3 Ways to Differentiate Your Science of Reading Centers

Differentiation and the Science of Reading?! This post is like my pedagogical dream!!! Over the last month, I have introduced you to the key components of the Science of Reading and shared some ideas on how to quickly and efficiently use them in your classrooms.

In this post, we will incorporate the Science of Reading into our differentiated literacy groups. The beauty of this routine is that small group learning is practically made for the Science of Reading!!!

Before We Begin…

Before starting, make sure to check out this post to learn how to get your differentiated literacy centers up and running.

The first step to differentiating is of course to set up your groups. In order to do that, you need to assess your students, place them into groups, and set goals for each group.

Looking for an easy way to assess your students’ phonics skills?

Download this FREE phonics assessment!!!

It includes a student copy, a teacher copy, and a scoring guide.

The Science of Reading has five components: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Although all five are important to a child’s overall success, I would address them in the following order: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. In other words, address any concerns with phonics before tackling comprehension or vocabulary. I am NOT saying that comprehension and vocabulary are not just as important, but if a child cannot decode the words on the page, it is going to be near impossible to understand a text to its fullest, even with pictures and context clues. (The Science of Reading research backs this up.)

For those of you who know me, you know that differentiated instruction is kind of my thing. There are so many ways to differentiate, whether by skill or level or perhaps even by learning modality. Today, we will dive into my top three ways to differentiate all while incorporating the Science of Reading.

1) Differentiate by Target Skill

This is probably my favorite way to group students. Rather than solely grouping by level, I group by skill. These skills are directly from the Science of Reading, so they should include one of the five Science of Reading components.

In primary grades, I typically group students based on their target phonics skills. For example, in a first-grade classroom, one group may work on fluency, another group may work on multi-syllable words using long vowels, a third group on consonant digraphs, and a fourth on CVC words or perhaps even phonemic awareness. My point here is that each group is working on a specific phonics skill in all of their rotations. Take a look at the table below to see an example schedule.

Target Skill GroupStation 1:
Teacher Lesson
Station 2:
Station 3:
Partner Work
FluencyFluency StrategiesOnline Reading Practice (RazKids, Epic, etc.)Differentiated Fluency Passages
Multi-Syllable WordsSegmenting and BlendingNearpod Games with Multi-Syllable Words PracticePhonics Printable Worksheets
Consonant DigraphsSpelling and Decoding Consonant DigraphsConsonant Digraphs Nearpod GamesConsonant Digraphs Printable Worksheets

Try the free sample!
CVC WordsShort Vowels and Elkonin BoxesCVC Nearpod GamesCVC Printable Activities
Sample Primary Grade Literacy Centers

In the upper grades, the Science of Reading skills will look different, but the same routine can be used. For instance, each group could perhaps work on a different component of the Science of Reading. For instance, perhaps your MLLs (students learning English as a second language) may be working on vocabulary, your reading intervention group may be working on phonics, perhaps another group on fluency, and a fourth group on reading comprehension. Again, the table below shows a sample of what this could look like.

Target Skill GroupStation 1:
Teacher Lesson
Station 2:
Station 3:
Partner Work
PhonicsPhonics Lesson

Try this free assessment.
R-Controlled Vowels Nearpod GamesDifferentiated Phonics and Fluency Passages
FluencyFluency StrategiesOnline Learning PlatformReading Workshop
Partner Read
VocabularyContent-Specific Vocabulary from your CurriculumOnline Learning Platform (i.e. Lexia, Imagine Learning, etc.)Vocabulary Activities and Graphic Organizers
ComprehensionGraphic OrganizersOnline Reading Platform (i.e. Freckle, Epic, etc.)Book Clubs
Sample Upper-Grade Literacy Centers

The reason I like grouping by skill is because it allows me to really hone in on what each individual group needs. I have found that you get more “bang for your buck” and therefore, see more progress this way.

2) Differentiate by Reading Level

This is a more traditional approach. First, you will need an assessment to identify your students’ reading levels. From there, you can group according to those levels. Regarding the Science of Reading, if you go about differentiating by level, you can make each rotation target a different component. (This is similar to the idea behind Daily 5.)

These components can be switched either daily or weekly. They could also be changed based on formative or summative assessments. The beauty of this routine is that each group, regardless of level, can work on as many Science of Reading components as you deem fit. You could have them work on all five components every day or every week. The choice is yours! Take a look at the primary and upper-grade sample schedules below. In these samples, I included three components, but just know that you can include as many as you wish.

Leveled GroupsStation 1:
Teacher Lesson
Station 2:
Station 3:
Above Grade LevelPoint of ViewMulti-Syllable WordsDifferentiated
Phonics Passages
At Grade LevelMain IdeaPrefixes and SuffixesDifferentiated
Phonics Passages
Near Grade LevelRetellingRe-Teach Current Phonics SkillDifferentiated
Phonics Passages
Below Grade LevelExplicit InformationCVC WordsDifferentiated
Phonics Passages
Sample Primary Grade Literacy Centers

The hardest part about differentiating? The prep and time that are involved!!!

Let me do the prep for you.

Grab these no-prep differentiated fluency passages.

There is a passage for each phonics skill (short vowels, consonant digraphs, long vowels, magic E, r-controlled vowels, and diphthongs). Each skill includes four levels.

Leveled GroupsStation 1:
Comprehension Lesson
Station 2:
Word Study/Phonics
Station 3:
Above Grade LevelAuthor’s PurposeRoot WordsPartner Read
Book Clubs
At Grade LevelInferencingPrefixes and SuffixesPartner Read
Book Clubs
Near Grade LevelSummarizingMulti-Syllable WordsPartner Read
Book Clubs
Below Grade LevelMain IdeaTargeted Phonics SkillPartner Read
Book Clubs
Sample Upper-Grade Literacy Centers

3) Differentiate by Learning Modality

The last way to differentiate is by learning modality. The benefit of this routine is that it allows for student voice and choice. There is even an opportunity here to ask students how they learn best. Once you have discovered each student’s learning modality, it is time to group them up!

What I would do is have each day of the week target a different component of the Science of Reading. For instance, in an upper-grade classroom, I may have Monday and Wednesday target comprehension; Tuesday would focus on Vocabulary; Thursday on fluency; and Friday would be dedicated to word study or phonics. In a primary-grade classroom, I would dedicate each day to one of the five components (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension). Take a look at the sample schedule below. This one targets comprehension.

GroupsStation 1:
Teacher Lesson
Station 2:
Independent Work
Station 3:
Partner Work
AuditoryTeacher Read AloudListening CenterBook Club Discussion
VisualGraphic OrganizersOnline Videos“Book Ends”
(book report-type art activities)
KinestheticReader’s TheaterTask Cards
(i.e. scoot games)
Outdoor Learning
(i.e. Book Clubs)
TactileSketch NotesManipualtivesLearning Games
Sample Literacy Centers Targeting Comprehension

“Differentiation made easy” is kind of my catchphrase, if you will. It stems from multiple conversations with educators about what is holding them back from differentiated instruction. Time. A lack of time is a common hurdle that educators face when planning small-group instruction but I am here to help. I can make differentiated centers manageable. With the ideas I have mentioned here, you can not only implement the Science of Reading but help reach every learner in your classroom.

Next month, we will focus on bringing some Halloween fun to your literacy instruction. Stay tuned!!!

The Science of Reading in a Real Life Classroom
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The Science of Reading in a Real Life Classroom

In my last post, we discussed the top three things you should know about the Science of Reading. When I first learned about this topic, I asked myself what many of you may be thinking at this very moment…NOW WHAT?!!!

I hear you. It’s one thing to learn about a teaching philosophy or strategy in theory, but actually putting it into practice is a whole different story. If you know me, you know that I absolutely love to learn. An optional PD? I’m there! An online course? Where do I sign up?

The one issue I have with learning new teaching ideas is sometimes, they are not always practical. As teachers, we know how intensely busy our jobs can be. Once we get into our “real-life”, day-to-day work schedules, it can be challenging to implement some of the new strategies we learn in those PDs.

That’s where this post comes in…I want to share how you can quickly and easily implement the Science of Reading into your classroom, whether you teach primary or upper grades.

The body of work referred to as the “science of reading” is not an ideology, a philosophy, a political agenda, a one-size-fits-all approach, a program of instruction, not a specific component of instruction. It is the emerging consensus from many related disciplines, based on literally thousands of studies, supported by hundreds of millions of research dollars, conducted across the world in many languages.

Dr. Louisa Moats

The beauty of the Science of Reading is that it can be incorporated into any lesson in any subject. It is not a curriculum. It is not subject-specific. It is especially important to note that as elementary teachers, we should be including literacy instruction throughout the day rather than just during language arts.

Therefore, I would like to focus on how to use the Science of Reading to develop a quick, 15-minute warm-up that can be used for any lesson in any subject. This is an idea that I have used for years in a real-life classroom. I have used it in both primary and upper grades, so I can vouch for its manageability and effectiveness.

When I plan a “Science of Reading” warm-up, I divide it into three parts: Vocabulary, Fluency, and Comprehension.


I always start my mini-lessons with a “Big Idea Question”. This question is the question the students need to be able to answer by the end of the lesson. It can also be the student objective. When I write these objectives/questions, I make sure to include as much vocabulary as possible. So much research has found that vocabulary has a significant impact on a student’s reading comprehension. Therefore, we need to include it in our lessons as often as possible.

I know what you’re thinking…vocabulary has always been taught in schools! Yes, you are correct. However, I have a slightly different take on vocabulary instruction. In order to master new vocabulary, students must be able to use it authentically in not only their writing but also their verbal communication. In order to achieve mastery, students must practice using vocabulary over and over again. Therefore, rather than only including vocabulary at the start and end of the unit, we must give students several chances to encounter these new words throughout the year in a variety of subjects. They must practice using this vocabulary in written responses, academic discussions, partner work, and so on.

