities at Southern Connecticut State University. Dr. Michael Pressley is professor of educational psychology at Michigan state university.

We are also joined by an audience of teachers, administrators, special education professionals, and parents from across the country, and in Quebec. Later in the program we will be taking questions from our studio audience.

Let’s begin with Dr. Tomlinson. Here’s the question of the day–how can one teacher address the individual needs of every child in the class so that they all become strong, confident readers?

Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson: Well, I think an honest answer probably is that no teacher can be all things to all students all the time. But I think the real truth of teaching is that if our goal is to understand the particular needs of students, and we stay in pursuit of that, and we try to address those needs as we can come to understand them, we’re likely to do a lot better job for more students than if we assume they’re all basically alike.

Delia: Set the scene for us. What does an ideal differed classroom look like?

Dr. Tomlinson: An ideal differentiated classroom is a flexible one, and I don’t think there’s a particular recipe for a differentiated classroom. What you’re really hoping for is a teacher who establishes flexible routines well enough so that when the teacher is aware of particular students’ needs, there will be at least some times in the classrooms where different students are doing different things to address those needs.

Maybe at some point a teacher would be meeting with one small group of students who have a particular need that she’s able to address more appropriately within that small group. At the same time, you might have some students working at learning centers with particular skills that assessments indicate they need. And the centers can be tailored to those particular needs. Might have some students working with one another to discuss books or to share reading on a topic that they find interesting, together. And you might still have some other students working at a table or a desk on reading or writing things that are particular to their needs.

There will always be times when the teacher needs to meet with the whole class and keep them a community of learners, but the trick really is to establish routines where at least some of the time multiple things can happen so that students are working in areas that are closer to their particular needs.

Delia: What are the first steps that a reading teacher might take to create a differentiated classroom?

Dr. Tomlinson: Well, I really think there probably are three big elements to a good differentiated classroom. One of those is being very aware of what the components of successful reading are. And I think that takes time for us as teachers. It’s a complex endeavor, and to understand those facets, the different elements and the particular skills within those is important, and I think that’s a lifelong pursuit for teachers.

I think the second thing is to become more and more skilled at being aware of student needs, really watching kids as individuals and trying to attend to them, both formally and informally to get a sense of what’s working for a student in relation to those goals and what’s not working for a particular student.

Then I think the third big piece is to figure out how to be more and more flexible as a classroom teacher. How can I use space more flexibly than I have been? What can I do to be more flexible with time use than maybe I have been? What about resources? Is there a way to get more resources or to use the resource has I have more flexibly?

And an important thing in starting for teachers is to realize that differentiation is not apart from good teaching, it’s a part of good teaching. So by doing those sort of standard good teaching things, you can become better and better. I think an important piece of advice for teachers is to begin with something that seems manageable. I think often as teachers we feel so compelled to do everything perfectly for students that we want to get it all right tomorrow, we want it all perfect next week, then that becomes overwhelming, so we decide it’s not within our reach and we give it up.

A teacher might decide simply to do one vocabulary routine differently for different students or might begin with whole-class reading, then just different work that the students do with it. I think you constantly have to refresh yourself on the components of reading to which you’re aiming and continually refine your assessment skills and your awareness of students. When it comes to the routines, beginning in a way that seems small and safe and effective to that teacher is a great starting place.

Delia: That’s a very thoughtful process, practice, lots of practice.

Dr. Tomlinson: Absolutely.

Delia: What is the role of assessment in such a classroom?

Dr. Tomlinson: Well, assessment is actually, of course, the root system of differentiation. Sometimes it’s easy to think that differentiation is some sort of tea leaf reading, I look at her, she looks like she would do better with this. But assessment really is our measure of where a particular student is in regard to particular goals.

And if we’re clear about the goals, and we understand where students are in proximity to those goals, we sort of have a logical response of what we do next. So continually monitoring students. I think preassessment is important before we begin a new session or unit of study, to see what our spread of learners is.

But continually, as we teach, it’s really important to see that every piece of work a student does really can inform our thinking and our planning as teachers. So if we use what students do, to help us have insights about who’s progressing, who’s moving further ahead, who’s behind in an area, that’s really what helps us make our instructional decisions.

It’s probably important to remember that while there’s an important emphasis on standardized testing in schools, and that can give us kind of a big sense of a class, it’s really that daily assessment or frequent assessment throughout a sequence of study that’s very close to our instructional decision making tomorrow and can really help us understand how to modify the plans that we basically made to benefit various students.

Delia: So regular assessment is very important?

Dr. Tomlinson: Absolutely.

Delia: Dr. Pressley, let’s take a step back. Why are our students coming to us at so many different levels? And why can’t we just expect them to catch up on their own?

Dr. Michael Pressley: Human variation is natural. There isn’t any collection of people that don’t differ in multiple ways. And one of the absolute realities of kindergarten or first grade is the individual differences will be huge. And here’s the really tricky part–not only will they be huge on day one, the rate of change for these children will be very, very different.

