More on Text Levels: Confronting the Issues

New Irene Fountas Photo

by Irene Fountas, Author and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University

In response to the many comments the blog has received this week on the Text Levels- Tool or Trouble blog post:

You have shared many important thoughts on the topic of text levels.  Of course, children should read the books they want to read—those that engage their interests and that will bring them enjoyment throughout their lives.  Levels are simply not for children and should not serve as another means of labeling them and damaging their self-esteem.  Nor do they belong on books in libraries or on report cards.

Levels have an important place in the hands of teachers who understand them.  Many of you have found the instructional benefit of levels in assessment and in the teaching of reading, so you can support each child’s successful reading development across the grades.  When a text is too difficult to support new learning in small groups, the reader becomes passive and teacher dependent.  Reading becomes laborious and nonproductive.  When a text is just right, the reader can process it with successful problem-solving and expands his reading power with the teacher’s support.  We hope teachers go beyond the level label to understand and use the ten text characteristics to understand the demands of texts on readers.

The classroom text base needs to include a variety of texts for a variety of purposes.  All children deserve numerous opportunities every day to choose books to read and participate with peers in listening to and sharing age-appropriate books that fully engage their intellect, emotions and curiosity.  Alongside these opportunities, all children deserve responsive teaching in small groups for a part of their day with books that are leveled to support the continuum of competencies that enable them to become independent, lifelong readers.

Each of you can advocate with your school team to educate all involved in the appropriate and effective use of levels as one small part of an excellent instructional program that meets the needs of diverse students.

Helping Young Readers Think Like Historians

Deborah Hopkinson 2015by Guest Blogger Deborah Hopkinson, Author and 2015 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

I’m excited to be speaking at the 2015 Literacy for All conference, in part because I learn so much from educators. Teachers and librarians are the literacy experts. Me? I’m just a former fundraising professional and now full-time author who loves to write about history.

When I visit elementary and middle schools, I’ve found more young amateur historians out there than you might think. I almost always begin a session by asking students what kinds of books they like to read. It’s no surprise that readers are enthusiastic about scary stories, animal stories, mysteries, fantasy, and dystopian novels. But I’m always gratified to find a few students who like historical fiction or nonfiction.

History used to be considered boring: a litany of names and dates to be memorized. I remember being uninterested in my history textbook, but fascinated by the stories in the shaded boxes, which made me curious about what it would be like to live in another place and time.

As an author, I’ve sought to discover these stories through both historical fiction and nonfiction, including my new nonfiction title, Courage & Defiance, Stories of Spies, Saboteurs, and Survivors in WWII Denmark and my forthcoming historical fiction set in New York City, A Bandit’s Tale, The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket.


I’m interested in how we study and teach history, and how authors and educators together can inspire young people to develop a lifelong interest in learning about the past. I believe story is an important element in making history fascinating. Through stories, we better understand who we are and where we have come from. Putting good books into children’s hands help them imagine themselves in the place of someone else, whether it is the kid sitting next to them or someone from another time or place.

Professor Sam Wineburg, who founded the Stanford History Education Group, has said, “Coming to know others, whether they live on the other side of the tracks or the other side of the millennium, requires the education of our sensibilities. This is what history, when taught well, gives us practice in doing.”

The Stanford History Education Group ( has some tremendous resources for teachers to help students learn to read – and think — like historians. Instead of memorization, inquiry is at the core of each lesson plan. There are also classroom posters available that feature the four principles of historical thinking:

Visual literacy can also be an important tool to engage students’ interest in history. Many students are visual learners. When I present to students in schools, we spend time looking at historical photos to examine what pictures can tell us. “What’s going on here?” I ask. “And what do you see that makes you say that?”

I’ve found this exercise immensely helpful. In our bright, technology-driven, colorful world, it can be hard for young people to connect emotionally with a black-and-white photograph. But when students have the chance to imagine themselves in the picture – building the Empire State Building, taking courageous action against the Nazis, fighting a cholera epidemic, or walking along the decks of the Titanic, the past becomes more real.

Pioneering 19th century history educator Lucy Maynard Salmon said, “History must be seen.” In addition to looking at photographs, I like to challenge students to use their own eyes and look around at their own families and communities to help discover more about history.