In order to truly understand how to help our students’ vocabularies grow, we must first understand the three types of vocabulary:

  • Tier 1 Conversational: This vocabulary includes basic words that are commonly used in everyday conversations. Although important, especially for students who are learning English, we will not be going over this tier in today’s blog post.
  • Tier 2 Academic: I absolutely love teaching this tier of vocabulary! Why? You get the most bang for your buck. This vocabulary includes words that appear in multiple subjects. I often like to think of words that students will encounter in academic instructions. It is always so surprising to me how challenging some of these words can be. We as teachers, myself included, sometimes assume students know what it means to define a word. For instance, “definition” has the same meaning as “define”; it is just a different part of speech. This does not come naturally to students; it must be explicitly taught.
  • Tier 3 Content-Specific: This vocabulary tier includes words that are specific to each subject or topic. I have found that these are the words typically included in curriculum units, as the vocab in those lists is created with the purpose of understanding the included text.

Now what?! You may be wondering what I do with all of this information. When I write my daily Big Idea Questions and student objectives, I try to include BOTH academic and content-specific vocabulary.

When I introduce new vocabulary words, I make sure to include them in as many Big Idea Questions as possible. This includes questions and objectives in multiple subjects. For example, if I introduce the word “describe” in social studies, I will include it in my objectives for math, science, and language arts later that same week. This way, students will engage with the word several times after seeing it for the first time. This allows me to use a gradual release when it comes to defining the word. Perhaps the first time we see it in an objective, I define it and give examples. For the next couple of encounters with the word, I may ask students to define it with a partner or as a class. Eventually, students will define the word on their own while I walk around, checking their definitions. This entire process of identifying and defining words in the Big Idea Questions and/or objectives takes approximately 3 minutes, thereby making it a quick routine that can be repeated throughout the day.


Fluency can and should be practiced on a regular basis. It should also be explicitly taught. I have found that often teachers practice fluency with their classes but do not teach specific strategies. I have three go-to strategies that can be included in a warm-up for any lesson in any subject.

  • Scoop Lines: This strategy shows students where to group words together. When students are not fluent readers, they often read one word at a time. Literate readers’ brains actually are looking at words that have not been read yet. In other words, when a literate reader is reading “describe” (see image below), the brain is actually focusing on the words “the Gold Rush”. This skill must be explicitly taught and practiced. Drawing the scoop lines is a great way to show students how to group words together to avoid reading like a robot. When I use this strategy during the warm-ups in my lessons, I usually start by drawing the lines on the Big Idea and/or objective. Over time, I draw the lines on PART of the objective and then eventually not at all.
  • Color-Coding: This strategy also teaches students how to group words and phrases but this time using color. (This is great for teachers who prep slides ahead of time.) Each color shows a group of words that can be read together. When you are ready for students to color-code their own objectives/text, have them use different color highlighters. Again, over time, reduce the amount of color coding to allow students to group words without support. I often tell students to visualize the colors or scoop lines in their heads.
  • Thus far, the strategies discussed can be used for either whole-class or small-group learning. The last strategy, however, is best for small-group instruction or intervention groups. Mix-and-match is a strategy where students physically cut up sentences and rearrange them before reading them fluently. This is a great hands-on strategy that can help students who are struggling to read fluently.

I include one of these strategies in my warm-up after identifying and defining key vocabulary in the Big Idea Question. Choral or partner reading can quickly be incorporated into every warm-up. First, model the fluency strategy using the Big Idea Question or objective; then, have students practice said strategy by drawing/highlighting (not necessary for every lesson); finally, have the class practice reading fluently either as a class or in pairs. I would suggest starting with a class choral read after first introducing a new fluency strategy. Then, have students practice the next few objectives in pairs. This allows you to walk around and listen to students read so that you might identify which students need fluency intervention.


There are about a million reading comprehension strategies, which makes it difficult to choose which ones to focus on in this post. Although I could go on and on about various strategies, there is one that stands out: graphic organizers. The best part about using graphic organizers is that they can be combined with other strategies, such as Depth and Complexity Icons. However, in this post, I am going to explain how to use graphic organizers to not only support comprehension but also to support another component of the Science of Reading: vocabulary.

The idea behind combining graphic organizers and comprehension is that graphic organizers are only effective if students can use them independently. Although the teacher must first model and explicitly teach each organizer, the ultimate goal is for students to be able to read a text or writing prompt and select the appropriate organizer for the task at hand. How can we teach them how to select the most appropriate graphic organizer? By teaching them vocabulary words that are best suited for each organizer! This teaching strategy is essentially teaching them how to be independent readers, which is the ultimate goal.

How do I get my students to the point where they can choose their own graphic organizers based on a writing prompt or objective?

  1. Model each graphic organizer on its own. For upper grades, I would recommend teaching one organizer per day (Monday-Thursday) and then review all four of them in a gallery walk on Friday. NOTE: It is extremely helpful to teach the organizers BEFORE beginning curriculum. I suggest teaching them with SEL or picture book read alouds. For primary grades, I recommend teaching only one or two organizers a week. Please note that it is not necessary to teach ALL of the organizers before moving on to step two. Sometimes, I only use four organizers for the first half of the school year (especially with younger students).
  2. Ask students to identify vocabulary in the objectives that may give a hint about which organizer to use. (You can also have them identify vocabulary in Big Idea Questions or writing prompts, depending on what you choose to use for your lessons.) Once the “vocab hints” have been identified, ask students to select which organizer would be most appropriate. (See image below for vocabulary words associated with each graphic organizer.)
  3. Allow students to volunteer different graphic organizers that would be appropriate for a given objective. Think “math chat” or “number talk” but with graphic organizers. Once students are comfortable identifying vocabulary words that lend themselves to each graphic organizer (this takes several lessons and several weeks), they are ready for a “graphic organizer chat” if you will. After reading the objective as a class, ask students to identify a few possible graphic organizers based on the “vocabulary hints” in the objective. Then, call on students to share their ideas and record them on the board. After students have shared a few different organizers and how to set them up for the given objective, tell the class that they may choose one of the organizers shown on the board.
  4. Allow students to choose their graphic organizers. This final step should only be included in your lessons once the above steps have been practiced for several weeks. In upper grades, I usually aim to hit this last step by January or Trimester 2. For primary grades, my goal is to reach this last step by Trimester 3. Again, this depends on your grade level. For first grade, for instance, I may not reach this goal until after Spring Break. It is important to also keep in mind that if you teach younger students, you may not necessarily cover EVERY graphic organizer that year.

Want to learn how to introduce this concept during the first couple weeks of school? Read this post!

There you have it! I hope you have learned some quick tips that will help you incorporate the Science of Reading into a warm-up routine that can be used in any subject.

For my next blog post, we will look into how to incorporate the Science of Reading into differentiated small groups. I can’t wait to chat with you then!

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3 Things You Should Know About the Science of Reading

Listen to the podcast.

Teaching reading is rocket science.

Louisa Moats

Yeah, no kidding…the “correct way” to teach reading has long been debated, and it seems like it is becoming a hot topic in the educational community once again. When I was in college, I was once told that education is like a pendulum, swinging from one line of thought, or extreme, to the other. For me, I have often found that somewhere in the middle lies the sweet spot…except when it comes to reading instruction.

This past summer, I was fortunate enough to be asked to assist with a science of reading conference. In doing so, I collaborated with colleagues who are well-versed in reading instruction, read several books about the subject, and presented my findings to educators across the district. I am here to share my takeaways from the experience.

If I were to sum up what I have learned it’s that the process of learning how to read is a complicated one. It heavily relies on explicit phonics instruction but also depends on language comprehension, which includes vocabulary.

The science of reading, like the process of reading itself, is vast and lengthy. Several books are dedicated to this very subject, which I will reference later. What I would like to discuss are three important things you should know when it comes to this topic.

1. The 5 Components

We can’t have a discussion about the science of reading without first identifying its components. The five parts of the science of reading are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. While some components lend themselves to specific grade levels, all of them to some extent can and should be part of every elementary grade. If you are wondering what that looks like, stay tuned for a future post about what the science of reading is like in a real-life classroom. In that post, I will talk about both primary and upper grades. For now, let’s first define each component.

The images above are taken from our CVC line of printables and our line of phonics worksheet packets.

  • Phonemic Awareness: Phonemic awareness is the ability to separate and manipulate sounds. These sounds, or phonemes, are used to create morphemes or units of meaning. An example of a student who is phonemically aware is one who can separate the word “cat” into three sounds and then blend them back together. See examples: printables and Nearpod games.
  • Phonics: Phonics are sets of rules that dictate which letters and letter combinations relate to specific sounds. This is the key to learning how to decode. Luckily for you, I have created a ton of phonics printables and online games for your literacy centers.
  • Fluency: Fluency refers to the ability to read smoothly and accurately. This often includes expressive reading and phrasing. Although students are often timed when reading, it is not necessary to read quickly to be a fluent reader. In fact, students that read too quickly sometimes struggle with comprehension. The key here is practice. I will share specific fluency strategies in a future post, so check back in about a month.
  • Vocabulary: I happen to love teaching vocabulary, specifically academic vocabulary! The beauty of vocabulary instruction is that it can quickly and easily be incorporated into any lesson. Vocabulary can be classified into three categories: conversational (tier 1), academic (tier 2), and content-specific (tier 3). In my humble opinion, I believe that vocabulary should not be restricted to memorized definitions and set vocabulary lists. Rather, true mastery relies on an authentic use of language in everyday contexts. More on this in a few months…I could talk about this for days!
  • Comprehension: Last but not least is comprehension. Please do not wait to teach comprehension strategies until after a student is fully decoding. Both language and reading comprehension should be targeted alongside phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. Graphic organizers, peer discussions, and “thinking out loud” are all examples of successful strategies that target comprehension.

2. Research-Based

Something else that is important to know is that the science of reading is research-based. It is based on decades of research into how the brain acquires the ability to read. (It is not natural, like speech.) This is not a reading fad or a new theory that will die out; that is what makes it different than other ideas in the “Reading Wars”.

It is also important to note that the science of reading is not a specific curriculum or a set of materials. It is evidence-based strategies that can be used with several different resources and curriculums. In fact, I am going to write about this very topic in my next blog post. I will teach you quick, efficient strategies based on the science of reading. The best part? These strategies can quickly be added to any lesson in any subject using any curriculum.

