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Mass Literacy

Differentiated Instruction

Within each component of the core literacy block, all children receive equitable access to core, grade-level instruction. In addition, teachers may build in differentiated activities to meet individual student needs, such as small group or one-on-one instruction, center activities, or independent reading time. Avoiding "one-size-fits-all" instruction, differentiated instruction should be planned based on timely data and observations.

"According to research on grouping students, implementing small group differentiated instruction in the classroom leads to an increase in reading achievement" (Kosanovich, 2012).

Differentiated Activities During the Literacy Block May Entail:

  • Independent or center-based activities designed to practice reading foundational skills, language, writing, and/or reading comprehension
  • Teacher-led small groups for instruction and practice with reading foundational skills, language, writing, and/or reading comprehension
  • Teacher-led small groups to support engaging with complex text
  • Independent reading

Small group instruction is not synonymous with working with leveled text. Rather, the instructional activities for small group instruction, and the materials and texts used, should be selected based on the students' learning goals. For instance, if a group of first graders needs practice to solidify decoding of words with initial digraphs after this skill was presented in core instruction, the teacher may plan small group activities to practice decoding words with digraphs and an opportunity to practice reading those words in controlled text.

Patrick Flaherty
"For me as a teacher, the proof is really when I see the results in the classroom-when a student is called on to answer a comprehension question or to read aloud, or the student receives a spelling quiz back and their score was much better. That's very rewarding for me."
Patrick Flaherty
Special Education Teacher
Lynch Elementary School, Winchester, MA

Selecting Texts for Differentiated Activities

Small group instruction often includes text, because it is important to support the transfer of reading skills into authentic text reading. The text is chosen based on the purpose of the lesson, which is based on students' needs. Depending on the instructional purpose, teachers may vary the level of support for accessing the text in small group instruction (e.g., complete independent access without teacher-guiding, teacher-guided access, rereading over the course of several days; teacher read-aloud). For instance, within a range of supports to access, teachers may choose…

  • decodable text, when the focus is practice and transfer of early phonics and decoding skills, and to promote beginning reading
  • grade-level, complex text, when the focus is language comprehension, or writing based upon text, or to preview and scaffold students to participate in an upcoming lesson with complex text
  • leveled text within the student's instructional and independent ranges, when the purpose is to build knowledge about a topic.

Videos of Small Group Instruction

Small Group Instruction to Support Reading Foundational Skills

Many students in grades preK-3 benefit from small group instruction in reading foundational skills to help them become fluent readers. This instruction is explicit and targeted, providing additional support with letter-sound correspondences, phonological awareness, phonics and decoding, encoding, and/or fluency.

Explicit Small Group Instruction on Reading Foundational Skills

"Explicit instruction involves a high level of teacher-student interaction that includes frequent opportunities for students to practice the skill and clear, specific corrective feedback. It begins with overt and unambiguous explanations and models. An important feature of explicit instruction is making the thinking process public" (Gersten et al., 2009 , page 19).

  • Modeling The teacher overtly demonstrates a strategy, skill, or concept that students will be practicing.
  • Guided practice Students practice newly learned skills with the teacher providing prompts and feedback. Practice should follow in a logical relationship with what has just been taught. When an error occurs, the teacher immediately attends to it by scaffolding instruction.
  • Generalization Students apply a learned skill in novel situations. (all definitions from Florida Center for Reading Research Glossary of Reading Terms).

Resources for Designing Small Group Instruction on Reading Foundational Skills

Small Group Instruction to Support Engaging With Complex Text

Small group instruction is not just for foundational skills practice. Small groups are also a crucial time to offer scaffolds, accommodations, and/or extensions so all children can successfully engage with complex text. "Students who need extra support with comprehending complex text can benefit from working with the text, or the vocabulary and concepts from the text, before and/or after participating in whole-group instruction" (Brown et al., 2017).

In one study, students given a variety of supports — including multiple exposures, pre-teaching of vocabulary, echo reading, and partner reading — benefitted from instruction with texts typically considered "frustration level" (Stahl & Heubach, 2005).

Resources for Designing Small Group Instruction to Support Engaging With Complex Text

Independent Reading

Independent reading typically refers to a period of time in the literacy block dedicated to students reading self-selected texts on their own. "Independent reading" is different from students reading and engaging with complex text as part of teacher-led instruction. Teachers may assign passages of complex text for students to read independently, with or without teacher scaffolding as needed, as an appropriate aspect of engaging with complex text, especially in grades 2-3.

Independent reading of authentic, relevant children's literature can be enriching and affirming for children. Children can also engage in meaningful, language-rich peer conversations about texts during independent reading time, even when they are not yet able to read the words. Opportunity to read and enjoy self-selected texts contributes to interest in reading and motivation to read. For these reasons it is valuable to provide children access, time, and choice to read texts that intrigue and delight them.

At the same time, teachers should be aware that independent silent reading (or SSR) does not support the development of fluency, if students have not yet developed initial phonics and word reading skills (National Reading Panel , 2000, page 3–3). When students are still working towards securing basic phonics skills (typically in kindergarten and part of first grade, depending on individual students), differentiated instructional time should support development of foundational skills. This instruction can, and should, include transfer of decoding skills into controlled text (Foorman et al, 2016, page 32). Once students can decode and read simple words, independent reading is crucial to building reading skill. Independent reading is called for in the Massachusetts standards beginning in grade 2 (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for ELA and Literacy, RL2.10 ).

Norma Hancock
"If you can't read, you don't enjoy reading. You're not going to magically enjoy reading. So what really helps foster that joy of reading is providing the child with the tools to lift the words off the page."
Norma Hancock
Reading Specialist and Doctoral Research Fellow
Speech and Language (SAiL) Literacy Lab at MGH Institute

Learn More: How Does Independent Reading Contribute to Reading Fluency?

Once basic decoding is intact, students can rapidly improve their reading skill through independent reading of text that they can read with accuracy.

For proficient readers, practically all words are read from memory by sight. These readers are proficient because pronunciations and meanings come to mind automatically and instantly when written words are seen. Orthographic mapping is the mental process that we use to store words "so that the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings of these words can be retrieved as soon as the reader's eyes alight upon the words" (Pace Miles and Ehri, 2019). Orthographic mapping is what allows a proficient reader to instantly read any familiar word (instead of having to decode it).

Orthographic mapping happens when a reader connects the sounds in a word to its spelling and its meaning. When a reader repeatedly encounters, decodes, reads, and understands a word, it is added to the reader's sight vocabulary. This is why reading practice accelerates reading growth, once children become somewhat proficient at decoding.

"Once students develop proficient orthographic mapping, they have the capacity to quickly and reliably add new words to their sight vocabulary, so long as they have ample reading opportunities" (Kilpatrick, 2015). This acquisition of new words fuels improved fluency, and improved fluency enables the reader to focus on comprehension.

Sources of Information for Educators: Differentiated Instruction


Pace Miles, K. and Ehri, L. (2019) Orthographic Mapping Facilitates Sight Word Memory and Vocabulary Learning. In Kilpatrick, D, Joshi, R. M., and Wagner, R., eds. Reading Development and Difficulties. Springer.

Kilpatrick, D. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties (Essentials of psychological assessment). Boston: John Wiley and Sons.

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Last Updated: January 21, 2021

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