Here’s another tricky part–what you do for each one of those individual kids can matter very much. So the particular type of instruction can result in either rapid change or not-so-rapid change. So my friend Fred Morrison at Michigan has just done some wonderful work showing that for kids entering grade one, low skills, a very explicit skill-oriented curriculum is the best way to give them a big growth year in first grade.

For the kids entering high, you’re much better off having a much more holistic curriculum, where if they can enter reading, easy chapter books, have them reading more chapter books. Kids are different. OK? With respect to the assessment piece, I’ve spent a great deal of my time studying very effective teachers, and one of the things they do every day, every hour, and the best of them actually every minute of every hour, is size up how the kids are responding to the tasks and the instruction they’ve been given. And oftentimes there’s five or six different taxes or instruction going on, because the most effective teachers do differentiate instruction.

But they’re always there monitoring, always on their feet, looking over the shoulder. They’re listening to the kid when they partner read. They’re watching when the kids write. They get in, intervene and give mini lessons. They know their kids really well because they spend more of their time oriented to their kids during the school day than anything else. They also know their curriculum well and curriculum options well, because they’ve spent years building that competence, OK?

There is no one professional development that develops a good first grade, second grade, or third grade teacher. What develops a person who knows many, many curriculum options is long-term immersion in developing the skills and taking advantage of every skills opportunity. What develops the competence to match the curricular options to the–curricular options to the particular children is doing it a lot, over the years, and from the moment those kids land in your classroom, orient it like crazy.

Delia: I saw lots of nods taking place while you were talking, so we must have a lot of agreement on that.

Dr. Spear-Swerling, are there any negatives to differentiated instruction? Is it controversial?

Dr. Louise Spear-Swerling: I don’t think there are negatives to it if it’s done well. I think it’s very challenging to do it well. And I think teachers need good preparation and also opportunities for ongoing professional development. You know, one of the things that we’re realizing more and more is that teacher preparation is not–you can’t give somebody four or even five years of preservice preparation and prepare them to a level for a whole career.

It really takes–preservice preparation is very important, but opportunities for ongoing professional development are also extremely important.

Delia: What else does a teacher have to do to do it well?

Dr. Spears-Swerling: Well, certainly teachers need adequate resources. As Mike mentioned, and Carol mentioned, there’s a big range that teachers of kids–of kids that teachers will have in their classrooms. That’s true even in kindergarten, and that the spread only gets larger as you go on in school because the kids will progress at different rates.

So it’s vital, for example, that children have access to a range of books, teachers need to have a range of materials to teach with. They need adequate support in terms of specialists in human resources, to help them, and also adequate time in the school day. For doing this well.

Delia: There are a lot of support systems a teacher needs. Is there anything in particular administrators can do to help teachers in differentiating classroom instructions?

Dr. Spear-Swerling: Administrators can make reading a priority. They can make sure that there is adequate time allotted. They can have–they can play a role in providing adequate resources, making sure that there are different kinds of curricular options available, and making sure teachers have good professional development in this area.

Delia: Thank you. That it was a lot from all of you to start with. We visited a school in Portland, Oregon, that works very hard to teach every child to read. Let’s take a look at how Metzger elementary teachers support each of their kids.


Narrator: Meet Miss Darby. She’s a kindergarten teacher here at Metzger Elementary.

Miss Darby: G-o-z.

Narrator: Kindergarten is a critical time for developing early reading skills, sometimes by using nonsense words.

Miss Darby: If you change the last letter, how can you turn it into real word?

Student: A “t”, got.

Narrator: One of the hard parts about teaching kindergarten is that kids come in at all different levels. Metzger handles that by assessing each student on a regular basis.

Teacher: The name of this letter is “q”. Say the name with me. Ready?

Students: “Q”.

Narrator: Some kids are already at risk, kids who don’t know their letters, have trouble with rhyming or may speak a language other than English. They get an extra dose of small group instruction every day. The instruction is very explicit. The teacher helps the kids break the 26-letter code of our alphabet by being very clear about what each letter looks and sounds like.

Teacher: I go left around the queen, and way down her staff. You guys are going to trace the letter “q”.

Narrator: So when you’re trying to figure out if the school is doing a good job, here are two questions to start with–one, do they assess all students regularly? And two, is the instruction explicit? In first grade, Metzger continues to teach the five elements of good reading instruction. They teach phonemic awareness, helping children understand that the language we speak is made up of individual sounds.

Student: Et.

Teacher: Lock.

Student: Lock.

Narrator: They teach phonics, the concept that letters represent sounds.

Teacher: Say it fast. Chirped.

Narrator: They teach fluency, how to read smoothly and with expression. They teach vocabulary. And they teach comprehension. The ability to understand and interpret what you read.

Teacher: What else do you know about Martin Luther king Jr.?

Student: He was a minister.

Narrator: These are all skills that parents with practice can reinforce at home.

Parent: What’s this word?

Student: So.

Parent: So.