If you are new to the science of reading and looking to learn more, check out these books:

3. Not Only for Primary Grades

One common misconception is that the science of reading is only for students in grades K-2. However, this is far from the truth. Obviously, if a student is not decoding in the upper grades, that is a “stop everything and intervene” situation. Having said that, phonemic awareness and phonics still have a place in an upper elementary classroom with students who are at grade level. The instruction and content look different, but it should still exist. Root words, prefixes, suffixes, and multi-syllable words are examples of word work that require explicit instruction in grades 4-6.

Fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension should make up the majority of an upper-grade instructional day. It is important to remember that literacy is not just language arts but science and social studies, as well. Math can even be included, especially when it comes to math vocabulary!

There you have it…everything you need to know to at least get a feel for the science of reading. I will be digging deep into this topic over the next several months, so don’t feel like you need to be an expert at this (yet).

Next time, I will show you what the science of reading looks like in a real-life primary-grade classroom, as well as an upper-grade classroom. The blog will post on September 16, and the podcast episode will go live on September 17. Until then, check out these other blog posts about reading instruction:

5 Literacy Activities for the First Week of School

Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development…

Kofi Annon

As many of you know, I am a literacy mentor along with being a classroom teacher. The quote above stresses the importance of literacy. Students are more likely to complete high school and attend college if they are reading at grade level by the third grade. Now, this is not to say that students will drop out of high school if they are below grade level. As educators, we have the tools to support all students, including our intervention kiddos.

I wanted to start out with the importance of literacy because this will be my primary focus this school year. I was fortunate enough to be part of a professional development conference around the science of reading this past summer. Therefore, I want to share what I have discovered with you all this coming school year.

For those of you who have been following my blog, you know that I feel strongly about pushing off the curriculum until at least the third week of school. Having said that literacy can and should be part of your back-to-school activities. In this blog post, I will go over 5 different ways that you can easily incorporate literacy into your first week of school plans.

You may be wondering…”What literacy activities should be included?”

The short answer is anything you want! Let me explain…

Think about the literacy strategies that you will regularly use during the school year. Keep in mind that literacy is not just ELA but also includes science and social studies. It can even include math! Math vocabulary is an important part of a literacy classroom. Once you have created a list of strategies you want your students to be familiar with, try to incorporate those strategies into some getting-to-know-you and classroom community activities.

If you are looking for a place to start, I will share my top 5 literacy activities in the list below.

1) Notice Wonder Infer (and Sometimes Evidence)

This simple chart (download your freebie below) can be used for almost anything! I have used it in grades K, 1, 4, 5, and 6. Students are taught to make observations, ask questions, and make inferences. An evidence column can also be added to justify those inferences. I use this strategy during the first day of school. In my class, as soon as kids walk in, they wander around the classroom jotting down what they see. They also jot down some questions they may have. Depending on the grade level you teach, you may want to consider asking them to make inferences based on their observations. This allows students to act on their curiosities regarding the classroom and also gives them the opportunity to practice a skill that will be used throughout the year. Make sure to teach them the following vocabulary words before starting this activity: notice, observe, wonder, question, and infer.

2) Think-Pair-Share/Turn and Talk/My Partner Said

Other popular teaching strategies are Think-Pair-Share, Turn and Talk, and My Partner Said. If you are not familiar with My Partner Said, it is a great idea for students who are reluctant to share out in class. Sometimes, especially with shy students, it can be difficult to share out in front of a group of kids. It is somewhat less daunting to share someone else’s ideas instead of sharing your own. If you plan on using any of these strategies, teach the kids during that first week. In my classroom, I also use a Group Share, where the team leader leads a conversation and then summarizes the group’s ideas during a class discussion. All three of these tactics are heavily practiced during the first week of school. It could be as simple as getting to know each other (i.e. student interviews) or as involved as team design challenges.

3) Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers are, in my opinion, a MUST for the first week of school. For me, I use Thinking Maps in every subject. Therefore, I want my students to be familiar with them BEFORE starting the curriculum. The key here is to help students get to the point where they can choose their own graphic organizers based on the lesson objectives and/or target skills. How? By using academic vocabulary! I teach my students to look for specific academic vocab when selecting a graphic organizer. Take a look at the table below for a list of vocab and organizers.

Graphic OrganizerPictureVocabulary
Circle Mapdefine
Bubble Mapdescribe
Double Bubble Mapsimilar
Tree Mapsort
Flow Maporder
Multi-Flow Mapprediction
cause and effect
Brace Mapparts
Bridge Mapanalogies
how things relate
Graphic Organizers and Vocabulary

I use graphic organizers when we discuss positive character traits, how to be successful in class, and when learning how to collaborate. Sometimes we make class charts; other times we do a gallery walk where we add to several organizers; students also use these graphic organizers when working independently, in pairs, or in small groups. The possibilities are endless!

4) Read Alouds and Vocabulary

This may be an obvious choice, but picture books are a must for any back-to-school season. Although I believe that picture books and mentor texts should be included throughout the year, they are ideal for teaching SEL, especially at the start of the school year. What you may not have considered is including vocabulary in these read-alouds. When I plan a read-aloud, I first preview the book and choose 4-5 vocabulary words. I then assign a motion to those words to help students remember their meanings. Students do the motions every time they hear those words during the read-aloud. (Consider having students help choose the motions, especially once you have done this routine several times.) I included a list of books and vocabulary words in the table below should you need a place to start. This procedure can be used for any subject and with any book later in the year, so it’s ideal to practice this routine at the start. Looking for some book recommendations AND downloadable freebies? Check out this post.

BookCoverTheme/Target WordVocabulary
by Jenn Larson
“All Because You Matter”
by Tami Charles
“I Am Love”
by Susan Verde
“All Are Welcome”
by Alexandra Penfold &
Suzanne Kaufman
“After the Fall”
by Dan Santat
Learning from Mistakes
Back-to-School Read-Alouds, Themes, and Vocabulary

5) Various Listening and Speaking Skills

I have found that most literacy classrooms target reading and writing very often. However, listening and speaking skills are often neglected, yet they are so important to success in any field. Back-to-school season is the perfect opportunity to introduce some of these speaking skills! Consider using Flipgrid so students can watch themselves practice these newfound skills. Whether it is tone of voice, pacing, eye contact, volume, or even nonverbal communication, I would encourage you to include mini-lessons on them in your back-to-school plans.

As you can see, literacy does not have to wait until you begin your curriculum. It can start as soon as day one! I fully believe that the first few weeks of school can either make or break your entire year. It is so critical to focus on those routines and procedures to ensure you have a successful year for your kids. This includes the routines you will use to support your literacy instruction.

As always, feel free to shoot me an email at melody@learning-n-progress.com if you want to brainstorm together. Next month, we will focus on the science of reading. I will introduce you to all 5 components and teach you what they look like in both a primary-grade and upper-grade classroom. Until then, keep learning!

Other Posts For Your Literacy Classroom

Creative Teaching: An Introduction to Project-Based Learning

What we learn to do, we learn by doing.

Thomas Jefferson

As one of our founding fathers stated so long ago, in order to truly learn a new skill, we must use it. Now, in the educational world, this does not mean doing more practice problems. It also does not mean more homework. What it does mean is to apply a new skill to an authentic, real-life project that we may encounter in our everyday lives, whether as a kid or an adult.

Cue one of my favorite creative teaching practices…project-based learning, or PBL. This month, we have been chatting a lot about advanced learning, and this teaching method is perfect for your gifted learners! Having said that, please do not hesitate to use PBL with all of your learners, regardless of their academic levels. Should a project be challenging for a specific group of students, incorporate mixed-level partnerships, teacher check-ins, and small group work. There are so many opportunities to include intervention and differentiation within PBL.

In this blog post, we will get a brief overview of project-based learning by addressing the following questions:

  • What is project-based learning?
  • What are the benefits of project-based learning?
  • How do I get started?

What is project-based learning?

PBL, or project-based learning, is a teaching method in which students gain and apply knowledge through long-term projects that encourage critical thinking in multiple subject areas, creativity, and collaboration. Often, these projects are completed hand-in-hand with the curriculum. In other words, students work on these projects at the same time that they are learning the necessary skills for the task at hand.

Although I will walk you through how to get plan a project later in this post, I would like to explain what I mean by working on the project at the same time as working through the curriculum. Although PBL can act as the curriculum itself, with teachers implementing skill-based lessons as students work through their projects, PBL can also be used to supplement a curriculum. Let’s say that you have a project where students are designing a menu based on seasonal, local ingredients. They would need to learn about a specific location or biome, research popular recipes, calculate the cost of ingredients, and write menu descriptions using persuasive language. Rather than teach all of these skills at once and then start the project, I would teach a mini-lesson on the first skill and then have students apply that skill to their menus. I would start with science lessons on various biomes, for instance. Afterward, the students would work in pairs to brainstorm plants and animals in their chosen biomes. For the next lesson, I may teach a research skill (i.e. how to identify reliable sources or how to look up a library book) before having students research popular recipes. I would go back and forth between mini-lessons and PBL work time.

What are the benefits of project-based learning?

What I love most about project-based learning is that it emphasizes “the why”. Students discover first-hand why they are learning the skills in class. For example, students may discover why they need to learn about decimals if they are creating a budget or developing a menu for a restaurant. As a teacher, it is sometimes difficult to communicate why we learn the skills we do. With project-based learning, these conversations come up naturally in lessons.

Another benefit of PBL is that it encourages critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Every project-based learning activity should start with a Driving Question. This question is the task or challenge that students must address through the completion of the project. Please note that this is not the learning objective. It should not be structured as a state standard or an “I can” statement. Rather, the Driving Question should introduce students to the real-life application problem that needs to be solved. Here are a few examples:

  • How can we design a low-cost playground in an abandoned lot with _________ dimensions?
  • How can we start a non-profit organization to address _______________?
  • If ______________ (historical figure from any given time period) were to start an online business today, what would it be?
  • Develop a reserve for an endangered species.
  • Using your knowledge of what made ancient societies successful, create your own civilization.

