Doing the Differentiation Dance

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Differentiated instruction. Right now, those words seem to be the current “buzz words” of education. However, differentiated instruction has existed since the one-room schoolhouse age when the teacher had to meet the needs of many children at all different ages. Trust me, college students research and apply differentiated instruction a lot while creating very detailed lesson plans with tiered activities! However, by the time we become actual teachers in the classroom, planning and implementing differentiated instruction can be a much more rigorous task.  It’s almost like an artistic dance…while juggling at the same time.

I always advise people to start small. I know this can be difficult with the changes in education. There is something “new” to implement every year. However, concentrate on one thing and make it “beautiful!” It’s so easy to implement something and have it crash and burn in such an ugly way that you want to cry for hours on your classroom carpet. Before something can be beautiful, it takes time to grow and cultivate. So, cultivate one thing at a time.

How about starting with differentiated reading centers? Teachers are really good at differentiating small group reading instruction, but how about those centers? Are your students struggling with centers? Could the reason be that some centers are not for everyone? Are they too hard or too easy for some kids?

Here are some tips for planning and implementing differentiated reading centers:

1. Assess your students periodically. Believe it or not, it’s okay to move students up and down levels throughout the year. If a child is demonstrating success in a guided reading group, then move that child! Also, your groups don’t always have to be based on guided reading level. Sometimes, it is necessary to have flexible reading groups based on skill. Change it up!

I use the Fountas & Pinnell BAS and Words Their Way assessments for guided and flexible groups:


Fountas & Pinnell BAS Kit                   

Words Their Way Assessment

Words Their Way Elementary Spelling Inventory


2. Decide on the types of reading centers for your class. Some examples of researched and productive centers are: listening center, word building/phonics center, writing center, vocabulary center, technology center, word wall center, fluency center, buddy reading center, read to self center, etc. Some teachers choose to integrate the Daily 5 Centers in order to make sure all students participate in each center every day.

     Here are my differentiated reading center examples at this time:

Differentiated Centers - Low Group

Differentiated Centers - Medium Group

Differentiated Centers - High Group


3. Set up an organized system for students, so students know what are their centers and their locations.

Each colored folder represents a specific reading group for differentiation:

Reading Center Area

Reading Centers Station

Reading Center Bin with Leveled Color Bins

              Reading Center Bin               

Leveled Color Envelopes

Leveled Folders by Color


4. Provide accountability for the students. Students can even self-assess themselves!

     My students love using their Literacy Center Accountability forms:

Literacy Accountabilty Form


5. Have student exemplars for each center activity. The exemplars provide a visual example for the students, and it keeps them from asking you questions while you are working with a guided reading group!

    I just put my student exemplars in white binders:

Exemplar Bins

Exemplar Organization

Exemplar Binder

Student Exemplar Binder

Highlight the Vowel Exemplar  Voc Quiz Maker Exemplar Spelling Mural Exemplar

Like you, I am still cultivating my differentiated reading centers. I love getting ideas from other educators on how to make my centers “grow.” I hope you could find some ideas for differentiated reading centers in this post!  Let’s dance the differentiation dance together!

Websites for Center Ideas: (Florida Reading Center) (Reading Street Resources) (Technology Centers) (The Daily 5) (The Busy Teacher’s Cafe) (Laura Candler)

Spell the word…

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How many of you are good spellers? Honestly, because according to statistics, there are a lot of people out there who are thankful for spellcheck on the computer. I occasionally use spellcheck, but I am fortunate to be a pretty good speller. How did I get this way? Should I thank my 1st grade teacher who placed a huge emphasis on spelling tests every Friday (that’s another debate for another time), or should I also thank my parents who made me write my words 10x each before I could play outside?

I really never thought about these questions in my teacher preparation courses in college. First of all, student teachers draw upon their own school experiences in the beginning. I don’t know about you, but I was used to the procedure of getting the spelling list of 20 words on Monday and then testing those words on Friday. I do remember doing spelling activities in class like writing the words 3 x each or writing definitions for every word from the dictionary. For me, I always HATED these activities, because I already knew how to spell 75% of the words. Most of the time, I would score a 100% on the test by Friday. I really never saw or worked with those words again.