When I encounter people of the past I feel a deep connection to other human beings who preceded me, and curious to know more. In crafting my stories for young readers, I strive to share that connection. I hope my stories help spark critical thinking as well as curiosity and emotional connections.

The object of study, Lucy Salmon said, should be “the search for truth.”

History, after all, is a lifelong study, a search for truth and meaning, not just of the lives of others, but of our own.

Deborah is speaking at the Literacy for All conference on Monday (11/16) and Tuesday (11/17). Monday’s session is entitled, “Be a Detective! Helping Readers Think, Research, and Write like Historians.” That session will be repeated on Tuesday and she has an additional Tuesday session, entitled, “Imagine Possibilities: Picture Books for All Readers.”

Deborah Hopkinson is the award-winning author of more than 40 books for young readers including picture books, historical fiction, and nonfiction.  Deborah’s nonfiction includes Titanic, Voices from the Disaster, Shutting out the Sky, Life in the Tenements of New York 1880-1924, and Courage and Defiance, Stories of Spies, Saboteurs, and Survivors in World War II Denmark. Deborah’s historical fiction title, The Great Trouble, A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel, won an Oregon Spirit Award. Her forthcoming books include, Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of the Borrowed Guinea Pig, and A Bandit’s Tale, The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket.

A native of Massachusetts, Deborah received a B.A. in English from the University of Massachusetts and an M.A. in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Follow Deborah on Twitter @deborahopkinson or visit her on the web at

Bronwen’s Guide to Dystopian Novels

by Guest Blogger Dan Feigelson, Author and Literacy For All conference Featured Speaker

5th grader Bronwen, like many upper elementary and middle school students, couldn’t get enough of dystopian novels. After going through the entire Hunger Games series in a week and a half, she had moved on to Lois Lowry’s The Giver. When I sat down for a conference with her and asked what she was noticing about the genre, she thought for a minute. “Well, they aren’t the easiest kind of books,” she finally responded. “You sort of have to know how to read them.” Intrigued, I asked her to say more. “Well, there are certain kinds of parts you really have to stop and pay attention. Like here in Chapter Two – Jonah’s parents are telling him about the Ceremony Of Twelve, where he’s going to find out what his job will be when he grows up.”

“Hmm,” I responded, genuinely curious. “You said before there were certain kinds of parts. So what kind of part is that one?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“Well, it’s like when there’s a big ceremony it’s usually really important,” she reflected. “And also, Jonah’s parents are explaining it to him. I’ve noticed that when a parent or some older person explains something to a younger person that’s usually a big deal.”

After a couple more minutes of conversation, I suggested to Bronwen that her reading work for the next several days could be to put together a Guide To Dystopian Novels, teaching other readers where they should stop and pay attention. Here’s what she came up with:

Bronwen's Guide to Dystopian Novels

My conversation with Bronwen didn’t come out of nowhere. Most people who become teachers do so, at least in part, because they are fascinated with the way kids think. At one time or another each of us has marveled at some idiosyncratic piece of wisdom coming from the mind of a child.

Sadly, once we enter the hectic life of the classroom the ideas of students tend to take a back seat to standards and units of study. Schools and districts are under enormous pressure to achieve, to test well. This means kids must be able to perform at a level comparable to other children of the same age. A teacher who cares about the success of her students has little time to concentrate on the quirky ideas of each individual kid – especially when it comes to core academic subjects like reading.

It’s not that paying attention to literacy standards is a bad idea; wise curriculum is critical for a good reading class. Indeed, we wouldn’t be doing our job as educators if our 4th graders finished the year without knowing the stuff 4th graders are supposed to know. But the truth is most students are raised on a steady diet of clever comprehension questions, formulated by teachers or commercial programs. The result is that kids – even those who do well on state tests – often have a hard time knowing how to approach a complex text when there is no one there to tell them what to think about.

Over the last several years I’ve had the good fortune to explore this issue with many courageous teachers. What we’ve realized is that at least some of our time in reading class should be devoted to teaching kids to recognize, name, and extend their own ideas about what they read.

To do this well means getting back to that original passion which all teachers share. We need to allow ourselves the time and space to be fascinated with what our students think. This means when we ask them to comment on a story or an informational text that we listen for the most interesting part of what they say and ask them to say more about that, rather than quickly going on to the next child – or jumping in with our own agenda. And lo and behold, when kids do reading work based on their own thinking they are more engaged, more independent, and willing to take on new challenges. The classroom takes on a whole different sort of buzz. In other words, the rigor goes up, not down – and it carries over into whole class curriculum work as well.