Narrator: At Metzger, the first job is to divide the kids into flexible groups based on reading level. That way, they’re challenged and also achieve some success every day.

Narrator: These students are working to catch up with their fairs grade peers.

Teacher: What does fond mean?

Student: It means you really like something a lot.

Narrator: For kids who struggle, teacher assistant Marilyn Peterson uses a basic curriculum with more opportunities to practice basic skills.

Student: Hop.

Marilyn Peterson: Start over.

Student: Kite, hop, hope, kit.

Marilyn Peterson: Perfect. All right.

Narrator: For kids who are behind like J.T. Richardson, Metzger throws in an extra does of reading with one on one tutoring while the rest of the class works on science or social studies. J.T. gets to review the lesson for the day. This book is at a good level for J.T., so the more he practices the more comfortable he gets. Being able to read fluently and automatically is critical to comprehension.

Teacher: Ready, set, go.

J.T.: Dana said let’s bake cupcakes. Jack said I hate to bake. Have you ever baked cupcakes, Jack asked Fran? Granddad, can you help us?

Teacher: Wow. Oh, my gosh you got in the word bake right at the time. Wow, 15 more words. High five. Other side. Down low. Way to go, J.T.

Narrator: J.T. charts his progress every day. But while they continue to give him positive feedback his teachers are concerned.

Teacher: He’s a concern because there’s a marginal growth but totally not consistent.

Narrator: Every three months Metzger school district comes in to do their own assessment of each child. That’s in addition to the weekly or biweekly assessments that the school does.

Pam Zinn: J.T. is a student that I would be concerned about. It’s the end of first grade. He still needs to sound all of his words out. He has a few words memorized. The basic sight words. But he still has a ways to go there.

Pam Zinn: We are finished. Thank you very much.

Narrator: Dr. Rolland Good of the University of Oregon worked to develop assessment that Metzger uses.

Dr. Rolland Good: His progress is telling us that we have not yet found the level of support that he needs. And the child is always right. The child is telling you I’m not getting enough support. They are right and then we need to fine a way to provide more support to him.

Narrator: At Metzger they do flexible grouping, small groups, a variety of researched based teaching methods, a variety of interventions for struggling readers and regular ongoing assessment.


Delia: Dr. Pressley in Oregon we see one way of differentiating reading and that’s flexible grouping across class rooms. What are the pros and cons of that approach?

Dr. Pressley: Well, I think that it’s one arrow you have in your quiver and one teachers use a lot. With respect to the most challenging students, however, a few years ago I wrote a book on a 581 challenges of beginning teaching. As part of that we had a contrast, are any of these challenges that endure?

There’s one that endures throughout your career as a teacher and it’s figures out what to do with the most difficult students, the ones who are making the least gain. Every one of them requires unique problem solving and reflection. OK. So the flexible grouping is a start.

Now, one of the things that was very important on that tape was talking about a additional instruction. They talked about one does of additional instruction. Some of the affected schools I work I, the most at risk kids are getting three or four additional half-hour segments of one to one or very small group support and then they are looking around for some after school stuff as well. For the most challenged students, just the flexible grouping will not be enough.

With respect to the assessment issue, there was also kind of a one size fits all type of assessment implied in there. And without a doubt, what you see in the very best, most effective schools and class rooms is they are using lots and lots of assessments. Using standardized test, sometimes they use something like a dibble system but much more important is the teacher monitoring, is the kid responding to this instruction? Are they showing growth?

A centerpiece of new thinking about how you differentiate instruction is to try different, you know if the kid isn’t getting it in the current setup try something else and monitor is there growth going on and go what works for that youngster.

Delia: There’s no question that teaching reading is hard. what characteristics do you see in teacher that can make this work?

Dr. Pressley: The teachers who make it work come in with a head set. This kid can learn and I’m going to figure out how to do it. OK. I have a variety of materials, I’m going to figure out which ones mesh with that youngster. I have a variety of instructional strategies. I’ll figure out which of my kids need the additional instruction. Foster grandmother or a skilled reader tutor. They are continuously thinking about that kid, what do they need and flexible problem solving and the very best ones are good at doing this, not only for the weakest kids in the class but for the strongest kids as well.

Delia: Give us a short answer to this question because it’s important to get it in here. What about schools that adopted a single reading program? How do you differentiate instruction?

Dr. Pressley: An excellent–you should not adopt a program that does not offer many, many roots to differentiation. The very best, most well thought out, heavily researched and historically important published programs have that in them. The ones that were cooked in 18 months by a major publisher to try to compete with those best of the bunch are not what you should be buying.

Delia: Dr. Swerling in listening to this, we thought about whether schools are doing right. In what situations is it beneficial to pull a child out of class for individualized instruction?

Dr. Spear-Swerling: I think it’s more helpful to focus on how you meet a child’s needs. So, sometimes pull out remediation can be appropriate. In my experience it’s more often related–the issue of that is more often related to how much an outlier a child is.

