Employing Differentiation in Secondary Language Arts



By Amanda Palmer

Palmer Employing Differentiation 300x300In 2008, I found myself navigating the uncharted waters of a newly minted high school instructional coach.

One morning, an assistant principal stopped me outside of the counseling wing. “Amanda, I need you to develop something on differentiation,” she said.

I stood for a moment and let the word roll around in my brain before slowly saying, “Differentiation?”

How did I admit to this administrator that her new instructional coach had no idea what she was talking about? Fortunately, I was adept at practicing vulnerability long before it was in vogue. I quietly admitted, “I don’t know what that is.”

But, I did. I had been differentiating in my English classes for years. I just didn’t know it had a fancy name. I called it, “Getting [insert student name here] to participate.” Lessons were filled with collaborative grouping, choice activities, and a myriad of other ways for students to make connections to their personal worlds.

After my hallway discussion, I took a crash course in all things Carol Ann Tomlinson, beginning with The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Her words gave me a conceptual framework, but mostly they affirmed what I expected: differentiation is the constant reminder that we teach individuals, not courses or content.

English instructors often focus on the creation of shared meaning via a single text. Even within a single text, teachers can differentiate. These texts can be used to create projects, provide roles, promote differing student interests, and engage in discussions that follow many meaty tangents. And yet, there are many more opportunities to improve differentiation and the overall learning experience, particularly as students seem to enter the classroom less engaged, more apathetic, and with a device in their hand linking them to all of the information they think they need. A constant commitment to providing students with learning experiences that meet their individual needs validates and engages learners.

Consider these suggestions for further differentiation in the secondary language arts classroom.

Provide Choice in Independent Reading Selections

Providing choice enriches instruction on a multitude of levels (Tomlinson, 1999). Students come to language arts classrooms with a variety of reading abilities and vast differences in background knowledge. Providing choice through independent reading ensures that all learners’ needs are met and allows learners to make connections with texts that are accessible and of interest.

Recently, I visited a freshman English class. At first, the lesson appeared to be a basic whole-class review for a grammar test. However, as I talked with students, the teacher’s efforts to differentiate based on interest and ability using student-selected books during class became apparent.

As students worked through the different elements of grammar and mechanics, the teacher required that they find examples within their independent reading books. Students recorded the examples in their notebooks, providing them the opportunity to see the elements in action and leading them to think about why the author made these grammatical decisions. By giving students choices, the teachers made grammar relevant and seamlessly directed students to the rigorous activity of addressing an author’s purpose—a driving force in the reading, writing, and discussion of texts.

Establish a Writing Workshop Structure

Perhaps the clearest path to meeting all learner needs runs through writing instruction. Writing is a journey of self. It requires only a guide and eschews conformity. Allowing students to partake in this journey with writing workshop—a type of instruction dependent on the writing process, authentic practice, and teacher feedback—is key. Some assume writing workshop to be an elementary-level practice; however, it actually originated at the University of New Hampshire in the writing course of Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and professor Don Murray (Murray, 2009). Writing workshop invites differentiation into the classroom as students select topics, maintain writing partnerships and groups based on learner needs, and receive timely differentiated instruction during individual and small-group teacher conferences.

Use Performance Tasks and Standards-Based Grading for Assessment

Language arts is performance. Reading, writing, speaking, and listening are actions. They are performed. It seems natural that the teachers should assess instructional goals with performances, such as essays, discussions, and presentations. These acts are generally better suited to highlight individual learner needs than a multiple-choice test.

In Embedded Formative Assessment, Dylan Wiliam (2011) discusses how the need for ongoing assessment lies in the inability to predict what students will learn no matter how well teachers plan curriculum or instruction. Tomlinson and McTighe (2006) devote an entire chapter to the importance of standards-based grading, noting that backwards design cannot be claimed if the assessments do not report on specific learning goals and the learner’s level of proficiency. Aligning performance tasks with a proficiency scale for assessment provides students with skills practice and individual instruction for improvement.

Differentiation is a paradox; it is both simple and complex. It is a craft to be learned and an art. In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull brilliantly explains the difference between the two: “Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft”(2014, p. 196). If teaching is a craft, then the creative planning—the differentiation—to deliberately meet each student’s needs is sheer art.


Catmull, E., & Wallace, A. (2014). Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration. New York, NY: Random House.

Murray, D. (2009). The essential Don Murray: Lessons from America’s greatest writing                                    Teacher. T. Newkirk & L. Miller (Eds.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The differentiated classroom responding to the needs of all                                           learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Tomlinson, C. A., & McTighe, J. (2006). Grading and Reporting Achievement. In                                              Integrating differentiated instruction & understanding by design connecting                                                         content and kids. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN:                                                                      Solution Tree Press.


Amanda Palmer is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders class of 2015. She began her career as a high school English teacher and later served as a campus instructional coach. She currently serves as a secondary language arts coordinator in the Katy Independent School District in Katy, Tex. Connect with her on Twitter @AmandaPalmer131.


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