Strategy Guide

Differentiating the Reading Experience for Students

6 - 12
Strategy Guide Series
Differentiating Instruction

About this Strategy Guide

In this Strategy Guide, you'll learn approaches that can help you differentiate the reading experience for students depending on their age, interests, and ability.


Research Basis

Because of their diverse literacy needs, our students need us to differentiate the product, process and content of learning according to their learning style, interest and readiness.  Literacy research reminds us that learning materials must not be too difficult as to frustrate nor should they be too easy as to not challenge student thinking.  But, it also reminds us that each unique literacy experience requires that our students use prior knowledge and strategic literacy habits in order to tackle a text's unique characteristics. Asking every student to read the same text with the same purpose and while using the same strategy makes the literacy event too easy for some and too difficult for others.  If our ultimate goal is to influence the way our students think with texts, we can provide more than one option for students as they read a text.

So, how can we differentiate the reading experience for students? While there is no easy answer, the use of flexible grouping, tiered texts and use of different reading strategies and/or skills can help us match a material to the literacy needs of our students.

Strategy in Practice

Student texts can be used to guide student understanding of essential questions. Who a student reads with, what text(s) a student reads, why he or she reads it, and what thinking we ask students to do with the text(s) can be differentiated according to the literacy needs of our students.

"In your group, silently read the article "City Plans to Close Library" and use the 2 column notes sheet to record questions your group has about the city's proposal and the sentence(s) from the article that triggered your questions. Be prepared to share with the class."

If the above represents one reading experience we create for students, we could differentiate the underlined portions (grouping, text, reading strategy, skill).

  • Flexible Grouping: Would we want to homogenously group students by interest and provide a different article to each group? Would we want to homogenously group students by readiness and provide an article in their own zone of proximal development? Would we want to group students homogenously according to learning profiles and the product to be created with the use of the text? Flexible grouping can be a tool to differentiate reading based on student needs and, at one time or another, we'd want to use one of the above options.

  • Tiered Texts: Texts can be difficult for students due to a variety of reasons but we can intentionally provide them with more difficult or more manageable texts depending on their prior knowledge, interest, readiness, etc. Using the above example, could we give a group of students who show a difficulty reading at level texts a copy of a Chicago Sun-Times article that includes a summary of events box and uses less density of text? Could we ask another group of students with higher interest or higher readiness to read the actual Chicago City Council proposition? If we think about matching our student needs with the texts, using tiered texts offers numerous possibilities.

  • Flexible Use of Strategy/Skill: Literacy research suggests that effective readers use an array of thinking skills before they read a text, while they're reading a text and after they read a text. Reading strategies can draw student attention to specific types of thinking while they read and scaffold his or her ability to use strategies independently. What we want students to do with a text often coincides with the reading strategy that we provide them, the specific reading skills that will be challenged the most in the text and the reading habits of students. But, not every student needs to focus on the same skill (i.e. using context clues with unfamiliar vocabulary) while they read. Instead, we can use a think-aloud to model habits of mind while reading and then provide students with a choice of reading strategies to reinforce these skills.

If we revisit our sample text, we could give every group in the class a two-column notes sheet and then give groups the choice of recording either the main idea of each person quoted (reading for main idea), questions they have as they read (promoting meta-cognition) or statements that triggered specific thoughts (making connections). Any of these tasks would engage students in thinking more about their understanding while also allowing us to vary the reading   experience intentionally according to student needs. Depending on the text and purpose, our students need us to model and offer several reading strategies that support the emphasis on specific reading skills.

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