The Importance of Personalized Instruction Part 1: Differentiation by Content

Anyone who is a parent or who has taught a classroom of youngsters for more than a few minutes understands the pressing need for personalized instruction. Each of our own children is unique, and our students come into our classrooms with different skill sets, learning styles, and with diverse interests. We must take our children’s different needs and talents into consideration in order to help them make the connections needed to truly master the material we are teaching.

Few educators or parents question the need for personalized instruction. However, the looming question in schools is how to personalize instruction in a way that is manageable. Too often, practical suggestions for implementing differentiated lessons are lacking.

According to Wendy Conklin (2006), there are three basic ways that we can differentiate instruction. We can differentiate content (the resources and materials that are used for instruction). We can differentiate the process (or the way we ask kids to make sense of what they are learning). Finally, we can differentiate product (or how kids share what they have learned).

Differentiation by Content

Think about the title of Richard Allington’s book, You Can’t Learn Much from Books You Can’t Read (2002). If students struggle to simply decode text, they cannot use their mental energy to understand the new information and make the necessary connections to it. Students at different skill levels need to have access to a variety of resources and materials that cover the same concepts but that vary in readability level, sophistication, and abstraction. Advanced students may profit from compacting or spending less time with the regular curriculum and more time with extension and enrichment opportunities. These students benefit from texts and other resources that are more sophisticated. On the other hand, students at lower skill levels require simpler and less ambiguous text. They may need text that is supported by illustrations, explanations, picture dictionaries, and sometimes by outside resources. These students often require ongoing support.

As our students learn and grow, their needs continually change.

Often just by watching kids and listening to what they say, you can see who needs immediate assistance and who can work independently. Sometimes just a few words to a confused child, or a min-lesson geared to a group of students with similar needs, can make all the difference.

There are two other things that you should take into consideration when differentiating by content. They are the interests and learning styles (or learning preferences) of the kids. It is important to give kids some choices about the texts that they read and the topics they study. Often, just letting kids make choices will ensure greater engagement, determination, focus, and, ultimately, success. It also gives them the skills necessary for independent learning.

Consider kids’ learning styles and preferences

Written text is not the only source of information. In this digital age, the definition of text itself has broadened. Different sources of information are more easily accessible than ever before. Students who learn best through art, music, movement, nature, numeracy, etc. can now access pictures, video clips, statistical analyses, and songs that match their learning modalities. Many primary source materials have also become available through different educational publishers. These may include original letters, advertisements, posters, pictures, etc. New “texts” can now be easily integrated into any learning program through the technologies and educational resources that we have available today.

Look for the upcoming blog- The Importance of Personalized Learning Part 2: Differentiation by Process and Product