PBL also allows for student voice and choice. When designing a PBL project, make sure the project does not have a “right or wrong” answer. There should be room for creativity and interpretation. When writing the Driving Question, make sure it is an open-ended question; it cannot be a “yes or no” question. In addition, allow students to make some choices throughout the assignment, such as choosing the online program to use, choosing the topic or subject for the project, selecting their partners or groups (this requires a brave teacher), etc. By giving students opportunities to make their own choices, you are encouraging students to take ownership of their learning, which leads me to the next point…

Project-based learning increases engagement by encouraging students to take ownership and pride in their learning. I cannot emphasize this point enough. No matter which grade I have taught in the past, I have noticed one commonality: students become very proud of their PBL projects. When a student takes this kind of ownership, they become invested, and this investment results in higher engagement.

How do I get started?

So, now that we have learned a bit about project-based learning, how do we get started?

  1. Choose one main subject area. This will be your focus. I usually center my projects around social studies or science. These projects often act as our assessments in those subject areas.
  2. Write a Driving Question. (My next post will go into detail about how to write a strong Driving Question.)
  3. Divide the project into parts and choose your target standards. You may want each part to focus on one essential standard. For example, if students are creating online businesses, one part may be calculating cost/profit (math standard) and another part may be creating an advertisement or product descriptions (writing standard).
  4. Create a rubric and success criteria to share with your students. This is critical for student success. Students need to know what is expected of them.
  5. Introduce the project and show exemplar examples. If you teach the same grade level and use the same project year after year, you will collect some exemplar examples. Until then, feel free to show examples from the real world. For instance, before my students start creating their own online companies, I show examples of websites (i.e. McDonalds, Disneyland, etc.). In the next lesson, I even show examples of logos and mission statements.
  6. Choose partners or small groups. Even if you want students to work independently on their projects, I would strongly encourage you to assign mixed-level partnerships. This allows all students to have a partner who can offer feedback and help brainstorm ideas.
  7. Create a timeline and check-ins. Once the project has been planned and introduced, it is time to get to work! Plan mini-lessons and check-ins. As mentioned earlier, I recommend going back and forth between mini-lessons and work time. After every few lessons, I would plan a check-in with the students so you can offer feedback on each part of the project. I know what you are thinking…this must take a ton of time! I myself have 35 students, but I meet with them in pairs/small groups. It only takes a few minutes per pair/group. Trust me, this is completely manageable and will save a lot of heartache. Your future self will thank you. Without check-ins, you risk students being totally off the mark or even worse, not completing the project at all.

Wouldn’t it be nice to only do the final two steps?

Let me do the planning for you!

Check back here for some ready-made PBL projects.

Project-based learning does not have to be daunting or time-consuming. Does it take time to plan? Yes. Do you have to do it alone? No. I am more than happy to help you get started!!! Simply email me at melody@learning-n-progress.com.

Once your students get started on their projects, you will get to see the real magic happen: student engagement, ownership, and creativity will significantly increase. You will be blown away by the work that students produce! Plus, once you have these completed projects, your students will have something very impressive to show at Open House, PBL showcase (more info to come in a future post), or parent-teacher conferences. This is a teaching style that will completely transform your classroom.

Other Blog Posts that Specifically Target Your Advanced Learners

Th 5 Ws of Differentiated InstructionDive-into what differentiated instruction looks like in an elementary school classroom.
Upper-Grade Math Centers: To Rotate or Not to Rotate?Learn how to make small group learning manageable in your upper-grade math classroom. Your advanced kids will love you for it!
Flip It: How Can a Flipped Classroom Help Improve Student Engagement?Learn how to flip your classroom to help you meet the needs of your advanced learners while supporting the kids who need you the most.
Depth and Complexity Icons: Where Book Clubs Meet Advanced LearningDiscover how depth and complexity icons fit into your student-run book clubs.

Depth and Complexity Icons: Where Book Clubs Meet Advanced Learning

Listen to the podcast episode.

Good teaching is good teaching.

-unknown source

Early on in my career, I had a principal that really inspired me to be the best teacher I could be. When we used to chat about educational philosophies and teaching practices, she would always end the conversation by saying, “Good teaching is simply good teaching.” What she meant by this was that although there are various strategies specifically designed for certain populations, most if not all of those strategies are beneficial to ALL students. The most important step to take as an educator is to differentiate your instruction using all of these various models and modalities to best meet the needs of your students.

That brings me to this blog post…although depth and complexity icons were created to target advanced learners, I wholeheartedly believe they benefit all students. This month, I am focusing on advanced learning, but just as my first principal used to say, “Good teaching is good teaching.”

Therefore, today we are going to chat about a teaching strategy that is generally used for gifted learners but can actually benefit all students. That strategy is using Depth and Complexity Icons, specifically, using those icons to help with Book Club discussions. In this post, we will cover…

  • General Information About the Icons
  • Ways to Incorporate the Icons in Student-Run Book Clubs

About the Icons

Depth and Complexity Icons are meant to help students organize their thinking while encouraging them to critically think about the topic at hand. Originally, there were 11 icons. Let’s go over the basics of these first 11 icons:

Big Idea

Use this icon for daily objectives, writing prompts, the main idea of a text, and unit questions. This can be used for any subject area and “big picture” concepts.


Use this icon to help support the main idea of a text. This can be used for supporting details and evidence. It is ideal for paragraph writing but can be used for almost any subject. I especially like to use it for language arts, social studies, and science.

Language of the Discipline

Use this icon to help introduce vocabulary in any subject. It can also be used in vocabulary lessons that target specific skills, such as context clues.

Unanswered Questions

Use this icon for research and reading. I always teach my students that strong readers ask questions. This is an icon we use very regularly during read-alouds and Reading Workshop. It can also be used as a way to check for understanding after a lesson in any subject. Perhaps students can ask a question on their exit ticket in math should any questions arise after the lesson.

Multiple Perspectives

Use this icon to help look at different points of view in literature or social studies. I feel this icon is best suited for the humanities, however, it can also be used to help teach social skills. If students get into an argument on the playground, for instance, use this icon to help teach them how to see the other child’s point of view. I have seen teachers use depth and complexity icons as a way for students to reflect on their behavior. This icon in particular would be very useful for that.


Use this icon to look at repeating ideas or concepts. I use this icon most often in math and social studies. In math, we look at examples of a new skill or math term and look for patterns in order to define that term or practice that new skill. In social studies, we look for patterns within societies, amongst historical figures, in different time periods, and so on. This icon can also be used in literature, especially when comparing texts by the same author or in the same genre.

Change Over Time

Use this icon to evaluate how people and places change over time. This icon is ideal for literature, social studies, and science. You could evaluate how a character developed in a book, how a country changed over time, or how animals adapted to their environments. The possibilities are endless.


Use this icon when judging the morality of a person’s decisions or actions. It is ideal for the humanities, specifically literature and social sciences. This can also be used to support SEL or student behavior reflections.


Use this icon for virtually any subject. It can be helpful when learning grammar, new math skills, or when studying any society whether fictional or from a time period in history. It is used to categorize rules and laws.


Use this icon when looking at patterns over a longer period of time, such as when studying time periods in history or when analyzing scientific data. This could also be used in math, especially in when learning about statistics.

Across the Disciplines

Use this icon when referencing multiple subject areas. This is perfect for when you are reading a nonfiction text that is related to either science or social studies. It can also be used when acquiring background knowledge before reading a book. Perhaps the class is learning about a specific time period in history before reading a historical fiction novel. This icon would be perfect! It is also ideal for project-based learning activities (PBL). If you are unfamiliar with PBL, make sure to check out my next blog post. I will post in a couple of weeks.

Using the Icons in Student-Run Book Clubs

First, let me talk a little about book clubs. For those of you who know me, you know that I absolutely love Reading Workshop and book clubs! These strategies are designed to instill a love of reading. It is a great way to support reading instruction, provide differentiated activities, and build classroom community. By allowing students to choose their own books, you are giving them ownership over their own learning. You will notice that over time, students will actually recommend books to each other and encourage each other to read. I often hear kids discussing book recommendations as they go out to recess or lunch. It is truly incredible!

Although I will not be going over the basics of Reading Workshop or book clubs in this post, I have written several posts in the past. I have also recorded several podcast episodes about these topics, as well.

If you are new to Reading Workshop, check out these blog posts:
5 Goals of Reading Workshop: Is it Effective?
Launch Reading Workshop in 5 Easy Steps
An Introduction to Book Clubs for Elementary Students
Facilitating Book Club Discussions in 3 Easy Steps

I would recommend teaching each icon to the class as a whole before having book clubs use them in their own discussions. I would then go back and forth before whole group lessons and book club discussions. Let me explain…

I would start by introducing the Big Idea icon to the class. For upper grade students, I would probably introduce the Details icon at the same time. I would use a mentor text to model both of these icons, focusing on using the icons to help me write a paragraph response to a writing prompt. I would teach the students how to use a Thinking Map or similar graphic organizer to take notes while reading. In the next lesson, I would ask book clubs to practice using the same icons that I had previously modeled. As a group, they would read together and take notes using the same graphic organizer that we used in our whole group lesson. While they are working in groups, I would walk around, observing their discussions, posing questions, and offering support if needed.

During the next lesson, I would go back to teaching whole group. This time, I would either teach one or two new icons or re-teach the previous icons if needed. Use your observations to guide your instruction! If all but one group mastered the last two icons, perhaps you could just meet with that book club to re-teach. The choice is yours!

Eventually, once all of the icons have been taught and mastered, I would teach students how to write their own writing prompts. This would be a great time to sneak in a vocabulary lesson. I always teach students to use BOTH academic and content-specific vocabulary in their writing prompts. You could even have them write a question and then change it to add in more vocabulary. I would even have them highlight the different types of vocabulary in their revised questions. In the example below, I wrote the academic vocab in green and the content-specific vocab in pink.

In this example, the students came up with a question (left column) and then improved it by adding vocabulary (right column).