If a youngster is really far behind other children than often they need something that is different than what is provided as part of standard classroom instruction. And whether you pull the child out for remediation, or whether a specialist comes into the classroom and works with them in the classroom, they are still going to be needing something different.

As an example of that, consider, say, a third grader who is essentially a nonreader and may need systematic phonic instruction that’s not needed to the same degree by many other third graders. That child–you see that even more at the upper grade. That happens more as children advance in school. To meet that child’s needs there has to be instruction provided, whether in the classroom or out of the classroom that meets that need.

Delia: Carol, what’s your take on pulling out kids for individualized instruction?

Dr. Tomlinson: Do the least invasive thing first. Sometimes we pull a child out of a classroom during a time when there’s something rich and beneficial to them to take them some place else when we can provide it meaningfully in the classroom and keep the student in the community of learners. I think that’s a positive. If we can’t do that then I agree, the question is usually not for any student where do we put their bodies it’s what do they need and the multiple ways we can provide that and given what our options are what’s best for that child.

Delia: Mike, in your research when has pull out worked and when doesn’t it work?

Dr. Pressley: Pull out often works with the kids who are most at risk. You pull them out, especially if you have an excellent reading specialist, and give them a half-hour of instruction a day and that can really help a great deal.

What’s really interesting in those places is what’s going on in the regular classroom often when those kids are pulled out is individualized instruction going on rather than whole group instruction that they are missing. The whole group stuff, these teachers are good at managing their time. They make sure everybody is there for it.

Or if it’s something the kid is just going to die if they are not there, some art activity or drama or something. These people who are really effective teachers manage the kids in every way they can be managed well. But, no doubt about it for the highest at risk kids tutoring does work, the more skilled the tutoring the better, although even college student volunteers can make some impact.

Delia: Lots of individual decisions. Along that vein, Dr. Tomlinson, how do we create accelerated learning opportunities for higher learning students.

Dr. Tomlinson: Having a mind set that our students vary and it’s our job to know where they are and what their next step is. Applies to high end learners as well as to other students and it’s really important for those kids that we give them opportunities to read things that they can read. We’re so compelled as teachers to want to make sure we taught every student reading that we spend a lot of time teaching kids how to read who know very well how to read.

I think it’s important, again, to monitor those students, against the competencies that we feel are important, but I think once a teacher has evidence that a student is competent in an area, there’s really no point and in fact there’s a detriment to continue to just teaching it.

So you may find a high even reader who needs some work with syllables but for the most part can read on their own. Letting those students read books that are appropriately challenging for them, giving them opportunities to work with like peers who read at that level and can discuss things with them and giving them opportunities to read books about things that they care about is extremely important for them and in a lot of ways what it is, is the teacher taking the lead from the student and, again, sort of saying that student is giving Tuesday clues that she’s ready to move ahead this, is something we can do that lets her grow as well.

Delia: How do you work with your students in terms of higher performing students?

Dr. Spear-Swerling: Well, certainly I agree with the thing that Carol has said, making sure that students who are high achieving have adequate opportunities to read books at their level, that they are not continuing to practice things they already know how to do. With my students I do quite a bit of work in the urban schools, and one of the things that I sometimes see in the district where we work is that, of course, everybody tends to be very focused on low achievement and helping low achieving kids but in fact there are kids who are also very high achievers and if we don’t give those children opportunities to read challenging books to move ahead, then we lose them as they advance in school.

Delia: Good thought. Thank you.

Now we’ll visit Arlington, Virginia, where we’ll take a look at Arlington public schools’ Intake Center. Kids at different levels are challenging enough for most teachers, but what happens when kids speak a different language?


Narrator: 8-year-old Marlon Escobar-Lopez has an important appointment today. He’s checking into his new school system in Arlington, Virginia. He’s at the Arlington Intake Center where staff will figure out exactly what he needs from his new teachers.

Silvia Koch: Intake Center is the place where children who speak another language or have another language background enters school.

Narrator: The Intake Center stays very busy. Arlington’s English language learners speak 104 languages and come from 122 different countries.

Teacher: Most of the children speak Spanish. But those kids are diverse too, both culturally and economically.

Teacher: Children from middle class have had certain experiences that other students may not have had. They have been to museums, they have been read to in their own language.

Narrator: Marlon is from Honduras. He looks like he’s ready for school. Will the school be ready for him in the process starts with his dad.

Silvia Koch: Parents are just that part of the learning equation that we cannot do without. It’s the child, the parent, the teacher. They are the three most basic components.

Narrator: The interview gives Arlington important information about Marlon like the fact he’s been to school in the United States for a year already.

Silvia Koch: We look totally at the academic background but we also look at the whole child. We look at his health situation, we look at family history.

Narrator: When his dad is finished with his questions, it’s Marlon’s turn. His teachers need to know how well Marlon can understand spoken and written English.

Teacher: If you are assessing a child you not only want to assess their knowledge of letters and sound and so forth in English but you want to tap into it in Spanish, too. whatever they know in Spanish, you can be quite certain you can use to help them acquire the skills in English.

