Brandi J. Clark

Writer and Educator

Differentiation…it’s all in the way you say it!



While researching possible new tips to help my teachers with differentiation, I stumbled across this article: CONUNDRUMS IN THE DIFFERENTIATED LITERACY CLASSROOM by RUTHANNE TOBIN.

The section that “spoke” to me was about teacher language and its importance in the differentiated classroom.

Yes, we know all about planning for flexible groupings but what about differentiating your “teacher talk”?

How does what you say impact the struggling learners in your classroom?

With a change of perspective and some language tweaks, you can actually empower students with just the words you say.

It’s true!

The lesson you teach might actually be differentiated but sometimes when students are sent to centers or independent work they might need further differentiation in the form of talk.

Check this out!

Below are some common myths with parts of the article highlighting the opposite.

MYTH: Students shouldn’t need instructions repeated.

IN FACT: Some students need instructions repeated.

“Differentiated classroom teachers do not expect the whole group demonstration to be sufficient for all learners. Typical among successful differentiators in one study (Tobin, 2007) was an acceptance that some students would need instructions and demonstrations given to them individually, or more than once, with some students still needing the first steps in their reading or writing modeled or scribed to get them started. Central to enabling these kinds of individual and small group interactions and demonstrations is the skillful use of flexible groupings that anticipate and acknowledge misunderstandings and needs for redundancy.”

ACTION: Be patient! We’ve all had those moments of distraction or confusion as grown-ups. If it’s OK for us to seek clarification, it’s more than OK for our students.

MYTH: Telling students what they aren’t doing helps them get started.

IN FACT: Students need encouragement and helpful “next steps”.

Such comments as: “You haven’t even put the date down yet,” “Did you listen to instructions?”, or “Get working” do little to accelerate task engagement. An alternative approach involves adopting a validating stance or nudging approach toward students who appear reluctant or disengaged. Such comments as, “What do you do first, next, now?” and “I’ll be back in a few minutes to see how you are doing,” nudge children in ways likely to protect the learning relationship.

Nudging students through validating discourse, assuming best intentions (“I see you’re still thinking about what to put down first.”) often produces better results than literal feedback about their disengagement (Tobin, 2006).

“”When you’re finished working on the first part, could you share yours with me?” It may be that the student is not working on the first part but this may get him started. This type of communication with at-risk students sends the important message that their intellect and contributions are valued.”

ACTION: Be proactive! You know who these students will likely be. Check in with them. Find out what they might need to start the task. Sometimes they need more brainstorming time with you or a friend. Often they just need space on their own to think without distraction. Model for students different ways to approach starting a task.

MYTH: Student misunderstandings should be owned by the student.

IN FACT: Students need know that learning has many entry points.

“In working with reluctant students, letting them ‘off the hook’ by owning misunderstandings or offering alternative explanations such as: “Let’s try this a different way”, “I probably didn’t explain this too well” ” Let me try it again, okay?”, or ” I didn’t put this exactly right” helps learners save face and re-engage with the learning task.”

Action: Some of our students will never say they “don’t get it”.  Be prepared to watch for those tell-tale-faces of confusion. If the student is ultra sensitive, explain to the student next to him/her and involve both students in the discussion so it’s a group thing rather than just one on one.

MYTH: Students shouldn’t need more prompts after instructions are given.

IN FACT: Students need helpful prompts when they are stalled.

“Routine prompting phrases such as the following may go a long way in encouraging students who are stalled, confused, or unmotivated: “Tell me one thing you understand about it [the assignment].”; “You probably have lots of good ideas. Tell me the first one and I’ll write it down for you.”; “Let’s use one of your graphic organizers.”; “I’ll be back in a few minutes to see the first part.”; “What’s the next thing you need to do? Could you start here?” (Tobin, 2005a). This dimension of classroom interactions is particularly critical for at-risk students, whose perceptions of how others will respond to their requests for help actually determine who they ask for assistance, or from whom they will accept help (Marshall, 2001; Tobin, 2005a).

ACTION: Be prepared! Have some prompts or organizers prepared for students who need that extra boost or structure. For many of our struggling learners, tasks need to be broken down and the pace lessened. Providing focus for their first steps helps to provide momentum to the second step. Make sure you check in with them, do what you say, say what you do.

Last words….

This doesn’t have to be just good practices for teaching. Post these helpful prompts and phrases in the classroom. Teach students how to support each other in pairs or groups.  Many teachers makes light work! (Made that up …just now.)

Last-er words….

I’ll leave you with this last quote from the article.

As Fairclough (1995) purported , teachers’ talk powerfully shapes  who students think they are, who they think they can be, and who they ultimately become.

Until next time,

Love Coach Clark

About Brandi Clark