Change This…To That…
How has a character changed in the story?Analyze how a character has developed over the course of a dystopian text.

Developing questions while using vocabulary could be a completely separate blog post, so we cannot cover everything today. However, I did want to introduce you to this idea since it is perfect for book clubs once the Depth and Complexity Icons have been taught. Should you have questions about incorporating vocabulary instruction in book clubs or want to dive deeper into teaching students how to develop their own questions, feel free to email me at melody@learning-n-progress.com. I would be happy to help!

Although Depth and Complexity Icons are useful to all subjects, they can really be helpful when facilitating book club discussions. They help students organize their thinking and encourage them to critically think about a text.

To help you get started, I created a FREE resource that shares some possible book club questions that incorporate the Depth and Complexity Icons. They are listed in the order that I would teach them. Make sure to download your freebie!

Make sure to check out my next blog post. It will cover another teaching strategy that is perfect for advanced learners: PBL. Project-based learning is a great way to incorporate multiple subjects, apply skills to an engaging project, and encourage creativity. Remember…although these activities are great for your gifted students, good teaching is good teaching. These strategies are beneficial to ALL students!

Other Blog Posts that Specifically Target Your Advanced Learners

Th 5 Ws of Differentiated InstructionDive-into what differentiated instruction looks like in an elementary school classroom.
Upper-Grade Math Centers: To Rotate or Not to Rotate?Learn how to make small group learning manageable in your upper-grade math classroom. Your advanced kids will love you for it!
Flip It: How Can a Flipped Classroom Help Improve Student Engagement?Learn how to flip your classroom to help you meet the needs of your advanced learners while supporting the kids who need you the most.

Flip It: How Can a flipped classroom improve student engagement?

Listen to the podcast.

Are you looking to improve student engagement during your differentiated lessons? Would you like to prioritize higher-order thinking skills while meeting the needs of every learner in your class?

Then, I suggest you flip your classroom!

Flipped learning has been around for almost two decades, though it has gained popularity over the last several years. In my opinion, this is primarily due to the pandemic. Hybrid teachers, you know exactly what I’m talking about…as a hybrid teacher, I had to figure out a way to maximize learning during the short amount of time I had with my students. Therefore, I decided to incorporate a flipped classroom model.

I assigned online video lessons for students to complete at home. That way, by the time they came to me, they already had some background knowledge on the subject. Now, I had been using a version of a flipped classroom for years, so I was already in that mindset. If you have never used this type of model, have no fear! I will walk you through what it looks like and how it can benefit you and your students.

Let’s start by examining what a flipped classroom looks like…

What is a flipped classroom?

Traditionally, a flipped classroom is a unique pedagogical approach where students learn a new skill at home and then participate in more hands-on activities in class. I feel this approach is ideal for certain subjects, such as language arts and social sciences. However, as elementary school teachers, we know that some of our students would struggle with completing the homework every night. This would put those students at a significant disadvantage.

Therefore, I incorporate flipped learning within the four walls of my classroom. When students are not in a small group lesson with me, they are engaging in an online lesson where they are introduced to a new skill. That way, by the time they join me for a lesson, they have already previewed the new material.

The potential benefits of the flipped classroom model are numerous, but I think the most significant advantages are the following:

Flipped learning…

  • increases student engagement
  • helps implement differentiated instruction
  • allows for more time spent on higher-order thinking skills
  • results in more “bang for your buck” during mini-lessons

Over the years, I have played around with different ways of incorporating flipped learning into my instruction. In this blog post, I would like to review the three most helpful ways of flipping your classroom.

Differentiate Your Pacing

One of the easiest ways of differentiating your instruction is to adjust your pacing. Advanced learners benefit from moving quickly through the curriculum while struggling learners need to move at a slower pace, as they often need to see new material more than once. By flipping your instruction, students can move through the material at their own pace.

For example, I have my advanced learners preview two or three lessons at a time. By the time they come to me for a mini-lesson, they have often mastered the next two or three skills. I spend the mini-lesson addressing student misconceptions and posing challenging questions that encourage critical thinking. The beauty behind this routine is that my advanced learners are constantly challenged, which results in higher engagement.

For my struggling learners, I do the opposite. I often meet with them first and then have them watch a “re-teach video” of the same skill. This allows them to receive the same instruction but in a different way. This routine helps to reinforce new skills.

I use this type of flipped classroom during my daily math block. Check out this post or podcast episode to learn more!

“Pre-Assess” New Skills

Another way you can use flipped learning within your classroom is by using it as a pre-assessment. Simply assign your entire class a video and/or exit ticket. Use the results of that exit ticket to determine who needs the full lesson and who is ready for enrichment.

For the students who have already mastered the standard, you can assign enrichment activities in the form of playlists*, project-based learning activities, or math games. While they are working independently or with partners, you are free to provide targeted instruction to the students who need it. This allows you to focus on a smaller number of students during your lesson, thus resulting in more one-on-one teaching opportunities.

*If you are unfamiliar with playlists, they are a list of tasks that students complete at their own pace. The tasks usually progress from easy to difficult, thus providing students the opportunity to gradually deepen their understanding of a skill.

Focus on Collaboration and Projects

This last way of flipping your classroom is more of a traditional model. I especially like to use this model for language arts and social sciences. Students are asked to complete the assigned reading for homework; that way, they can participate in more collaborative activities while at school.

Language Arts

In language arts, there are so many opportunities to incorporate the flipped classroom model. For example, rather than read a novel as a class, students read at home and participate in a debate or discussion during instruction. This lends itself to a more thorough investigation of the literature. The teacher can move away from low-level thinking questions and pose more complex analysis questions.

Now if you are like me, I do not teach using whole class novel studies. Instead, I use Reading Workshop. Flipped learning can easily be applied to Reading Workshop. Students read their chosen novels at home and while at school, the teacher teaches a new skill using a mentor text. Students then practice that skill during classwork or homework time. Read how to launch Reading Workshop here, or listen to the podcast episode.

Book Clubs also lend themselves to a flipped classroom model! For upper grades, I would actually teach my students how to create a reading schedule for their clubs. With some guidance, they would decide what chapters to read each night. During class, they would then participate in a mini-lesson based on the target reading skill and practice that new skill while discussing the book. Learn more about how to facilitate book club discussions in an elementary classroom!

Flipped learning is also ideal for writing instruction. Students can complete their brainstorming/pre-writing at home and focus on revision/peer review at school. Alternatively, perhaps you would like your students to complete their rough drafts at home so that while in class, you can meet with small groups and focus on targeted, differentiated instruction.

Take a look at the ideas below:

At HomeAt School
Read a chapterBook club discussion
Research a nonfiction topicPresent a student-run workshop
Pre-writingMini-lesson on how to structure a paragraph/essay
Write rough draftPeer review or targeted writing intervention/enrichment
Ideas for a Flipped Classroom in Language Arts

Social Sciences

Social sciences are ideal for a flipped classroom model. Textbooks are often very dry and focus mostly on historical facts. A successful history class does not only focus on such facts but on how that information shaped our society. Collaborative activities, such as Socratic Seminars, debates, and project-based learning assignments, should be the primary focus of this subject. The trouble is that teachers often do not have time to teach the content and facilitate collaborative activities. Therefore, a flipped classroom is ideal.

Let’s say, for instance, that you are a sixth-grade teacher who is teaching early human history. Rather than teach the various time periods of evolution, have students read that lesson at home. In class, you can hold a mini-lesson about the key takeaways and then have students create their own clan of early humans. They decide what time period they lived in, their diet, and their lifestyle. Of course, all of this is based on what they learned during their reading. They then create a cave art project where they draw symbols to represent their clan’s lifestyle. These art projects provide a quick, engaging way to assess your students’ understanding of early human history.

The ideas below provide some examples of how the traditional flipped classroom can be applied to your social sciences course:

At HomeAt School
Research art/literature in a given time periodArt project
Prepare for a debateClass debate
Analyze primary & secondary sourcesSocratic Seminar
Read the textbook to obtain background knowledgeProject-based learning assignment
Ideas for a Flipped Classroom in Social Sciences

Flipped classrooms do not need to be daunting or difficult to manage. They also do not necessarily need to require homework. There are so many ways to flip your learning, and I hope that you found one that resonates with you.

Once you are comfortable with one idea, try a second one in a different subject. Ideally, you can choose different ways to flip your classroom depending on the learning outcomes and subject areas.

As always, feel free to leave a comment or email me at melody@learning-n-progress.com. I would love to help you flip your classroom! Let’s brainstorm together!!!

Learn More About Differentiated Instruction

Th 5 Ws of Differentiated InstructionDive-into what differentiated instruction looks like in an elementary school classroom.
Differentiated Literacy Centers: A Primary Teacher’s GuideLearn how to incorporate phonics instruction, fluency passages, and technology into your literacy centers.
Upper-Grade Math Centers: To Rotate or Not to Rotate?Learn how to make small group learning manageable in your upper-grade math classroom.
5 Tips on How to Launch Reading Workshop SuccessfullyLearn how to level books, celebrate student successes, and recommend books to students.

Upper-Grade Math Centers: To Rotate or Not To Rotate

Are math centers only for primary grades?
Is it necessary to rotate centers?
How do I manage math centers and make sure students are on task?

Upper-grade teachers, if you are asking yourself any of these questions, you are not alone! As many of you may already know, I have taught a variety of grade levels and worked with several teachers, both new and veteran. One thing that I have noticed is that differentiated centers seem to stop at third grade.


Honestly, I wholeheartedly believe that all upper-grade classrooms should be differentiated, and centers are the perfect way to do that! Having said that, I do not rotate stations in the upper grades. Instead, I meet with groups as needed. I do not meet with every student for the exact same amount of time. Let me tell you how I came to this realization…

When I first started teaching upper grades, I was placed in a fourth grade. Now, before that, I had almost exclusively worked with kindergarteners and first graders. So, going from K-1 to grade 4 was a HUGE JUMP!!! I of course was in the routine of math rotations. So, I implemented them just I had done in the primary grades.