In Reading Projects, Reimagined, I’ve laid out a series of steps for teachers to use in individual reading conferences so their students can engage in rigorous work based on their own thinking. My hope is that these sorts of conferences will help create joyful, independent student readers who are just as good at coming up with their own ideas about books as they are at answering questions on tests.

Dan is speaking at the Literacy for All conference in Providence, RI on Monday, November 16. His sessions include:

  • Reading Projects, Reimagined Workshop: Student-Driven Conferences to Deepen Critical Thinking
  • Practical Punctuation: Teaching Mechanics in the Writing Workshop

Dan Feigelson is an international literacy consultant who has led institutes, workshops, and lab-sites around the world on the teaching of reading and writing. He worked extensively in New York City schools for 27 years as a principal, local superintendent, network leader, staff developer, curriculum writer, and teacher.  An early member of the Teachers College Writing Project, Dan served as a fellow at the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning where he helped develop literacy standards for New York and other cities. A regular presenter at national and international conferences, Dan is the author of Reading Projects Reimagined: Student-Driven Conferences to Deepen Critical Thinking (Heinemann 2015), and Practical Punctuation: Lessons In Rule Making And Rule Breaking For Elementary Writers (Heinemann, 2008).

Five Ways to Create a Digital Reading Workshop

danajohansen1by Guest Blogger Dana Johansen, 2015 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker, Teacher, and Author

My reading workshop has transformed over the past five years- now it is digital. Have I tossed out students’ reading notebooks? No, of course not! Have I removed all the books in my classroom library and bought ebooks? No, students need printed books. Does a digital workshop mean that all my assignments are online? No. It’s a balance. My students have spiral reading notebooks and digital reading notebooks. They have a three-ring binder and an online folder. There is a harmonic balance of blending everything I hold dear (real books, fresh new chart paper, spiral notebooks and pencils) with technology that supports learning (Google Docs, KidsBlog, and Twitter).

My digital reading workshop is a blended-learning environment, which Catlin R. Tucker describes as a hybrid style of learning in which educators “combine traditional face-to-face instruction with an online component” (11). This teaching approach allows me to meet the needs of all my learners. I have found that it increases engagement, provides greater opportunities for individualized learning, and creates spaces for collaboration and participation. The Common Core State Standards call for students to read complex texts, identify literary elements, and read a variety of texts, both print-based and digital. My digital reading workshop helps me achieve these goals.

The following scene is a snapshot of what my digital reading workshop looks like in action. The purpose of this lesson is for my fifth grade students to transfer the strategy work they did with the digital text, Pixar’s La Luna, to the print-based text, My Ol’ Man by Patricia Polacco.

“I’m impressed by all the thinking we’ve been doing!” I say to my class. “We’ve been learning how to identify symbols in our reading. Yesterday, we talked about one strategy for noticing symbols. It was, “Noticing objects that are important to the characters.” If you look up here at our class chart, we created a list of the symbols we noticed in the short film, La Luna. So let’s see. Leah noticed that the little boy’s hat was important to him and Mira noticed that the broom was important to him. You can see that we created a long list of possible symbols in La Luna.”

“After we generated a list of ideas, you wrote on our blog. I was excited to read your posts about what these objects might symbolize. I noticed that some of you accessed the digital charts in your digital folders and reviewed what we talked about in class before writing your blog posts. Good strategy! Your posts revealed some thoughtful interpretations!”

“Today, we are going to think about La Luna some more and connect our strategy work about symbols to the book My Ol’ Man by Patricia Polacco. This will give us more practice today looking for symbols in texts and making connections between texts.”

After reading My Ol’ Man to the whole class, I ask my students to talk with their reading partners about the symbols they found. I also ask them to connect their interpretations about these symbols to those from La Luna. After students meet and talk, we come back as a whole class and discuss. Using a combination of digital texts and print-based texts helps my students learn to read across a variety of texts, use the strategies they’ve learned to identify the literary elements, and construct interpretations about what they’ve found.