Marlon: Put strawberries and–

Narrator: Marlon can read a little bit in English already and his comprehension skills in both languages are strong, so the Intake Center places him in a second grade class for English language learners.

Teacher: Short sound of “i”. Everybody?

Students: “I”.

Teacher: “I”.

Narrator: His teachers at be Abbingdon elementary have received all the information gathered, both social and academic, so they know exactly where to start with Marlon.

Silvia Koch: Using time for instruction, right away at the correct and appropriate level, is important to us. We want all our students to achieve at a high level, to be challenged, regardless of where they started.

Marlon: Indigo?

Teacher: Indigo. Excellent!


Delia: Dr. Spear-Swerling, what should teachers keep in mind when differentiating instruction for English language learners?

Dr. Spear-Swerling: I think it’s important to know about the child’s language and literacy abilities in the native language as well as in English, as they tape indicated–take indicated children who have knowledge in their native language can often transfer that to English especially if the native language is an alphabetic language like English, which is true in the case of Spanish. So instruction can build on those strengths that children have.

Also developing children’s spoken English ability is very important, because that’s going to be a foundation for them to learn to read in English.

Delia: Carol, what do you think? I know where you work it’s become a growing challenge for schools.

Dr. Tomlinson: Well, I think in addition to what Louise just said, we think in terms of students’ readiness levels, and these students have a huge need to develop vocabulary efficiently and quickly, and particularly to develop the academic vocabulary they need to help them learn math and science.

They may need different degrees of help in phonics. I think in addition to the readiness needs, it’s important also to look at students’ interest. If you have students from other languages who have a particular interest in a topic or thinking back on their own experiences in another country, there’s a lot can you do to motivate students by letting them develop verbalized vocabulary banks around words that they care about, topics that they care about, and also to remember that students vary not just in readiness or interest, but how they learn, and some students will learn much better in conversation with other students, some in one-on-one tutoring, some by hearing, some by drawing what they do.

It goes back to what Mike said, trying to have a large instructional repertoire, trying enough things with students to see what’s really clicking for them, then being able to steer them certainly in their readiness needs, but also capitalizing on that by capping into interests and by trying to capture their best ways of learning.

Delia: Another major challenge has to be kids with learning disabilities. How do teachers handle teaching reading to special ed students within the mainstream classroom?

Dr. Spear-Swerling: Well, I think it’s important to remember that the special education umbrella covers a wide range of students. So although children with learning disabilities are the most commonly identified, there are children with other disability conditions as well. For children with learning disabilities, difficulty learning phonics kinds of skills and word decoding is often a core problem, and that’s something that does need to be addressed. Those students often benefit from very systematic, explicit instruction in that area.

If that instruction is part of the curriculum that will be helpful to those students, although some of them, as Mike indicated, will need more than that. The most challenging students will need more than that. They may need some sort of pullout remediation or help from a specialist.

Other disability conditions, such as intellectual disabilities, for example, will involve other needs. Kids with intellectual disabilities usually have broad language and vocabulary delays, so that would need to be addressed. Sometimes children who are on the autism Spectrum, especially high-functioning youngsters, do well often in decoding, but will have comprehension difficulties, especially related to more inferential things.

Delia: Mike, do you have something to add to the special education issue?

Dr. Pressley: Yes. And it ties back as well to the second language kids. There is a great deal of converging evidence, if you want the best possible outcomes you can get with at-risk kids and with second-language kids, who are mostly going to be educated in regular education classrooms in this country and all over North America, including in Quebec, a strong balancing of the skills instruction and holistic reading and writing opportunities is just absolutely essential.

That’s how you get the best outcomes for the weakest kids. And there’s simply–that’s very difficult and challenging to do. It’s challenging from the point of view of training teachers who can deliver all those components. It’s challenging from the point of view of identifying materials that can serve all those components. But there’s one more thing that is right in the center of every effective classroom and every effective school we’ve seen. They’re over-the-top motivating. These schools have developed a culture of very, very positive education for children, and the direction that they’re focusing on hardest are the most at-risk kids. You go in these schools and you cannot miss it works. These kids like being there.

Delia: That’s a great point. Louise, I’d like to segue from Mike to you around that question. How do you keep students motivated when instruction is so varied?

Dr. Spear-Swerling: Well, there’s certainly a variety of ways to motivate kids. You know, having choice, for students to have choice of books or topics or reading materials is one very important way to motivate them. Having students share interests. Often a child will be interested in a recommendation from another child that they wouldn’t listen as closely to what the teach her to say about that. So those kinds of things are very important for kids who are struggling and reading at low levels, listening comprehension and oral discussion are very important because often those children can function at much higher levels in terms of oral language. And you can do much more motivating things, more interesting books and materials orally than you can sometimes in reading.

Delia: What have you motivated on focusing students, with your own students in college?

