How to Differentiate Writing Instruction for Students

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  • 0:04 Differentiated Learning
  • 0:40 Differentiated Writing…
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Lesson Transcript
Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

Expert Contributor
Anastasia Brooks

Anastasia has a PhD in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Connecticut. She has taught high-school and college English for over 20 years.

How can teachers reach all learners during writing instruction? This lesson highlights several strategies to differentiate writing instruction and gives examples of how each is used in the classroom.

Differentiated Learning

Ms. Kay has a class full of diverse learners. Some respond better when she teaches visual lessons, and some are better getting their hands on work. Some are beginning writers, and some have skills above their grade level. Because of this, she knows to differentiate her instruction, or teach in different ways so all children in her class can learn no matter what their level.

Take writing instruction, for example. She uses several strategies of differentiation, like guided writing groups and interactive writing instruction, to make sure content is understood by all. How does this look in her day-to-day classroom? Let's take a peek.

Differentiated Writing Instruction

Ms. Kay's school uses a method of writing instruction called writer's workshop. During this hour-long time period, she follows a predictable sequence of steps with her third grade students. First she teaches content in a mini-lesson. She follows this up with independent writing and finally group share time. What strategies does she use to differentiate each of these steps?

During the mini-lesson, Ms. Kay teaches her students a specific skill related to writing, either an author's craft, like creating a story arc, or structure, like ending sentences with periods. She knows she has students who learn well when she lectures, while others do better if they can see examples. Many students are on different levels, and she needs to make sure they all understand the core concept. She could use interactive writing to show students how to do a task.

For example, today students are working on how to replace boring adjectives with juicy ones. She prepared for the lesson by writing a short passage on a piece of chart paper. Together, she and the students read through the piece and cross off 'dead' adjectives and replace them with 'lively' ones. After demonstrating a few times, she allows students to come to the front and practice with the group.

Interactive writing can also be used to create writing. Ms. Kay will use group input to collectively write a piece. For example, if the class is learning how to write an exciting beginning to hook readers, Ms. Kay will guide students to develop and co-create a story lead. She may give them a topic - perhaps a piece about a boy who loses a tooth - and allow the class to brainstorm together as she writes ideas on the chart paper.

Once Ms. Kay is sure all students understand the central teaching concept, she sends them off to work independently on their writing. During this time, she focuses on different skill levels and differentiates by pulling guided writing groups. Typically these groupings are between three and six students who all have a common struggle. This way Ms. Kay can manage the number, and there are enough students to provide learning opportunities. Some groups are scheduled to meet at predetermined times, like Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Other groups are pulled on an as-needed basis when Ms. Kay notices a common struggle.

Today she's pulling a new heterogeneously mixed group, or a group of students on different levels but with a common issue. She has noticed that these students all struggle with punctuating ends of sentences. During the guided writing group time, she re-teaches punctuation, practices with the group, and then has them review their pieces to see where they can apply this concept.

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Additional Activities

Ideas for Differentiated Writing Instruction

I. An effective way of differentiating writing instruction is by giving students choices of topics whose cognition levels are aligned with Bloom's taxonomy. There are six of these levels and they include remembering (recalling), understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating (synthesizing and comparing), and creating. The first level is recalling and it is the easiest which means that it would be appropriate for lower-level students. The last one is creating and it requires high-order thinking skills so it is more suitable for advanced students. Understanding and applying can be used for average-ability students. The best way to use these is to make up a list of topics, each of which begins with a Bloom's taxonomy verb. Here are examples:

1. RECALLING - Identify and describe the main characters in the story "The Cask of Amontillado."

2. UNDERSTANDING - Explain why the villagers in the short story "The Lottery" draw lottery tickets in June.

3. APPLYING - Provide a real-life example of the kind of behavior illustrated by the villagers in "The Lottery."

4. ANALYZING - Compare and contrast Walter Younger to his sister Beneatha in the play A Raisin in the Sun.

5. EVALUATE - Discuss whether Sonia Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment is a noble character. Provide at least three reasons why, supported by citations from the novel.

6. CREATE - Write in the style of Edgar Allan Poe. Use similar sentence structure, word choice, and a dark, spooky setting.

The topics above use different pieces of literature but similar questions could be formulated about just one piece of literature. This kind of instruction would give students an ability to choose.

II. Model essay writing on the board. Choose a topic and share how you, as a teacher, would go about writing an introductory paragraph, a thesis statement, two or three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. This kind of instruction would take a few days. On day one, begin by teaching students how to write an introductory paragraph that summarizes the plot of a short story or a novel. Stick to who/what/why/when/where/and how questions only in the summary. Writing a summary, without editorializing, is more challenging for students than they think it is.

III. Take a paragraph from a novel or a newspaper and make copies of it. Then, you can cut individual sentences and place them in a plastic bag for students to put together, by working in pairs. Longer or more difficult paragraphs could be given to more advanced students while simpler ones would be appropriate for younger or less advanced students. The difficulty level can be determined by the teacher. Students love this kind of activity as it gives them an ability to collaborate.

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