After about two weeks, I realized that the stations were not working as well as they had with the younger kiddos. It had nothing to do with management, but I was contantly feeling rushed during my lessons. What I realized was that 15-20 minutes for an upper-grade lesson was not nearly enough, especially for struggling learners.

Although it was enough time for the advanced learners, my intervention kids needed more teacher time. I thought to myself, “There must be a better way…”

Thus, I made it my teacher goal to figure out a way to teach small groups while meeting the unique needs of each of my groups. Over the next two years, I worked on being able to differentiate without rotating stations.

I decided to use a task chart instead. Each group would have three tasks in every math lesson, one of them being a lesson with me. I also decided not to meet with my advanced learners every day. This would allow me to meet with the students who needed me the most more often.

Once I made these adjustments, I almost immediately started seeing results. I was not feeling so rushed, my advanced learners were more engaged, and my struggling learners started to progress academically.

Now, I know what you are thinking…that’s not fair to my advanced learners. Let me explain…I truly believe that not all learning requires a teacher. Students can and should learn independently and/or with partners. There are so many online programs that will provide online lessons, thus allowing your advanced learners to participate in the “flipped classroom” model. Although I will be writing a blog post dedicated to this model in my next blog post, I would like to take a moment to briefly introduce this instructional model.

What is a “flipped classroom”? Why use it?

In a traditional “flipped classroom”, students learn new material at home and then participate in problem-solving and enrichment activities while in class. I incorporate this idea but only within the four walls of my classroom.

Let me give an example…in any curriculum, essential standards are usually scaffolded into several lessons, thus allowing students to gradually build their skills. Adding and subtracting unlike fractions, for example, may be divided into three lessons: equivalent fractions, adding fractions, and subtracting fractions. Although struggling learners will need all three lessons, advanced learners do not. They could probably get this concept in 1 or 2 lessons. Having them sit through three full lessons with several examples in each lesson not only disengages them but does not give them the opportunity to work on challenging problems and activities.

Instead, I would meet with them on the first day and teach all three concepts in one lesson. Every step of the way, I would have them solve a problem in front of me so I know whether we can move on or not. Since it is a small group rather than the entire class, I can easily observe each student as they work. At the end of the lesson, I have students solve two or three “check for understanding” questions. They solve them and show me their answers. They also rank their understanding on a scale of 1-4 (4 meaning they could tutor someone else and 1 meaning they need teacher help). If they are able to add and subtract unlike fractions by the end of the lesson AND feel confident in the new skills, they are excused to work on their exit tickets individually. Over the next two days, while I meet with other students, these advanced learners participate in one of the following activities: enrichment activities that will challenge them on adding/subtracting fractions (i.e. performance tasks), math games that target adding/subtracting fractions, or preview lessons for the next skill. This makes learning fun for them. They are constantly being challenged, whether that be working on higher-level problems or at a faster pace.

How long does it take to plan a task chart every day? How can I make this process manageable?

Good news!!! It only takes a few minutes to get these tasks ready! I highly recommend getting some dry-erase magnets and writing tasks on them that you will use frequently. For me, I have magnets with the following tasks: lesson, exit ticket, Zearn, ST Math, Byrdseed (for advanced learners), and IReady (math intervention). If I ever want to give a task not already on a magnet, I simply write it directly on the whiteboard. I use colored magnetic folders to organize my exit tickets.

Every day before I leave, I rearrange my magnetic tasks on the board. I am strategic when deciding which groups to meet with and for how long. The tables below show an example weekly schedule for when I am introducing a new math concept.

Please note that each task is not the same amount of time. For instance, task one does not take 20 minutes. This is because I want to be flexible with the time allotted for each group’s lesson. I simply call each group for lesson when it is their turn. Students work through the other tasks at their own pace. Basically, the students go through their tasks independently until I call them up for a lesson.

Monday’s Math Tasks

GroupTask 1Task 2Task 3
SquareIReady or Pre-AssessmentIntroductory LessonPartners: Exit Ticket
TriangleIntroductory LessonExit TicketPre-Assessment
TrapezoidIntroductory LessonExit TicketPre-Assessment
(Flipped Classroom)
Check-In Lesson 1
(Flipped Classroom)
Check-In Lesson 1
Monday’s Math Tasks

Notice that I gave a pre-assessment since we were starting a new math domain. This allows me to change the groups if needed and also informs me which skills the class has already mastered. After this first introductory lesson, I will be able to decide which lessons each group needs.

Square Group: This group should have some kind of intervention program. For us, we use IReady. This provides online instruction to help fill-in the learning gaps from previous grade levels.

Triangle and Trapezoid Groups: These two groups are made up of near grade-level students (triangle) and grade-level students (trapezoid). The kids I put in the trapezoid group often benefit from extra teacher support. These are also kids who started the year below grade-level but have made significant progress.

Diamond and Circle Groups: Notice that my grade-level group (diamond) and my advanced group (circle) participate in the “flipped classroom” model. This is the model we discussed earlier in this blog post. The idea is that students are introduced to a new concept BEFORE the lesson with me. This allows us to have more of a check-in rather than a full lesson. During the check-in, I address any misconceptions, answer questions they have about the new skill, and provide more challenging problems that require higher-order thinking skills. These check-ins are often very brief and end with a “check for understanding’ question. This question gives students the opportunity to prove they have mastered the skill at hand before exiting the lesson. Since the check-ins are so brief, these students spend most of the math block either working ahead or participating in enrichment activities.

Tuesday’s Math Tasks

GroupTask 1Task 2Task 3
SquareLesson 1Partners: Exit TicketIReady or Math Game
Lesson 2Partners: Exit Ticket
Lesson 2Exit Ticket
DiamondPartners: Exit TicketZearn
(Flipped Classroom)
Check-In Lessons 2-3
CircleExit TicketZearn
(Flipped Classroom)
Check-In Lessons 2-3
Tuesday’s Math Tasks

Square Group: I chose to start with the square group today because I knew that I would need a longer lesson for this first skill. If I need to bump the check-in lesson with diamond and circle groups, I will. I can always meet with them the next day.

Triangle and Trapezoid Groups: Notice that I use Zearn for these groups. Rather than work ahead like diamond and circle groups, these two groups use Zearn as a way of seeing the lesson a second time. Online programs can be used to reinforce previously taught skills. This consistent re-teaching will help solidify the students’ understanding.

Diamond and Circle Groups: I often get tasked why I have so many groups if I do not meet with all of them separately. The reason is that I have found that students benefit from hearing the thinking of peers who are performing at a higher level. Therefore, I have my grade-level students in the same lesson as the advanced learners. The difference is that for more challenging material, I have them work in partners on their exit tickets. Please note that the flipped classroom model is allowing me to teach more than one lesson to these kids. This is because by the time they come to me, they have already watched a video and practiced the new skills.

Wednesday’s Math Tasks

GroupTask 1Task 2Task 3
SquareIReady or Math GameLesson 2Partners: Exit Ticket
TriangleLesson 3Exit TicketZearn
TrapezoidLesson 3Exit TicketZearn
DiamondPartners: Exit TicketZearn
(Flipped Classroom)
Lesson 4-5
CircleExit TicketZearn
(Flipped Classroom)
Lesson 4-5
Wednesday’s Math Tasks

Square Group: If your students are struggling with their math facts, make sure to allow time for them to practice them by playing some fluency games. Various dice games and card games are easy ways to practice math facts!

Triangle and Trapezoid Groups: Notice that I did not have triangle group work in partners on their exit tickets. This is because the standard taught was not too challenging, and I would like to see how they do on their own.

Diamond and Circle Groups: In this example, lesson 5 is more of an enrichment lesson. It may be a lesson with story problems or that requires critical thinking skills. This is why I planned a full lesson with my diamond and circle groups. By the end of the lesson, I would like for them to have mastered this challenging skill.

Thursday’s Math Tasks

GroupTask 1Task 2Task 3
SquareIReady or Math GameLesson 3Partners: Exit Ticket
TriangleLesson 4Partners: Exit TicketZearn
or Math Game
TrapezoidLesson 4Exit TicketZearn
or Math Game
DiamondPartners: Exit TicketByrdseed
Math Project
(Flipped Classroom)
CircleExit TicketByrdseed
Math Project
(Flipped Classroom)
Thursday’s Math Tasks

Square Group: Notice that I always allow my intervention kids to work on their exit tickets with a partner. This peer support helps them master new skills. These partners are assigned and within their same math group.

Triangle and Trapezoid Groups: If these groups ever get too far ahead on their online learning, consider having them play a math game instead.

Diamond and Circle Groups: Most of the math time will be spent working on their math projects. If they finish early, they will continue to work ahead on Zearn. Always have a planned task in case the kids finish early. This task should be something ongoing rather than a worksheet. The beauty of a flipped classroom model is that the more they work ahead, thequicker your future check-ins will be. Trust me, once you implement this type fo learning, you will never go back!

Friday’s Math Tasks

GroupTask 1Task 2Task 3
SquareIReady or Math GameLesson 4
or Intervention
Partners: Exit Ticket
TriangleLesson 5Partners: Exit TicketMath Game
TrapezoidLesson 5Partners: Exit TicketMath Game
Math Project
Math GameZearn
(Flipped Classroom)
Math Project
Math GameZearn
(Flipped Classroom)
Friday’s Math Tasks

Square Group: Notice that I do not cover lesson 5 with this group. This is a choice. If your students are not ready for the enrichment lesson, it is okay to skip it completely. Use this time to reinforce essential skills or re-teach if needed. It is better for students to master essential standards rather than just be introduced to every standard but not master any of them.

Triangle and Trapezoid Groups: For more challenging lessons, like lesson 5 in this example, I usually have both groups work in partners on their exit tickets. I would highly recommend teaching these groups the challenging lessons. Although I may skip these types of lesson for my intervention group, I want to at least expose my near grade-level kids to these enrichment lessons. They may not master them at first, but over time, they will encourage critical thinking skills.

Diamond and Circle Groups: Today’s main goal for these two groups is to finish their math projects. Again, if they finish early, they have assigned tasks they can do on their own. For the math game, I usually have them play in partners or trios. This could be any type of math game (i.e. card games, dice games, folder games, etc.).