Here are five ways that you can create a digital reading workshop experience in your classroom:

  1. Virtual Reading Logs– Having students use an online reading log or book list can save paper and time. I do not have my fifth graders log their pages each day but I do require them to keep a list of the books they’ve read. Each student has a Google Doc that is shared with me. Students cannot lose their list and can access it easily.
  2. Tweet Authors– Tweeting authors live during your reading lessons is a great way to connect your readers to the global community. Take a moment during a minilesson to ask students if they have any questions for the author and then tweet. I like to print out the authors’ answers and post them on a bulletin board in the classroom for students to reread throughout the year.
  3. Blogging– Creating a classroom blog provides an excellent space for students to collaborate and participate. It also improves readers’ writing skills. Grant Wiggins discusses the importance of creating authentic writing experiences for students. He says, “By introducing a real purpose, a real audience– hence, consequences– we get the feedback we desperately need to become good writers” (33). Blogging provides a real audience for our readers, and in turn, helps them become better writers.
  4. Classroom Charts– Posting pictures of your classroom charts to your classroom website, blog, or a shared Google Folder is a great resource for your students. No longer do you need to keep all those charts hanging in the classroom. Students can refer to them online. Plus, they can access them at home. This is a terrific way to make your workshop digital.
  5. Digital Bins– Creating a text set of digital texts is a great way for students to read across texts and use the strategies they’ve learned in class. Plus, it is really fun! Imagine creating a symbolism digital bin with two photographs, an advertisement, and a short film. Students can use the strategies they’ve been taught in class to identify symbols and construct interpretations. To create a digital bin and learn more about them, visit


Cherry-Paul, S. & Johansen, D. (2014). Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Richardson, W. (2006). Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and other Powerful Tools for Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Tucker, C. R. (2012). Blended Learning in grades 4-12: Leveraging the Power of Technology to Create Student-Centered Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Wiggins, G. (2009). Real-World Writing: Making Purpose and Audience Matter. English Journal, 98(2), 29–37.

Dana’s bio:

Dana has taught elementary and middle school for fourteen years. She currently teaches fifth grade in Connecticut and is earning her doctorate in Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Dedicated to the ever-expanding applications of technology in the classroom, Dana is a literacy consultant who presents on Flipped Learning, the Digital Reading Workshop, and STEM in the English Language Arts classroom. Passionate about this work, her first book, Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning, co-authored with Sonja Cherry-Paul, helps educators use technology in exciting new ways to teach students how to interpret the literary elements and do close reading.

Follow Dana on Twitter @LitLearnAct or visit her at

Dana’s Literacy for All conference sessions include:

  • Digital Bins: Creating Digital Text Sets (Grades 3-8)
  • Power Blogging: Strengthening Students’ Reading Responses, Independent Writing, and Book Clubs (Grades 3–8)

Five Keys to Power Up Talk About Reading in Your Classroom

3.20.15 Irene Fountas Photoby Irene Fountas, Author and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University

The amount of talk your students do each day in your classroom matters. Your students’ talk about reading reveals and expands their thinking. A set of learned behaviors and talk structures will provide rich opportunities for deep thinking and valuable learning about texts that will serve your students for a lifetime.

How many opportunities are there for meaningful talk about reading in your classroom? Of course I don’t mean just increasing the number of times or the amount of talk, but increasing opportunities for the kind of focused talk that promotes deeper understandings and new ways of thinking and conversing about texts.

Think about the following five ways that you can build a culture of thoughtful talk in your classroom.

1. Help your students understand that reading is thinking and that when they talk, they share their thinking and learn from the thinking of others.

When students are in a classroom environment that promotes reading as thinking, they learn to bring together their own thinking with the writer’s thinking and with the thinking of others. They take risks by sharing their voices and build a richer understanding of a text than any one reader can get for himself.

2. Teach your students to turn and talk effectively with each other.

Turn and talk is a structured opportunity for your students to share their thinking and learn from the thinking of their peers. When students turn and talk, every student gets the opportunity to talk.

Help your students learn how to turn and talk first with a partner and then in threes or fours in ways that are productive. Be sure to help them learn how to get started right away, to look each other in the eyes when talking and to listen attentively to the speaker. Model how to respond to and build on what the speaker said in a way that results in authentic dialogue that accomplishes richer thinking not just random talk.

Consider having your students turn and talk during interactive read aloud, reading minilessons, guided reading discussions, literature circles, whole group share as well as during lessons in any of the disciplines.

