Within any classroom is a wide range of student ability. Some learners are far above grade level, while others lag behind. This is normal and expected in an educational system that groups students by age.
As a teacher, you need to meet the needs of the students in your class, no matter their abilities, but the question is how do you do this? Better yet, how can you do so effectively and strategically, without spending extra hours at school after your students have left for the day? A little extra planning, and knowing when to ask for help, will streamline the teaching process when it comes to addressing learner variability.
Before we get started, it’s important to clearly define what is meant by addressing learner variability, and what it looks like in the classroom. Check out this video by Digital Promise which will help you understand learner variability. It will also help you to better incorporate the ideas from this blog post to your teaching style.
Teachers, you spend day after day with your students. You know their respective strengths, weaknesses, and needs. Use this information to your advantage when planning lessons by differentiating intentionally with groups of learners in mind. If you’re often finding that lessons are too easy for some students and more challenging for others, differentiation will surely help your teaching practice and your learners.
With any given lesson, differentiate based on a trio — struggling, average, and advanced. Modify the lesson for those who will struggle by placing instructional scaffolds in place. These could be images, sentence starters, or language frames — anything that will help learners better understand the content and successfully complete the task at hand. For those students in the middle, less intensive scaffolds may be helpful. These students may also benefit from independent or partner practice. More advanced students, the ones who complete their work quickly and often become bored or disruptive, will benefit from extension activities. Have them continue the activity in greater depth by reflecting on what they’ve learned, applying the thinking to a new concept, or teaching their new skills to a struggling partner. The opportunities are endless! Beginning with the differentiation trio can open up opportunities to differentiate in other ways, depending on the specific needs of your learners.
A great way to ensure you’re meeting students where they are is to have them participate in student-centered activities. When the classroom shifts from being teacher-centered to student-focused, students are more engaged and invested in their learning. Plus, students are constructing their own knowledge, which is a more effective way to learn.
Provide opportunities for students to work with their peers toward a common goal. Students should need to rely on each other to achieve their task, so be sure to assign students roles and clear expectations through direct instruction; this will help keep collaboration and cooperation from becoming a free-for-all or, alternatively, a time for some students to check out while their partners do everything. Activities such as think-pair-share, chalk talk, and jigsaw are easy ways to shift the focus in your classroom and encourage students to take ownership of their learning. Games and problem-solving activities are especially effective for cultivating collaborative and critical thinking skills in young students.
Leave nothing to chance; instead, use age- and grade-level appropriate language to describe to students exactly what their purpose, aim, or objective is. Explain the objective at the start of the lesson. Give students a rationale for why this learning is taking place. Refer back to the objective throughout the lesson to check for understanding. Students who have mastered the day’s objective should be able to articulate or otherwise demonstrate their mastery. Writing the instructional objective in student-friendly language is especially beneficial for younger students. Encourage them to use the language themselves by repeating the objective after you or filling in intentional pauses at key vocabulary.
Using objectives is also a great way to incorporate spiral review — periodically revisiting material that students have mastered — into your teaching practice. Consider starting each lesson with a review of the previous day’s objectives. This will help to keep the material you’re teaching fresh in your students’ minds.
In addition to instructional objectives, language objectives are particularly helpful for learners with language differences. Language objectives, when paired with instructional objectives, tell students how you want them to complete their objective — that is, using which language domain. For example, students will identify parts of the body through speaking in complete sentences. Including instructional and language objectives as a regular practice is helpful for students of all abilities.
All learners have preferred methods of receiving input, whether they are auditory, visual, kinesthetic, or written. In your lesson planning, make sure to include as many learning preferences as you realistically can. Make it a point to vary your instructional delivery to ensure all learning preferences are addressed. We teachers tend to rely heavily on our own learning preferences when creating lessons, so it’s important to periodically take stock of which preferences are addressed frequently and mix things up a bit.
Not only will the inclusion of different learning preferences reach a variety of learners, it will make your classroom instruction more exciting, especially if you tend to use the same methods all the time. Get your students up and moving for physical learning opportunities. If you always explain directions orally, consider providing them in picture form and having students “read” the images and translate them into words. Always consider adding an image when you’re speaking to students in order to better reach those visual learners.
Lastly, for students with more profound needs, consult the specialists in your school. Students with learning disabilities or physical impairments or who read far below grade level may be in need of serious intervention. The special education teacher or reading interventionist will likely create specific goals for the neediest of students. Meet these students at their level by working with them in small groups or providing them with individual instruction. Get creative with lessons for these few students by tying their goals into your instruction as often as you can. The more intensive, targeted instruction these students receive, the better chance they have of making gains. Invite the specialists into your classroom to assist these students often. Their presence in your classroom can free you up to better meet the needs of all of your students.
In today’s diverse world, it’s no wonder that classrooms are equally as diverse. Our students come to us with varying degrees of social, emotional, cognitive, language, and physical abilities. We must take all of these differences into account in order to best meet students where they are. Not only will this improve your practice as a teacher, but your students will learn more quickly and effectively as a result.
If you are looking to learn more about addressing learner variability (or personalizing your classroom), then taking an online course may be what you are looking for. Sign up for Wisewire’s online course on Edmodo. It covers the topic of learner variability and will help you set the foundation for applying research-based strategies to address learner needs in your classroom (you may earn up to 1.5 hours of PD credit as well).
Nanda Krish is Executive Chairman of Wisewire, a learning experience design company that develops smart technology solutions and easy to use standards aligned content for K-12 schools and higher education institutions. Mr. Krish is also a General Partner at Start Smart Labs, a silicon valley big data business incubator for startups that are developing data intensive applications for the US enterprise market.