How do I train my students to work independently?

Teachers often wonder how they can train their students to work independently. I want to share a few tips and tricks I have learned that will help your math classroom run smoothly.

  • Train your kids how to prepare for a lesson with you. For example, in my classroom, students know that they are to come to the lesson with the following supplies: math notebook, dry-erase supplies, and clipboard. (I use dry-erase clipboards, which were SO worth the investment!)
  • Have students get ready for the lesson while they wait for you. I have students write down the lesson’s title and learning objective while waiting for instruction. This frees up time for you to check in with the other groups or “put out fires” if needed. (I would love to say that this never happens, but as teachers, we know that sometimes it does.) When I am finishing up with the previous group (“check for understanding” question), I give the next group a five-minute warning. During this time, they clean up their activity and get their math supplies. While they wait for instruction, they write the title and objective in their notebooks. Sometimes, I even have them identify important key terms in the objective.
  • Use music! Playing classical music during math does wonders. It calms the students and helps keep them focused. I also recommend having timed music to help with transitions. For us, we have a 1.5-minute song that signals to students they should be writing down the title and objective in their notebooks. By the time the music ends, they know I am going to begin the lesson.
  • Plan partner work strategically. I never have too many groups working in pairs simultaneously. This prevents the classroom from getting too noisy or chaotic. Remember your focus should be on the lesson, not on quieting down the classroom. With practice and training, this system works. Trust me.

After years of trial and error, reading about differentiation, and chatting with other educators, I have finally found a way to make small-group learning work in my upper-grade classroom. Now, I absolutely love the way I teach math! It is honestly one of my favorite times of the day.

Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have. I would love to help you get your small-group lessons started! Email me at learning-n-progress.com or comment below.

Other Blog Posts Your May Enjoy

Th 5 Ws of Differentiated InstructionDive-into what differentiated instruction looks like in an elementary school classroom.
Differentiated Literacy Centers: A Primary Teacher’s GuideLearn how to incorporate phonics instruction, fluency passages, and technology into your literacy centers.
5 Goals of Reading Workshop: Is It Effective?Learn about the many benefits of Reading Workshop.
5 Tips on How to Launch Reading Workshop SuccessfullyLearn how to level books, celebrate student successes, and recommend books to students.

Differentiated Literacy Centers: A Primary Teacher’s Guide

Reading is the gateway skill that makes all other learning possible.

-Barack Obama

Listen to the podcast episode.

Today, we are here to talk about two of my favorite subjects…literacy and differentiation. As the quote above so eloquently reminds us, literacy is really the gateway to all other learning. In the primary grades, we know how important it is to ensure that all of our kids are reading and comprehending before they enter the upper grades. In fact, students being able to read at grade level by third grade has been one of the most significant predictors of future success in both college and career. After third grade, students transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Therefore, having a strong, successful literacy program in place is imperative for any primary-grade teacher.

Literacy center rotations are perhaps one of the most commonly used models in the primary grades. They can consume a ton of prep time, however. Whether you are a veteran teacher looking to enhance your centers or a first-year teacher to the primary grades, I hope to shed some light and perhaps save you some prep time when planning your literacy block. Let’s start by addressing three commonly asked questions regarding differentiated rotations:

  • How do I start literacy centers? What is the first step?
  • How do I group students?
  • How do I run differentiated literacy centers? Is it manageable?

In this blog post, we will address these questions to help you successfully implement differentiated centers without adding more stress to your already full teacher plate.

How do I start literacy centers? What is the first step?

The first step is to assess your students’ literacy levels. Literacy can be divided into three categories: phonics, fluency, and comprehension. Although all three are important to a child’s overall success, I would address them in the order listed. In other words, address any concerns with phonics before tackling comprehension. I am NOT saying that comprehension is not just as important, but if a child cannot decode the words on the page, it is going to be near impossible to understand a text to its fullest, even with pictures and context clues.

Therefore, I recommend giving a phonics assessment to EVERY student in your primary grade classroom, regardless of the primary grade level you teach. For your convenience, I have created a quick, teacher-friendly phonics assessment. It includes a student copy, a teacher copy, and a scoring guide. The best part? The scoring guide tells you which group to place students in depending on their assessment results. Make sure to download a copy!

For the students who are able to pass the entire phonics assessment, I recommend giving a fluency assessment. (Download the FREE fluency tracker below if you need one.) The purpose of this assessment is not to see how quickly a student can read but to observe if their fluency rate may potentially affect their comprehension of a text. For example, if a student is spending so much time/effort decoding each individual word, that s/he is struggling to remember the gist of the passage, that student’s reading goal should be chunking phrases. After giving both assessments, it is time to group students according to both their reading levels and goals.

How do I group students?

Now that your students have their reading goals (phonics, fluency, or comprehension), it is time to group them. There are several ways to group students, but I prefer mixing them by reading goal and then reading level.I would start by looking at the students’ phonics assessments. Group students according to the phonics skill they need. Please note that you can group skills together. Do not feel the need to have a separate group for EVERY single phonics skill. For example, if you have two students who need CVC words (level A in the assessment above) and three students who need digraphs (level B), place them in one group. In cases like this, I would always teach the higher skill and perhaps make the lower skill a warm-up for each individual lesson. My lesson progression would look something like this:

Warm-Up: Vowel Sound Review and CVC Word Practice

Instruction – New Sound: SH

Challenge: Two-Syllable Words with SH Sound

Independent Practice: Read CVC Words and SH Words

Of course, your groups are going to be determined by your students’ needs, but I wanted to provide you with an example. Please note that the column “Assessment Scores” shows the phonics level where the student stopped the assessment. This would be considered that student’s instructional level.

Here is a sample class:

StudentAssessment ScoresReading GroupGoals
1Phonics Level COrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
2Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 70 wcpm; choppy
GreenFluency Passages
3Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
Book Clubs
4Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 58 wcpm; choppy
GreenFluency Passages
5Phonics Level C
No Automaticity; Struggled with Blending
RedIntervention Phonics: Digraphs
6Phonics Level DOrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
7Phonics Level ARedIntervention Phonics: Digraphs and Review CVC
8Phonics Level DOrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
9Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
Book Clubs
10Phonics Level EPurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
11Phonics Level ARedIntervention Phonics: Digraphs and Review CVC
12Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
Book Clubs
13Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
Book Clubs
14Phonics Level EPurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
15Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 50 wcpm; decoding each word
GreenFluency Passages
16Phonics Level DOrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
17Phonics Level BRedIntervention Phonics: Digraphs
18Phonics Level FPurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
19Passed Phonics Assessment
Struggled with Two-Syllable Words
PurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
20Phonics Level COrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
21Phonics Level COrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
22Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 63 wcpm; choppy
GreenFluency Passages
23Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
Book Clubs
24Phonics Level DOrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
25Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 75 wcpm; no pauses
GreenFluency Passages
26Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 68 wcpm; no expression
GreenFluency Passages
27Phonics Level FPurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
28Phonics Level EPurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
29Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 58 wcpm; choppy
GreenFluency Passages
30Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
Book Clubs

Notice that my groups above are not equal. This is another misconception in my opinion. Groups do not need to be exactly even. They should be based on data. If your class happens to be evenly separated based on reading goals and scores, then no problem, but do not place a student in the wrong group just because you would like to keep the groups even in size. Your groups will eventually change anyways as students make progress.

According to the table above, I have 4 students in my intervention group (red), 7 students in my near grade-level group (orange), 6 students in my grade-level group (purple), 7 students who no longer need phonics instruction (green), and 6 students who are currently working above grade-level (blue). For each group, I have selected a goal and an activity for our targeted intervention time. Sometimes called “Response to Intervention”, or RTI, this is a time during the day when students are all working towards their own goals. Note that not all groups are going to receive the same amount of teacher time. In the next section, I will go over how to make these “centers” work:

How do I run differentiated literacy centers? Is it manageable?

The first several weeks of literacy centers should be dedicated to training. I would start with your advanced learners. I recommend training them to either participate in Reading Workshop or Book Clubs. (NOTE: The linked blog posts were written with upper-grade teachers in mind, but the same ideas can be used in the primary grades. If you would like to brainstorm ideas, feel free to write a comment on this post or email me at melody@learning-n-progress.com. I would be more than happy to help!) Once this group is trained, they will be able to run Reading Workshop or Book Clubs on their own. I would plan on having a quick check-in with them once a week or perhaps even once every other week.

After blue group has been trained, I would recommend training the green group. I suggest having a targeted fluency lesson with this group perhaps once or twice a week. The other days can be dedicated to fluency practice with partners. If you are looking for some NO-PREP fluency passages, check these out! There are themed passages for every month of the year, and each theme includes 6 different passages (4 levels each passage). HUGE TIME SAVER!!!

The rest of the groups are phonics groups. I suggest meeting with these groups every day for 20 minutes each. (If you cannot find 60 minutes to dedicate to intervention, perhaps meet with orange/purple groups every other day.) While you are meeting with each group, the other students can work on these ready-made activities. The instructions are recorded on the digital Nearpod lessons.

*If you are new to using Nearpod, make sure to watch this webinar. I gave this webinar during the pandemic while schools were closed, but a lot of the ideas shared can be used in-person, as well.

Literacy centers do not have to be as daunting as they seem. I truly hope that this post has helped you take that first step towards differentiated centers. Again, I know how time-consuming planning these centers can be. I have a resource that includes hundreds of activities, passages, and pretty much anything you could need to meet the learning needs of your students. Make sure to check it out!

Should you have any questions or just want to share how your literacy rotations are going, feel free to either comment below or email me at melody@learning-n-progress.com. I would love to hear from you!!!

Other Blog Posts You May Enjoy

5 Goals of Reading Workshop: Is It Effective?Learn about the many benefits of Reading Workshop.
Reading Workshop: Incorporating Classroom Book ClubsLearn tips and tricks on how to successfully add book clubs to your reading workshop.
Th 5 Ws of Differentiated InstructionDive-into what differentiated instruction looks like in an elementary school classroom.

