Evan Interviews Laura Robb

Differentiating reading instruction is frequently communicated amongst educators but often does not occur in many classrooms.  With wide ability ranges and large classrooms, differentiating can be a daunting challenge even for the best teacher.  What are some ways to allow every child to get the extra they may need to propel their learning? Laura is an expert on differentiating and helping teachers learn how to do it in a way that makes sense.  I call it Monday morning strategies.

Evan: Where does a teacher start with DI Reading Instruction? Which structures and concepts are fundamental?

LAURA: Start by building your background knowledge of DI, which includes understanding tiering, assessment, the role of conferring and self-evaluation, writing to improve reading, creating plans for units, and the research that supports DI. Consider forming a study group with colleagues to read and discuss my book as well as the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson, Judith Dodge, and Rick Wormeli. Fortified with theory and examples of practice, you’ll be ready to plan and implement one unit of study. You can plan a unit of study for two to three weeks using picture books. This way you start small and experience the instructional read-aloud, instructional reading at school, teacher-student conferences, to name only a few. The more you self-evaluate and invite student feedback during and after a unit, the smoother the units will run.

Evan: Do very bright students-such as those who’ve been designated as gifted-suffer from low expectations in a class where DI is the norm?

LAURA: Actually, bright students bloom because you are offering them challenging materials that relate to the genre, issue, and theme you’re studying. With one-size-fits-all, these students receive little to no instruction because the work is easy for them and they can complete it independently. They are usually reading materials at their independent reading levels and not moving forward with analyzing, connecting, and synthesizing.

Because a student struggles with reading does not necessarily mean that student is not bright or gifted. The key to differentiation is to match students to instructional texts so they can improve their reading skill. But all students, no matter what their instructional reading levels are, need to think and apply reading and analytical strategies appropriate for their grade level. So, a sixth grader reading at a third grade instructional level uses that material to think and write about texts at the sixth grade level.

Evan: How does writing support DI and improve comprehension?

LAURA: Writing about reading improves students’ comprehension by helping them to compare and contrast within a text or between texts; to clarify hunches and thinking; to make connections, analyze, form hypotheses and prove them; and synthesize ideas across texts. I see writing about reading as an extension of reading and thinking. In my classes, journals are always on students’ desks, poised to receive a reaction, thought, questions, and other feedback.

Evan: Does DI have a role in classes other than reading or language arts?

LAURA: Absolutely! Let me start with a true story. A group of ninth graders reading three to five years below grade level were placed in a special reading class that met five mornings a week. Students read books at their instructional levels and used their texts to do the high level thinking expected of ninth graders. They experienced much success and made one to two years’ progress. However, back in science, English, and social studies, these students had to read grade level or above texts. Animal Farm was one of the English texts. Students became angry and frustrated because they failed or received D’s in other subjects. Though administrators developed this kind of remediation with the best intentions, these students needed to read at their instructional level in all subjects in order to improve. This is one reason why we continue to leave so many students behind.

Multiple texts-texts related to a topic in any subject at diverse reading levels-need to be a part of all instruction. Publishing needs to change to meet the realities of teaching. No more huge textbooks that students can’t read. In their place we need small texts that relate to different aspects of a topic, written at diverse instructional levels. All subjects-not just language arts-need reading resource rooms with books on a wide range of reading levels.

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