Dr. Tomlinson: I think again having students be able to function in areas of interest to them. I think there’s just nothing quite as exciting as wanting to find out something and being able to find it out. And also again, the notion of how you learn. There are some students that will learn with technology when they can interact with the Internet or work with a computer that simply will not from a book.

Other students who if they can hear it and follow will get it better than if they don’t have that support. For most students, making that connection between things that they really want to know about, or books that their peers like, things that are just fun to read, and having dialogue with peers, there’s something just very satisfying for a child in being able to have a conversation and share and realize that they’ve contributed to that.

Really, on the whole, I’d agree with what Louise is saying there–choice, interest, attention to mode of learning. And one of the things that certainly we know is that students are not motivated to read books that they cannot read. It comes back to the notion of having books at the right readability level for a student, as well as topics of interest.

Delia: Go ahead, Mike.

Dr. Pressley: Let me chime in. The one thing that you see in really effective schools is the students are having success at tasks that are challenging and interesting to them. Really good teachers are just masterful at figuring out what’s just a little bit beyond this kid. OK? That this kid can get with some effort, and if they can get it with the strategies and competency has we can deliver to them. And I have the privilege of a lifetime of being able to spend so much time in really excellent classrooms, and that vision of creating success, if you aren’t seeing success in your students, you need to rethink how can I improve my teaching so every one of these kids is succeeding. And here’s the real trick–and I’ll never forget, I just saw my friend Barb skinner yesterday, she’s a master at this.

They’ll have a writing assignment and all the kids are jazzed about reading maybe “Julia the Wolf” or something, and everyone will be writing in response to it and some kids will only be able to write three or four lines, and some kids will be able to write four or five pages. And Barb strokes every one of them for the success that they’ve had and the growth they’re showing. And you know what? You watch the kids in the classroom like that, and they go from writing two or three lines in October to writing three or four pages at the end of the year.

Delia: That is a teacher who knows what she’s doing. I think one of the questions on the lips of lots of our viewers is what do you do for a child who continues to struggle after all this?

Dr. Tomlinson: You continue to work. What Mike said, about the fact that students come to us very differently, they do come with intellectual handicaps, with huge challenges in learning language. I talked with an elderly teacher who retired a number of years ago in Idaho last year, and I was talking to her about the concept of differentiation. She said when I first started reading, they taught me how to teach reading and I worked at it very hard and some kids didn’t get it, so I developed a second way, then more kids got it.

After she took me through the progression, she said, as well as I recall, by the time I stopped teaching, I was up to nine ways of teaching reading, but they were all learning it.

Delia: Let me follow up on that, then. Nine ways of teaching. What do you recommend for a teacher who has a very large classroom and very few resources?

Dr. Tomlinson: I think you do the best you can do. For example, you can sometimes make better adoption decisions in your district big, as Mike suggested, finding resources that give you more flexibility rather than resources that hamper your flexibility. You can sometimes ask community members to contribute a range of books and magazines. I did that in my own classrooms and was almost overrun with possibilities. You have to teach the routines more carefully if you have lots of students.

And I think exactly like in a large family, parents learn that they have to ask the children to participate in making the family work. The larger the classroom, the more the students have to be collaborators with the teacher in making it work. We can do most of what we need to do in classes that are too large.

We can do it with fewer resources if we’re innovative in the way we use those things. It’s too bad that is the case. But we also have to say to ourselves, life may not be perfect this year, but it’s this child’s only third grade year, it’s the only chance he’ll have to develop these skills and competencies and we have to be innovative, use the materials, resources, flexibilities that we can.

Delia: Let me ask Louise a question about these problematic classrooms, where you don’t have very many resources, you have a large classroom. I want to go back to the issue of special Ed students and accommodations. How do you reach students with all those different accommodations in one classroom?

Dr. Spear-Swerling: Well, there are certainly accommodations that can be very appropriate for kids with special needs. For children with reading, serious reading difficulties, a good example of that kind of legitimate accommodation is extra time. Often the students can understand the material and do the work, but they need more time because they’re slower readers. One of the concerns I have about accommodations, especially this is more with older kids, not so much at the primary level, is that if accommodations are not coupled with good and aggressive remediation, you can accommodate the child right out of learning how to read.

So your goal in the extended time example, your goal really should be to try to make the student a fluent reader so that ultimately they can read as other people do. And that may or may not be feasible for every single student. But that it should be a goal and so I think we have to be careful about accommodations if they’re not coupled with good remediation.

Dr. Tomlinson: I think sort of a point there is there’s a difference between accommodations and enabling, under a don’t want to enable a student to relax or to become slack or stay where they are.

Dr. Spear-Swerling: Right.

Dr. Tomlinson: You want to accommodate always with the notion of a higher ceiling.

Dr. Spear-Swerling: Exactly. There is a judgment there, similar to the thing of trying to find work that is just challenging enough for this student, but not that’s so challenging that they can’t be successful. It’s sort of the same issue with special needs kids in making these decisions.

