Turn your ESL differentiated reading nightmare into a dream with these easy-to-implement classroom tips!
Differentiated reading sounds like a great plan, doesn’t it? Every student gets exactly what they need, with a text that meets them where they are while providing just enough challenge. Students can all work independently, improving their comprehension skills while learning about the text’s topic. Your students are feeling confident and growing while you have time to actually teach. It’s the absolute dream, right?
In reality, it doesn’t always look that way, does it? You’re stuck with stacks of papers, trying to figure out how to get the right level to the right student without letting them know what you’re doing. Students end up with the wrong page that’s either too easy or too difficult, and oh, do you hear about it! Then, there are hurt feelings ("I think that page is too hard! Why is he calling it easy?"), chaos all around, kids begging for help, some tears (maybe even yours), and stress with a capital S. Your differentiated reading dream has turned into a nightmare.
What if I told you it didn’t have to be that way? That the dream could really be your reality?
I’ve been through the nightmare and found my way out so you don’t have to! So go grab a tasty cup of coffee, a cozy mug of tea, or your favorite snack, and settle in! We’re going through 4 tips and tricks that will make the differentiated reading dream your reality.
Set Realistic Expectations
I know what you’re thinking: I want to know how to plan differentiated reading instruction; I’m not here for SEL Lessons. And I get it! But the first thing you need to do to get differentiated reading instruction off the ground is to make sure that you and your students have realistic expectations about what’s to come. This is arguably the most important step because it will get students on board while making your life easier!
For the longest time, I didn’t want my students to know that they had different levels of text. I would do everything I could to hide it from them. I wanted everyone to think that they were getting the same thing in the same way so that nobody felt upset.
It was a stressful act to keep up, and of course, they all found out anyway. On top of that, they were upset with me because I had been essentially lying to them about what was happening. It eroded trust, increased misunderstandings, and just made things miserable. I don’t want that for you!
Luckily for us, kids of all ages are resilient, understanding, and reasonable. They don’t like it when we try and pull one over on them, but they LOVE being in on what’s happening. Use that to your advantage!
As you’re starting differentiated reading in your classroom, be upfront with your students about what’s going to happen. How you tell them depends on your students and your style, but my conversation usually goes a bit like this:
“So, we all know that everyone in this classroom always gets what they need to be successful. That’s always my promise to you! We’re going to try changing the stories we read so that they’re what you need, too. I’m going to give you a story at a level that’s good for you today. Some will be easier, and some will be harder, but they’ll challenge everyone the same amount. I want you to be able to do the work mostly by yourself because that means you’ll learn and grow! All of the stories will have the same ideas, so you’re not missing out on anything if you have a different level. If the level is too difficult or too easy for you to enjoy, come let me know. You’re never stuck at the level I give you!”
Here are the most important things to touch on when you’re introducing differentiated reading to your students:
If you know the class will need a little extra encouragement to jump on board, I’ll throw in this gem that works every time.
“Can I tell you a secret? Promise you won’t tell? Most teachers don’t want you to know this… Did you know that a lot of teachers give students different levels or types of work to meet them where they are? *Gasp* I know, right? Most teachers try and hide it from students because they don’t think students are mature enough to handle it. I think you can handle it, though! Just don’t tell anyone I spilled the teachers’ secret… they’ll be really upset since the other classes can’t handle it.”
Works. Every. Time. (and for every age!)
The main point of this conversation is to help students understand why they are getting different levels of work before you start, eliminating any difficult reactions down the line. As a bonus, it will help students feel safe and confident knowing that they’re getting exactly what they need and gives those competitive students an extra bit of motivation to move toward the highest level of text!
Keep Themes & Main Ideas the Same
Alright, now on to the practical parts of making your life easier while creating differentiated reading lesson plans. So many times, I’ve been handed leveled texts, and there’s an entirely different story for each level in my class. Some students are reading Snow White, while others are reading a nonfiction story about some Civil War General, and another group is reading about the importance of eating healthy. You’ve been there, right? It is CHAOS. And I’m here to say...no more!
Whenever possible, keep the topic, main storyline, themes, main ideas, significant details, etc., the same! Changing the difficulty level but keeping the content the same helps because…
Plan Your Organization Strategy
Once the kids are on board, I really think the most challenging part of differentiated reading instruction is keeping track of all those papers! Especially when you have multiple class periods and multiple levels within each period...it can get to be a lot! Here are some of the ways I’ve found that work to tame the paper monster!
Tips for Prepping Papers:
Tips for Passing Out Papers:
If we’re being honest, your differentiated reading instruction will only work if your students can be independent. When students have different levels of texts and questions, they have to be able to work on their own because there’s just no way one teacher will have enough time to help everyone through.
The good news is, the whole point of differentiated reading is that every student will be given something they can do on their own!
Before we get too deep into these tips, I just want to throw something out there. I've been told SO OFTEN by all sorts of people that English Language Learners aren’t able to work independently. I don’t know why this is a thing, but if it’s something you’ve been told, ignore it. Honestly, ESL students have to figure out so much for themselves all the time that they’re probably the most capable of being independent out of all our students!
Now that that’s taken care of, here’s some tips for keeping your students working independently so you can have time to actually teach!
Set Clear Expectations
Let Them See the Time!
Give Them the Tools for Success
Pump Them Up!
Give Space for Concerns
Practice Makes Perfect
Differentiated reading is just one of those things that has a lot of moving parts! Sure, it requires paper management, but it also requires trust and independence from your students, which can be difficult to build up sometimes. Don’t give up! Make a note of what’s working, what’s not, and celebrate the little victories along the way. With persistence and repetition, it will only take a few weeks (at the most!) before your class is humming along and running itself. Students will be learning rigorous material independently, routines will be smooth, and you’ll have time to work with students and improve learning outcomes. You got this! The differentiated reading dream is within reach… you just gotta take the first step!
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