Differentiated Instruction and Ability GroupingBy Cheryl Sigmon
There is no evidence that ability grouping is necessary for Differentiating Instruction. Here’s how teaching all children to read, write and grow in literacy can be accomplished within the Four-Blocks Literacy framework. ~ Cheryl Sigmon
For those unfamiliar with the components of Four Blocks, please see this Overview of Four Blocks page by Cheryl Sigmon. While the following article contains many references to Four Blocks, it explains transferable concepts and provides information about differentiation that can be implemented in any classroom, with the main message being that differentiation need not depend upon ability grouping.
First of all, the short answer is, emphatically—NO! You do NOT have to ability group students to differentiate their instruction. The two don’t necessarily equate. There are numerous ways to differentiate instruction; ability grouping (or dynamic grouping as some call it) is but one choice a teacher can make. There are four basic ways that a teacher can differentiate instruction in the classroom. Based on the work of people like Carol Ann Tomlinson and others who’ve been at the forefront of the DI discussion, teachers can successfully differentiate instruction through a variety of different methods—not just through ability grouping. Believe it or not, there still is NO evidence that ability grouping is necessary to teach all children to read, write and grow in literacy. Luckily, Four-Blocks was also at the forefront of differentiating instruction.
Before the term DI came into being, we referred to it as multilevel instruction. It was how we chose to manage a classroom of varying performance levels, different personalities and unique learning styles. We didn’t chose to return to the whole group instruction of the 70s, but rather we addressed the differences in an efficient, effective way. And, also in a compassionate way—without ability grouping students. Let’s look briefly at the ways that current research is saying differentiation might be accomplished. Let’s also see how Four-Blocks, a balanced literacy model, addresses these factors. Because of time and space within this article, only a few examples of each factor will be included. Hopefully, however, you’ll get the idea of just how varied are the ways in which a teacher can choose to differentiate—all without ability grouping.
First, differentiating through content allows the teacher to determine the depth to which each student will explore concepts and ideas and the rate at which each student covers the material. In other words, content is what is taught. In Four-Blocks guided reading, for example, teachers use grade level and easier text each week finding the widest range of material possible to which students can apply the skills and strategies that are taught. Both skills and strategies and content can be delivered effectively this way at differing readability levels.