3. Give your students wait time and teach them to give each other wait time.

Wait time gives a person a little time to process. Help your students develop patience with a little wait time for their peers and be sure you model doing the same. Often a little wait time is followed by evidence of good thinking that is well articulated. Wait time is think time. Your students can develop the kind of sensitivity to each other that is supportive to each other’s learning.

4. Demonstrate through your talk the kind of language that fosters equal participation, respect for each other’s thinking, and promotes building on each other’s ideas.

Your language provides a model for the productive talk your students need to engage in with each other. Your tone of respect and patience and the careful modeling of language that promotes analysis becomes the language that your students will use with each other. It creates an expectation for the kind of talk about reading that is valued in their classroom.

Be sure to demonstrate and prompt your students to support their thinking with personal experience or evidence from the text. Invite a variety of perspectives and encourage your students to notice the writer’s decisions. Encourage inquiry through genuine curiosity about the content of the text and the craft of the writer. Use language or prompts such as:

  • What made you think that?
  • Is there another way of think about that?
  • What was the writer really trying to say?
  • I noticed the writer ……..
  • I didn’t think about that so now I am wondering…
  • Talk more about that.
  • I want to understand how….
  • What do you notice about the way the writer….?

5. Listen carefully to your students and set the norm with them that they listen attentively and respectfully to each other.

A good listener can understand the speaker better and respond better than one who is always thinking about what he wants to say next. Teach your students to listen actively to each other to honor each other’s thinking and respond in precise ways to one’s ideas. Encourage them to share their thinking generously and graciously with their peers and be sure to invite the thinking of each member of their group. To help the group develop their talk power, be sure to plan for them to evaluate the quality of the talk and their participation.

When you power up the talk about reading in your classroom, your students will take all their rich thinking to their writing about reading. They will develop essential tools for a lifetime of successful literacy.

If you’d like to learn more about how to support student comprehension through talk, we have sessions at the upcoming 2015 Literacy for All conference! You can also view the full brochure to see the entire conference schedule and workshop listings.

Moving Beyond Modeling with Student-Centered Coaching


by Guest Blogger Diane Sweeney, author of Student-Centered Coaching and Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

Imagine you hired a tennis coach to help you improve your game. Then you showed up for the first lesson and he suggested that you observe as he played for the next hour. You’d probably ask for your money back. What if he suggested that he spend the hour observing you? He’ll take some notes and then the two of you will go through it later. Again, you’d be wondering why you are paying this guy. What if he suggested that you focus on your game and, since you are so busy, he will help you out by picking up your balls? You would be wondering when this guy actually planned to provide you with some coaching. By now you may have recognized some of the most common practices used by literacy coaches; modeling, observing, and serving as a resource provider. While each of these methods offers some value to teachers, there are other ways we can take coaching to the next level.

Most of us would define a good coach as someone who helps you get better at your game. Someone who is on the court, by your side, making sure you reach your goals. When we model an entire lesson, it assumes that transfer is as easy as watching and doing. This can lead to an uneven relationship that puts the teacher in a passive role. On the other hand, observing teachers may feel more like evaluation than coaching. If my tennis coach took this approach, I’d be anxiously wondering what he really thought, if I looked silly, or if I was on the right track in my game. Then again, when we serve as resource providers, we are being helpful at the expense of coaching. There is no question that teachers are overwhelmed and busy. But this is all the more reason to get in there and coach the teachers towards their goals for teaching and learning.

Four Strategies for Co-Teaching

Co-teaching is an untapped strategy that provides coachable moments throughout a lesson. It is a dynamic process in which the teacher and coach work together to move student learning forward. In a classroom where co-teaching is occurring, it’s hard to tell who the teacher is and who the coach is, because both are engaged and involved partners in the delivery of the lesson. To get there, the teacher and coach develop a shared vision through co-planning and then work side-by-side to ensure that they get the results they are looking for. The following strategies for co-teaching create partnerships that are the hallmark of student-centered coaching.

#1: Noticing and Naming

Noticing happens when a teacher and coach are actively tuned in and looking for evidence of student learning. Naming happens in the explicit use of this information, either on the spot or planning after the lesson, to make decisions about what the students need next. For example, the coach and teacher may engage in discussions with a group of students to uncover their thinking, listen in as students discuss their learning with peers, note what the students are independently reading and writing, or all of the above. The key is for the coach and teacher to collect evidence that will inform future instructional decision-making. Evidence may include observational data, conference notes, short assignments, exit slips, notes from student-led discussions, student reflections on their own learning, or a myriad of other ways wherein we monitor student learning as it happens.