Dr. Pressley: One of the things, even in the most underresourced school, the most important resource is you, the teacher. I’ll give you a great example. I was talking to some people in a reading-first school, in a program I helped develop. They said what do we do? You know one thing you can do, take that manual and learn everything you possibly can about reading from spending time with it and spending time with the Internet.

I give this advice quite a bit and I often have teachers come back saying, my gosh, when I dove in there and this is like an advanced graduate course. OK? I got so many ideas about how I could deal with particular problems I’m getting. So whatever resources you’ve got, you can spend more time with them, you can go at them with the headset I’m going to figure out how these can work with my kids.

These days with the Internet, one of the resolutions I made in my life is every night before I go to bed, I spend a half-hour at that Internet and get smarter about something that matters to me. Can you do that with respect to reading and differentiated instruction just as easily as you can with respect to any other topic that net is loaded with quality resources. It’s also loaded with junk. One of the things that happens is as soon as you start getting better at this, you start to pick out the wheat from the chaff.

Delia: I’m going to throw this all out of you. Some of the support that schools has is paraprofessionals and parent volunteers. How can they implement the model we described today?

Dr. Tomlinson: They can be involved in a myriad of ways. As Mike noted earlier the better training the person has the more specific kinds of help they can give. And person who comes and sits and reads with a child and establishes that relationship and gives that kid a chance to hear an adult read is really important thing. Especially gifted ed and special ed.

It can be so helpful, certainly as another pair of hands to make those routines run a. But they also become teachers of the teacher, to help them see strategies that are in their realm of expertise which interestingly will be important for a second language learner but that same strategy can be important sometime for many other students in the class who don’t have that particular need. So I think that range is hugely important.

Delia: Louise I see you nodding.

Dr. Spear-Swerling: I think oftentimes also, you know, it takes fairly minimal training to learn how to do a certain set of things that could be helpful. For example, one of the things I have concern about sometimes is the kind of feedback that children get when they’re reading which I think is very a important to provide the right kind of feedback during children’s oral reading. You can train somebody in how to provide good feedback in a fairly minimal amount of time and then that person could play a role in working with children, listening to children read and be extremely helpful.

Dr. Pressley: I’m real high on this theme and I’m going to give a different spin on it. I think communities are filled with funds of competence out there who will come in to schools. You know, a school we did work with last year, Bennett Woods, it was thrilling to watch. You had parents in the community who would come in. For various reasons they decided to stay home, raise their kid but during the school day their kids are at school, they come in there and tutor kids in math, reading.

When you get a good one, work hard with that person to get them as involved as possible. Up in Michigan I’m watching this program where they have Foster grandmothers in these classrooms. Some of them are terrific and they have been at this six or seven years. We need to work with churches, community groups. We need to identify those funds of competence and get them to realize there’s an important role in improving the lives of children and the future of the country by coming in there and providing tutoring that they can provide.

Delia: Lots of roles for everybody. Thank you so much.

As I mentioned earlier, many of our friends from the education community are here with us in the studio, and they also have questions for our panelists. Dr. Tomlinson will answer the first question and each of you can follow up with a short response. And I’d like to go to our first questioner.

Questioner: I’m interested in the panelist’s thoughts on the role of technology in differentiating instruction. What works?

Dr. Tomlinson: Technology is an interesting arena because it does open up so many possibilities. We can find material at different readability levels. We can tap into interest. It does have to do with mode of learning. Some students respond better that way. I think two cautions for me would be to plug a child into a computer and assume the computer is going to become the teacher is not appropriate.

It need to be something that a teacher carefully monitors and continually stays with and watches that particular student. One of the things that we know from the study of integration of technology into schools is that the best integration of technology is always in service of the students thinking of the understanding of ideas, of really helping that student have a broader reach and a broader competency of the world not simply checking off little worksheet kinds of things on the screen.

That rich use of technology can be very important in addressing readiness level, second language mode of learning but need to be under the very careful watch of a teacher who understands it’s just one of a number of tools in the classroom that has certain ways of appropriate use as opposed to insipid use.

Delia: Mike, a brief answer.

Dr. Pressley: The brief answer for me is that every person in the country, every child in the country has to get good at dealing with technological environments, the biggy right now for our time is the Internet. This is highly motivating for kids but also a set of skills they need to learn how to navigate. Now, what’s in the Internet, there is some terrific high quality stuff. So, one of my favorite sites is National Geographic site on Lewis and Clark.

Every third and fourth grade class in the country studying Lewis and Clark, can you go to that site and have a high quality set of experiences that expand kid’s Social Studies understanding and reading competence. As a nation we need to get attentive to figures out which of these sites are great and we need to work very hard to get teachers to realize that to navigate kids into those can do a lot of positive good.

Delia: Thank you. I’m going to throw the next question to you Louise. And we’ll go to our second questioner.

Questioner: The goals of the no child left behind require addressing the needs of every student to meet state standards for successful reading. Do you believe actual implementation of the law, shaped by the reading first act, encourages differentiated instruction?

