Strategy Guide

Assessing Student Interests and Strengths

6 - 12
Strategy Guide Series
Differentiating Instruction

About this Strategy Guide

In this Strategy Guide, you'll learn about a number of specific methods that can help you to gain a fuller picture of the interests of your students as well as what your students understand, know, and can demonstrate by doing.

Research Basis

When we intentionally respond to the diverse needs of our students, we are differentiating the product, process or content of learning according to the learning style, interest or readiness of our students. A wealth of research suggests that by framing learning with student interests in mind, teachers can increase student motivation and learning. Additionally, by understanding the varying literacy strengths and habits of our students we can identify what Vygotsky calls their "zone of proximal development" where literacy opportunities are not too hard as to frustrate or too easy to bore but just challenging enough to promote student learning. With a keen eye, we can observe the interests and strengths of our students and, when possible, we can consider these to plan learning opportunities for our students. By providing choice and respectful tasks, we can provide meaningful literacy experiences.

But, how can we identify student interests and strengths? While no tool is foolproof, several transferable strategies can provide the continual feedback we need in order to plan for and guide the learning of all students.

Strategy in Practice

While strategies for acquiring feedback about student interest and strengths are unlimited, each of the following could be done as a pre-assessment, throughout the unit as a continual check for understanding, or even as a formal assessment of student learning:

  • Opening Letter: At the start of a unit, write a letter to students explaining what you want them to know, understand and be able to do in the upcoming unit and then ask for a return letter. This can be a powerful way to gather information about their interest level in the topic, content misconceptions and strengths/needs as well as to show how you are attempting to respond to their needs.

  • Student Survey: Ask students to write a response to a series of open-ended questions about the upcoming unit. The questions can assess their interests within the topic or their understanding of key ideas and specific knowledge. Or, the questions can be process oriented in which they reflect on their own learning or reading. Often, a survey or anticipation guide like this can identify students who might benefit from compacting.

  • Truth Statements: Ask students to write a one sentence "truth statement" about an upcoming unit topic, "reading between the lines", the most interesting day of your class, what they do when the get stuck in text, etc. It's a simple way to find out what they find interesting, easy and difficult.

  • Think Aloud: Select a portion of a text that you feel illustrates the difficulty that students might have with a text. As you read, interject your impromptu thoughts and explain which words trigger these thoughts. Regardless of the thinking skill you're illustrating while reading, students need to see and hear proficient readers explain their thinking with text. In addition to showing your own thinking with text, provide opportunities for students to demonstrate their thinking with text. Whether done in whole group, heterogeneous or homogenous groups, or in pairs, this can be a powerful window into student strengths and reading habits. After observing student think aloud, a simple student observation chart on a clipboard can be full of valuable student feedback in no time.

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