Harry Wong
Dec 2017
Vol 14 No 4

Differentiated Instruction and Ability Grouping

By 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.

A desperate teacher wrote to me recently with the plea, “My school says I have to differentiate my instruction. I really don’t want to go back to ability grouping my students. What can I do to avoid this?” She’s a successful Four-Blocks teacher whose students have performed well in recent years on standardized tests.This teacher apparently isn’t alone in her concern since I hear this frequently in schools where I work. And, by the way, the question certainly isn’t being asked exclusively by Four-Blocks teachers, even though they are generally concerned because the desire to teach without ability grouping is usually behind their decision to teach that way.My advice to her and to others with this same conflict is simple on one level and more complex on another.

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.

On the days when grade level text is used which is more difficult for the lower achieving students, there are formats chosen to support and scaffold learners. Those formats include partner reading, teacher read-aloud, echo reading, choral reading, ERT, independent reading, playschool groups, literature circles, and three-ring circus among others. On easier days, all students still benefit from gained knowledge of content and from skill/strategy application, but they use easier materials that help them additionally to build fluency. The book club grouping format can also be an opportunity to allow students exposure to varying levels of sophistication and difficulty with content acquisition. In this format, different materials are used by different groups. Usually the materials are “chosen” by the students according to their interest. Three to four different materials are generally selected by the teacher and



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This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 1st, 2013 and is filed under *ISSUES, Cheryl Sigmon, January 2013. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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