Well, after my first year of teaching (this is when you start to feel more comfortable with teaching outside the text), I noticed I had a group of low and high spellers – extremes. The same group of students would BOMB their spelling tests, and the same group of students would ACE their spelling tests. I inferred that the group of students who BOMBED the spelling test just didn’t study, because I was doing my part as a teacher of introducing the spelling pattern and incorporating spelling centers in the classroom.

BUT sigh, my whole philosophy of “being a good speller = great study habits” was shot out the door when I became a mother! PLEASE DON’T MISUNDERSTAND ME THOUGH, I STILL BELIEVE STUDYING IS IMPORTANT. It was just frustrating to study the same words over and over, and my child still struggled. In addition, how many times had my child spelled the words 100% correct at home and then performed poorly on the classroom spelling test. I just didn’t get it!

Then, as a teacher I started to do some research on spelling…not Facebook post kind-of-research, but reading various meta-analysis on spelling. What did I discover?? The traditional way of teaching spelling WAS and IS not working. So, what – according to research and not tradition – works better?  I wanted to know for my students and for my own kids.

WORD STUDY! What is the difference? A word study program is a cohesive approach that addresses word recognition, vocabulary, and phonics as well as spelling (Zutell, 1992). Word study involves students dissecting, investigating, and UNDERSTANDING the pattern of words. A visual of what this might look like IN THE CLASSROOM is:

1. introducing the word pattern
2. providing a list of words that meet that pattern
3. color-coding the pattern
4. sorting the words into word sorts and
5. participating in activities to reinforce the pattern.

The students should become so familiar with the word patterns and exceptions to the rule (as English is famous for) that they can recognize those spelling patterns in other words; therefore, there is a meaningful connection and application to writing. As stated by Leipzigo (2000), in order to implement word study effectively, teachers and students alike must become word detectives, engaged in an ongoing attempt to make sense of word patterns and their relationships to one another. Spelling “rules” are not dictated by the teacher for students to memorize. Rather, spelling patterns and generalizations are discovered by students.

Another crucial component of word study is to recognize that spelling is developmental. This is why some students BOMB the spelling test. They are not developmentally ready or have the prior knowledge to recognize the spelling pattern. Therefore, teachers should differentiate word study in the classroom by creating word study groups. A teacher can administer a spelling inventory to determine a student’s strengths and weaknesses. I personally use “Words Their Way” as an assessment tool, and I use the books as well. There are ready-made tests and sorts…love ready-made!

Now, you are saying in your head…ummm, get real. When do I have time to meet the needs of so many word study/spelling groups in my classroom? My advice – start with baby steps. For example, I am currently at a new school still learning the ropes. Therefore, after I administered the spelling inventory, I made the decision to have a word study group for my struggling spellers/readers only. However, even though I use the curriculum spelling words for my other students, I still implement the “word study” approach to learn the words. I have made spelling word cards for each list and each student to color code, sort, and manipulate. We participate in more meaningful word study/spelling activities such as writing a spelling story, completing spelling pyramids, highlighting vowels, etc. Also, parents have a list of various researched and effective activities they can do at home with their child BEYOND the writing the word 10x each.

So, I’m not perfect (definitely not), and I’m still learning myself. After some more experience at my new school, I hope to get back to differentiating word study/spelling for my high students as well. Also, I still believe spelling tests are crucial to assess whether or not my kids are getting it, but they don’t have to be every Friday.  Students may take more than a week to study their words.  However, maybe I should change my terminology from “spelling tests” to “word study tests.”

If you would like more information on “Words Their Way,” you can visit:

1. Research at

WTW Book


2. Products at  


WTW Orange Book

WTW Red Book          WTW Green Book          WTW Blue Book


3. Activities at