#2: Micro Modeling

While we haven’t banished modeling from our coaching practice, we like to use it in targeted and strategic ways. A good tennis coach models certain aspects of the game, such as how to serve the ball or play backhand. The key is to model what’s needed in the moment, rather than the whole game. When planning the lesson, the coach may ask, “What would you like to do? And what would you like me to do?” For example, a coach may model the send off at the end of a mini lesson, demonstrate a few reading conferences, or teach a think aloud. The objective is for the modeling to directly connect to the goal the teacher has set. This ensures that the coach is supporting the teacher in a way that will have an impact on future lessons.

#3: Thinking Aloud

We can’t underestimate how much decision-making occurs throughout a lesson. When a coach or teacher thinks aloud, they make their thinking visible by sharing their thoughts and instructional decisions as they happen. Many teachers are comfortable using think aloud to share their thinking with the students. We suggest for coaches and teachers to use the same practice when they are co-teaching. Thinking aloud also provides opportunities to address coachable moments rather than waiting until a future planning conversation. Examples of thinking aloud include; real-time problem-solving, clarifying vocabulary, supporting student engagement, or adjusting the pacing of the lesson to better align with the needs of the students.

#4: Teaching in Tandem

With this move, the coach and teacher deliver a lesson as partners rather than as individuals. Like the others, this strategy requires co-planning so that the teacher and coach are clear about the instructional practices that will be used to move student learning forward. When co-planning, the teacher and coach think about how they will maintain high levels of engagement, how they will differentiate and formatively assess, and strategies for managing behavior. When you think about all the factors that go into a successful lesson, teaching in tandem starts sounding like a great idea.

In Closing

I’ve modeled a lot of lessons over the years. In fact, when I started as a coach, I did little else. I’d teach what I thought was a fabulous lesson and then wonder why I didn’t see it transfer to what teachers did in their classrooms. Needless to say, this is a bit embarrassing to admit now. Using a variety of strategies for co-teaching has helped me create more coachable moments with teachers. We are on the court together, working through all of the details that add up to high-quality teaching and learning.

A short video on co-teaching:

Diane Sweeney is the author of Student-Centered Coaching, Student-Centered Coaching at the Secondary Level, and Learning Along the Way (Stenhouse, 2003) has been an educator for over twenty years. Diane holds a longstanding interest in how adult learning translates to learning in the classroom. Currently she is a consultant serving schools and districts throughout the US and abroad. For more information, please visit

Diane is speaking at the Literacy for All Conference in Providence, RI:

Monday, November 16, 2015:

  • Student-Centered Learning Labs

Tuesday, November 17, 2015:

  • Building a Culture for Student-Centered Coaching and Collaboration  
  • What is Student-Centered Coaching?

Differentiation for English Learners

by Guest Blogger Lindsey Moses, Author and 2015 Literacy for All Conference Speaker

Differentiation seems to be quite the educational buzzword, and it should be. Essentially, all teachers should be differentiating for their students. No two students or two classes are the same. Although there are similarities, students come in with a wide range of skills and background knowledge from which to build on for effective, targeted instruction right in their Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky 1978). Although this makes sense and most teachers already know this, the question is really about logistics: What does differentiation look like? How do I do it? How do I differentiate for my English learners?

Variations on Differentiation

I consider four variations of differentiation when planning instruction to support English learners in literacy. I will briefly discuss the four models described by Opitz and Ford (2008) in Doable Differentiation. Then, I will go on to talk about the more complex and complicated differentiation techniques presented by Tomlinson’s (2001) extensive work with differentiation. I will then address Serafini’s (2012) differentiation considerations model. I will share with you my suggestions for differentiation according to language proficiency stages. Finally, I always quote Tim Gunn and encourage you to “Make it work!” Differentiation should be about adjusting instruction to optimally meet the needs of diverse learners. No one model will work perfectly in every classroom, so basically, I encourage you to differentiate the differentiation models for yourselves.