The 5 Ws of Differentiated Instruction

Listen to the podcast episode.

EVERY student can learn just not on the same day or in the same way.

-George Evans

Differentiated instruction is such a buzzword in the educational realm. As educators, we know its importance, but when was the last time we actually dove into what it is and what it looks like in a living, breathing classroom? Well…today is the day!

As many of you know, I love teaching! It is my true passion, and although I could talk about virtually any subject related to teaching, differentiation is by far my favorite. To me, teaching is perhaps the most challenging yet rewarding profession we could have. It requires dedication, analytical skills, and creativity. All three of these are essential to successfully incorporating differentiated instruction into your classroom.

In this blog post, we are going to tackle the 5 Ws of differentiated instruction: Who? What? When? Why? and… How? Okay, so I replaced the Where with How, but as teachers…the how is possibly the most challenging question to answer when it comes to differentiation. Before we get into the logistics of differentiation, let’s first explore the Why…


The better question is Why not?

Meeting the needs of individual students in our classrooms is simply best practice. We have the daunting task of ensuring that all 30+ students in our classrooms make progress and are ready for the next grade level, college, and ultimately their future careers.

Even though we as educators always have the best intentions and always have our students’ best interests at heart, there are some roadblocks when it comes to differentiating our instruction. First, I would just like to say that differentiation is NOT easy. Trust me, if you are reading this blog and feeling a bit anxious or overwhelmed, you are not alone. It took me years to get to the point where I am comfortable differentiating every subject on any given day. I am here to help, but first, let’s address some common concerns…

Differentiation requires too much prep time.

Differentiated instruction, when done right, requires only as much prep time as you desire. Meaning?… It is completely up to you how you differentiate. As we will discuss later in this blog post, a differentiated lesson does not always mean unique activities for every small group or individual student. You can differentiate your instruction simply by asking different questions to different groups or altering how you deliver instruction. You can also allow for student choice when it comes to assessing the learning targets.

Differentiation eats away at instructional minutes.

Although there is something to be said for rotations, differentiated instruction does not always need to come in the form of learning stations. The rotation model is an option, but often requires a bit more time. In other words, students do not need to rotate from one station to another every time you want to differentiate your instruction. In fact, I wholeheartedly believe that you should not meet with every student for an equal amount of time. Some students will need more teacher support, while others will benefit from independent learning time and/or partner work. In sum: spend more time with the students who need you.

Differentiation needs extra money and resources.

Truth be told…does differentiation benefit from said money and resources? YES!!! No school or teacher is ever going to turn down funding; however, you can differentiate on a very tight budget. For example, any given curriculum will include suggestions for English language learners, scaffolding, and enrichment. Classwork and/or homework problems will naturally progress from easy questions to more challenging ones. Rather than have every student answer all 20 questions, for instance, be selective about the questions they do answer. The same is true for your lessons. Rather than do several examples for your entire class, choose 2 or 3 examples that specifically meet the needs of the students you are teaching in a small group. Trust me, once you get into this routine, it will flow seamlessly, and your students will benefit from it.

Differentiation does not address the needs of higher learners.

Sometimes differentiation gets confused with scaffolding. Scaffolding is when we as teachers provide support to help students slowly master a standard. This may be breaking down a math problem into steps or providing more teacher time or perhaps even teaching foundational skills first. Although scaffolding is part of differentiation, it is not the same thing. Differentiation meets the needs of ALL students, including our advanced learners.

Differentiation is only suitable in the primary grade levels.

Upper-grade teachers, this is for you! As I mentioned before, it is not critical to use station rotations. In the upper grades, I would encourage you to move away from this model. It is not that I do not like learning stations, but I know that the lessons we teach in upper grades are often time-consuming. Thus, it is more manageable to use choice boards or task charts. Stay tuned for how I use math task charts to differentiate upper-grade math. I will write a blog post about it next month!


Differentiation is for ALL students. When grouping students, it is important to use an assessment tool that can be taken again every 6-8 weeks. These groups are flexible, meaning that students will move groups based on their progress. For me, I aim to have 4-5 groups in ELA and math. In the table below, I have listed the groups in order from the ones that need the most support (top) to the ones that need more enrichment (bottom). My groups are as follows:

Red (ELA) and Square (Math)This group is for students who are considered at-risk. They are significantly below grade level and often need lessons in foundational skills. As a teacher, provide intervention and scaffolding during this group’s lessons.
Orange (ELA) and Triangle (Math)This group is slightly below grade level. They are able to access grade-level content with scaffolding and support. I recommend checking-in with this group and giving more examples during your lessons.
Purple (ELA) and Trapezoid (Math)This group is able to access grade-level material but sometimes benefits from seeing a lesson more than once. I suggest including a brief review of the previous lesson as their warm-ups. Provide scaffolding as needed. This group may especially benefit from partner work.
Green (ELA) and Diamond (Math)This group is at grade-level. They are able to master grade-level standards with minimal scaffolds. I have found that many curriculums are written with this group in mind. For more challenging lessons, I recommend allowing this group to do partner work for a little extra support.
Blue (ELA) and Circle (Math)This group is made up of the advanced or gifted learners. They often learn new skills very quickly. They do not need many examples to master a new standard. Their lessons should be quick and to the point, so they can spend more time on enrichment activities and/or projects. I recommend incorporating a “flipped classroom”. Students can learn independently (online programs or videos) and go to you for a quick check-in. Be on the lookout for a future post about how to incorporate the “flipped classroom” model in your own classroom!

Please keep in mind that students will be in different groups for ELA and math. For example, a struggling reader may be very successful in math and vice-versa. This is especially true for students with learning disabilities and language learners. A student may also have different levels within various math domains. For example, a student may struggle with fractions but has a solid understanding of geometry. For math, I recommend giving a pre-assessment before each domain.


Ahhh…a seemingly easy question: What is differentiated instruction? I like to look at this often used yet misunderstood term as such:

A teacher can provide differentiated instruction by…

  • Varying WHAT is taught
  • Varying WHEN or how quickly a skill is taught
  • Varying HOW students are taught it

Simply put…differentiated instruction is changing your instruction to meet individual student needs.

You have control over WHAT is taught. Although we do have to teach our grade-level standards, you can control what standards to expand/combine/eliminate (if too easy). Perhaps in one group you review foundational skills on day 1 and then take 2 days to teach one standard. While with a different group, you combine two standards to teach in one day and provide an enrichment activity for the other two days.

You also have control over WHEN something is taught. You can teach the same lesson to 4 groups of students but change the length of each group’s lesson. OR You can teach your advanced learners every other day, combining lessons as needed. Repeat after me: you do not need to teach every student for the same amount of time every day. It is your choice. This concept may feel uncomfortable at first, but it will make all the difference.

Last, you can decide HOW something is taught. For one group, perhaps you use manipulatives, and for a different group, maybe you draw models. Perhaps some students learn best in partners or small groups, while others benefit from quiet, independent learning. You can also use different online tools for each group. My point is that you can quickly cater to the individual needs of your students simply by changing the delivery format. TIP: You may also want to differentiate your assessments. Perhaps allow for some student choice. This could be an entirely separate blog post, so I will save that for another day.


Differentiated instruction can take place in every single part of the day. What?! Yes, every part!!! If you are just dipping your toes into the waters of differentiation, perhaps trying one subject at a time. I recommend starting with math. Teach math in small groups. You may even want to consider splitting the class in half. Teach the students who are below grade level first while the more advanced learners watch a video online (flipped classroom model). I recommend teaching the first group for 75% of your math block. Then, do a quick check-in with your advanced learners. I will write about this model in great detail in an upcoming blog post.

After feeling confident with math, differentiate ELA. This may come in the form of Reading Workshop or even reading groups. For me, I highly recommend incorporating Reading Workshop into your classroom. It is very engaging and is meant for differentiated instruction. If you are new to Reading Workshop, read this post to learn how to get started in 5 easy steps.

Last, add in some time specifically for targeted intervention. This is when you meet with students to teach foundational skills. If students need a specific skill to master an upcoming lesson, meet with those students a few days before the lesson during your intervention time. Over time, it will make all the difference in the world. In my classroom, we dedicate an hour of intervention time. I meet with my at-risk readers for the first 30 minutes, and then teach a writing lesson to the students who are near grade-level. I sometimes use this time to meet with language learners. Meanwhile, the other students are working on either grade-level standards or ongoing enrichment activities. I will go into detail about this block of time in a future blog post.


Now, the big question…How can we differentiate? I would like to sum up what we have covered over the course of this post.

Differentiate your instruction in 5 easy steps…

  1. Assess your students in BOTH ELA and math.
  2. Review the data and separate your students into 4 or 5 groups in ELA and 4 or 5 groups in math.
  3. Start with math. Split the class in half, teaching the groups with students who need more support first. Differentiate by offering longer lessons with more scaffolding to the kids who need it. Use the “flipped classroom” method with your grade-level and advanced learners.
  4. Incorporate Reading Workshop into your classroom. This is an easy way to differentiate. I’ll teach you!
  5. Add in a block of time specifically for intervention.

Now that we have really examined what differentiated instruction looks like in the classroom, we are ready to dive-in head first! In my next blog post, we will specifically look into differentiating your literacy centers. Although I will focus on primary grades, I will also give some ideas for upper-grade teachers. The following post will focus on math blocks, specifically what small-group learning looks like in my upper-grade classroom. Since I have taught both upper grades and primary grades, I hope to share ideas for all elementary school teachers. I can’t wait to continue this journey with you. Until next time…

Other Blog Posts to Help You Get Started

5 Goals of Reading Workshop: Is It Effective?Learn about the many benefits of Reading Workshop.
Reading Workshop: Incorporating Classroom Book ClubsLearn tips and tricks on how to successfully add book clubs to your reading workshop.
Differentiated Literacy Centers: A Primary Teacher’s GuideLearn how to incorporate phonics instruction, fluency passages, and technology into your literacy centers.
Upper-Grade Math: To Rotate or Not To Rotate?Learn how to differentiate your math instruction by incorporating task charts.
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