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Subject-Specific Resources

Differentiating Reading Instruction in the Language Arts Classroom

English and language arts teachers spend considerable time building literacy skills with their students. This can be a challenge when students come to class with a wide variety of needs. By differentiating reading assignments, teachers can be successful in meeting the diverse needs that students bring to class. Students can build the literacy skills needed for all of their schoolwork by engaging in activities that improve their knowledge of how reading skills are transferred to other courses.

Assess Reading First
English and language arts teachers should begin the year by assessing each student's reading abilities. A variety of reading assessment tools is available to help you accomplish this; some are highly individualized and provide specific prescriptive approaches; some are more general in nature.

Teachers who have reading assessment software programs can test reading ability on the individual level and receive a report that indicates a grade-level reading equivalent. These programs often provide details on specific skills and offer prescriptive approaches to improve those areas.

Some teachers work in schools that have reading specialists who either will administer the reading assessments themselves or train teachers how to do it. These specialists can also provide detailed information about specific skill areas.

Teachers who don't have specialized software or reading professionals can also find out more about their students' reading skills, however. By administering a released state reading test or other generic reading assessment, such as the Flanagan reading test, teachers can gain insight into each student's reading level.

Once a teacher has an idea of student reading skills, lessons can be designed to address the various needs of the class, with improved comprehension being the ultimate goal.

Differentiated Reading Assignments

Let's assume the content is Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a classic that is taught in classrooms across the United States. Reading activities matched to abilities create a framework for thought processes that improve reading comprehension. Consider the following strategies for three different levels of readers.
Reading Level Strategies
Struggling Readers
  • Outline. Create a basic plot outline to use as a roadmap to the story. Students should read aloud initially, until they get into the text. As they do so, have each student plot the events of the story as they unfold. Then, come together as a class to review the plot diagrams.
  • Predict. Once the exposition is plotted on the class map, begin a three-column class prediction chart with the headings labeled prediction, evaluation, and revised prediction. Ask questions that require students to use the information on the class or individual plot diagrams to predict what will happen next and require them to cite a fact from the story that is a basis for the prediction.
  • Evaluate predictions. Periodically, pause from reading and evaluate whether the prediction still seems feasible (evaluation), and if it does not, chart the revised prediction.
  • Write to learn. After the novel has been read in its entirety, require students to use the plot diagram to write an essay. Students could write about how the resolution of the story is connected to the exposition of the story, or how the story might have been different if a specific event had been omitted.
General Readers
  • Connect. Initiate background knowledge by reviewing both the historical context of Twain's novel and the formal literary elements: plot, setting, character, theme, narrator, and point of view.
  • Trace. Ask students to select an idea from both the historical context and the literary elements and trace each as they emerge in the novel. A two-column chart is ideal for this activity as it provides a chronological record-keeping of the progress of the idea or element.
  • Write to learn. Once reading is complete, have students write an essay that explains the development of either idea.
Advanced Readers
  • Integrate content areas. Examine the literature through the critical lens of New Historicism. Review a literary and historical time line (available in most literature and history textbooks) and ask students to identify social and political characteristics of the writing of Twain's time period.
  • Discuss. Discuss literature as a means to political and social change, and satire as a specific technique to evoke such change.
  • Identify purposes for reading. Establish purposes for reading: 1) to identify Twain's platform as a political writer, and 2) to identify at least three literary elements or techniques he relies on to carry his message to the reader.
  • Silent reading. Provide time to read silently (both in and out of class), and provide a forum for small and large group discussion related to the reading purpose.
  • Write to learn. Once reading is complete, require students to write an essay that examines the novel as a vehicle to political change.

This article was contributed by Janice Christy, M.Ed., English Department Chair, Louisa County High School, Louisa, Virginia.





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