There are entire books on differentiation, so I will only give a brief overview here. Opitz and Ford (2008) present four models for differentiation: grouping without tracking; jigsaw; connected literature circles; and focused readers’ workshop. Each model considers ways to differentiate according to text, grouping and support. Tomlinson (2001) presents a more complex process as she recommends differentiation through content, process, product, and affect/environment according to students’ readiness, interest, and learning profile. She advocates creating a high-interest activity, charting it along a complexity ladder, and then cloning the activity along the ladder to meet the needs of individual learners. Serafini (2012) argues that differentiation is really a matter of differentiating (or modifying) texts, teaching, tasks, time, talk, and/or context.

Differentiation for English Learners

The previously mentioned models are designed for classrooms without a specific focus on English learners. In order to support English learners, we must understand the stages of language proficiency and general ideas for differentiation at each stage. The following chart gives a general overview.

Stages of Language Proficiency Description Implications for Literacy Instruction
Stage 1: Preproduction

Silent Period (Starting)

Students are in a silent period in which they listen, but do not speak in English. They may respond using nonverbal cues in attempt to communicate basic needs. The teacher and other students should model oral reading. Students in the silent period should not be forced to speak, but should be given the opportunity to try, if they want, in a group activity where they won’t be singled out.
Stage 2:

Early Production (Emerging)

Students are beginning to understand more oral language. They respond using one- or two-word phrases and start to produce simple sentences for basic social interactions and to meet basic needs. Teacher and students should continue to model oral reading. Students should be encouraged to begin taking risks with simple, rehearsed reading and discussion in non-threatening situations.
Stage 3:

Speech Emergence (Developing)

Students’ listening comprehension improves, and they can understand written English. Students are fairly comfortable engaging in social conversations using simple sentences, but they are just beginning to develop their academic language proficiency. Students continue to learn through modeling.   Students should be participating in whole-class, small group, partner, and rehearsed reading, writing and discussion activities. They will need support and opportunities to practice with feedback before independent or paired sharing or reading for an audience.
Stage 4: Intermediate Fluency


Students understand and frequently use conversational English with relatively high accuracy. Their academic vocabulary is expanding, but they still need support with contextualization of abstract concepts. They are able to communicate their ideas in both oral and written contexts. With scaffolding, students can successfully participate in most all literacy activities that native-speakers are expected to complete. Open-ended questions will allow students to demonstrate comprehension and academic language development.
Stage 5:

Advanced Fluency (Bridging)

Students comprehend and engage in conversational and academic English with proficiency. They perform near grade-level in reading, writing, and other content areas. Students should be encouraged to use higher-level thinking skills during their oral reading. They are near native-like proficiency in oral reading, but may still need support with analyzing, inferring and evaluating

Adapted from Supporting English Learners in the Reading Workshop (Moses, 2015)

Building on all of these models, I created a differentiation-planning chart specifically for teachers of English learners. It is organized according to language proficiency levels. I encourage you to think about the teacher roles (how you can modify instruction to support English learners) and students’ expectations (what you can realistically expect your English learners to do and work toward).

English Learner Differentiation Planning Chart

Stages of Language Proficiency Teacher Roles English Learner Expectations/Performance
Stage 1: Preproduction

Silent Period (Starting)

Stage 2:

Early Production (Emerging)

Stage 3:

Speech Emergence (Developing)

Stage 4: Intermediate Fluency


Stage 5:

Advanced Fluency (Bridging)

I suggest starting with a general whole-class anchor lesson and then planning teacher roles and English learner expectations based on what we know about the options for differentiation and stages of language proficiency. Putting language acquisition at the forefront of instructional differentiation considerations presents optimal growth opportunities for English learners.


Moses, Lindsey. 2015. Supporting English Learners in the Reading Workshop. Portsmouth, NH:


Opitz, Michael F. and Michael Ford. 2008. Doable Differentiation: Varying Groups,

Texts and Supports to Reach Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Serafini, Frank. 2012. “What Are We Differentiating in Differentiated Instruction?”

Journal of the Reading Association of Ireland. Fall Issue: 12-16.

Tomlinson, Carol A. 2001. How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability

Classrooms. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA.

Vygotsky, Lev. 1978. Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lindsay Moses will be speaking on Monday, November 16 and Tuesday, November 17 at the Literacy for All conference in Providence, RI. Her sessions are entitled, “Supporting English Learners in the Reading Workshop” and “Supporting English Learners in the Mainstream Classroom.”