Dr. Spear-Swerling: Well I think implementation can vary, so implementations can always be faulty. The basic idea of the law in terms of the five main components of reading, you know, phonemic awareness, phonic, vocabulary comprehension, fluency are an excellent basis for beginning to differentiate instruction in terms of abilities because we know those are key abilities for learning how to read and if children have weaknesses in those areas those are weaknesses that are important to address. But there are certainly other ways to differentiate instruction that are also important, some of those have been touched upon today, students motivation, students interests, the background knowledge that they bring to the classroom characteristics like that. So I think it’s important to consider those things as well.

Delia: Carol, would you like to add something to that?

Dr. Tomlinson: A short thought. There’s a difference between standards that you want students to achieve and standardization. The more it becomes a national goal for us to ensure that students all reach at least a certain level of competency the irony is the more we can’t standardize what we do to help all students succeed is going to take many different routes, time period and it’s critical we not confuse standards and standardization because we simply can’t achieve what we’re trying to by ignoring student differences.

Delia: Mike?

Dr. Pressley: As many of you in the audience know I’m on the public record that reading first could be a lot better. And what’s happened in this first-generation, I think this was a noble effort and I think there’s great positives, but it turns out there’s been a lot of feedback coming in on how this can be improved.

As rethink elementary and secondary act and reading first it’s very important we have leadership in place that will, in fact, take that feedback and constructively come up with a much better law that will work–will work much better with every kid and allow schools to do a much better job with the resources they receive.

Now, if you want to see my further comments on this, there will be something in a couple of weeks and you can go to the Michigan state litter racy achievement web site and I have a document on there about some of the improvements.

Delia: Thank you Mike. Next question.

Questioner: I have been an educator for many years, and have seen a great number of attempts, under a variety of names, to differentiate reading instruction. Yet when I go to schools I see very little differentiated instruction. My question is what can be done within the school structure, in the classroom to enable teachers to implement “differentiated reading instruction”?

Delia: Who wants to take a stab at that?

Dr. Tomlinson: You know, I think we have to believe that as teachers we’re learners as well and one of our difficulties has been we haven’t been good teachers of teachers. We’re famous for the one-shot staff development, or we do differentiation for a year and then we go away. In schools where we see this working, there’s a sustained focus by an involved leader who understands the concept and the difficulty, who makes sure that teachers have models of what they’re looking at, who is constantly in classrooms to encourage teachers to share with one another to make this happen.

In the places where we see it happen on a broad scale, rather than the occasional wonderful teacher is sort of sustained leadership effort and a critical part of that we have not gotten is we have to differentiate for our teachers as well. Our research suggests four common barriers to differentiation is lack of clarity of what the real reading goals would be. Lack of reflection on individual students. Lack of a repertoire of instructional strategies and fear of managing a differentiated classroom.

The trick is not all teachers have the same issues. So, what we really need to be doing is figuring out what we’re doing with each teacher that helps them to succeed.

Delia: That was a great answer. We have another question that was a very good answer.

: Interested in your thoughts in teachers who use differentiated instruction faces skepticism from parents as you attempt to meet the needs of all the students in your classroom.

Delia: Louise.

Dr. Spear-Swerling: That’s an interesting question that’s not something that really would have occurred to me before. I don’t think so if parents perceive that the teacher is setting high goals for the student in providing instruction that’s appropriate for them. One of the things you see sometimes in special education, you know, because that’s my specialty, kids who really struggle is that the children kind of go along at the same level year after year, don’t really progress, so they may be getting something different from the other children but the real problem is the lack of progress. I think if the instruction is effective, most parents are going to be happy with that.

Delia: We have another question from our audience.

Questioner: How can students in a differentiated classroom work together in cooperative teams say for example on a reading activity.

Delia: Mike?

Dr. Pressley: It turns out in effective classrooms students are working cooperatively all the time. But the real trick here in the cooperative situation is that everybody has to be on task and has to be accountable and that comes about because the teacher is there monitoring like crazy. Is this a healthy situation or is this kid being allowed to be a wall flower in this group. Being a wall flower in this group tomorrow they will be in a different group if you are an ineffective teacher. I would like to pick up on that last question a little bit.

No matter what you do as a teacher there’s skepticism from parents. You need to educate them. My greater concern is that there’s a lot of skepticism among policy makers and educational leadership with respect to differentiating instruction. We have to get in the head of the next generation of educators that differentiated instruction is a great thing. The real challenge you can’t do that after you finish your teacher’s college. You are at the start. You have to get the head set, you know what you have to get better at this every year you are working and you can do that by learning more about instruction, learning more about kids, becoming a professional educator is a five to 10 year venture.

Delia: That sums up a lot of what we learned today. It’s a long, long process. Thank you, everyone. Please let us know what you thought about this program. Visit to take our survey and please join us for the next Reading Rockets conference on March 22, “From Babbling to Books,” about building prereading skills. You can find more information on our web site, Thank you for joining us, take care and thank you all.