Differentiate and Stay Sane!


Most of my teaching career has been spent in a 1st grade classroom. However, for three years I was a reading interventionist. That meant that I got to work with our school’s readers who struggled the most. I did small groups all day and worked with K-5. That was my happy place. That was my, “If I win the lottery, I am still coming in Every. Single. Day. because traveling can wait,” job. Don’t get me wrong, I love being in the classroom too. But, as an interventionist I was able to truly use a systematic approach to reading. I was able to see the progression of phonological awareness and phonics skills. I was able to easily assess and move students to the next level. Phonics was my main focus.  Let me tell you, life as an educator is so much easier when you get to have a laser like focus.

Then came budget cuts. After 3 years of intervention, I went back into the classroom. I wanted to differentiate for my students. “No problem,” I thought. “I know phonics like the back of my hand.”  So, I had every different reading group working on different skills…and it was horrible. My highs students weren’t getting any kind of systematic approach. They were just getting whatever kinds of skills I felt like they were missing or whatever they would need for a guided reading book.

I was constantly focused on Tier 1 learning targets as a whole group. However, it felt strange to tell kids that we were working on one thing, when in their reading groups (and the bulk of their instruction) they were working on something different. I was also focused on kids self assessing. This felt pointless. My lower students were too low to feel success and the higher students didn’t even need to try. I felt like teaching was a jumbled mess and I had never been so frustrated as an educator. I had never felt like such a failure.

I knew something had to change. I began to think about how phonics is introduced in most systematic approaches. short vowels (cvc), digraphs, blends, suffixes, vce words, vowel teams, R controlled vowels, diphthongs, multi-syllable words. The order might change a bit, but it stays pretty consistent. Then, I began to think about how we typically introduce these in the classroom. You all know what we do; we spend one week on each. You also know the problems with this.  Kids don’t all start at the same place, and they don’t all learn at the same rate.  So, I began to think, “How can I provide consistency, a systematic approach, and differentiation all in one?”  That is when I began to provide different levels within each target. Here is what the levels look like when we are reviewing short vowels.

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This system changed my world! More importantly, it changed my students’ world. I began to pretest with purpose. Each week I was looking for 1) Do my students know short vowel sounds and consonants? 2)Do they know their digraphs? 3)Can they hear the blends? 4)Do they know to double a consonant before adding a vowel suffix? Do they know that the ed suffix can sound like /t/ /d/ and /id/? All of this was done within the realm of whatever short vowel we were working on. By the time we were done reviewing short vowel words, most of my students were learning about adding suffixes. I have a secret love of suffixes. You can sneak in a lot of long vowel learning because you are teaching the difference between hopping and hoping etc.. Why do the levels matter? Why didn’t I just teach my kids about these things? It gave students a sense of success and it gave students a next step. It put learning in their hands. It also gave me a clear scope and sequence.

Here is a peek at what my levels look like when my tier one instruction is digraphs and blends.

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By the time we start learning about ending blends, students have a chance to work on mulitsyllable words. This continues throughout the rest of the year. Level 1 is the simplest form of the word. Level 2 add blends and digraphs. Level 3 adds suffixes. Level 4 works on multisyllabic words. This is important…students have the chance to move up as the week goes on.

I have created games and resources that have all of these levels. Here is the system that works in my class:


1.) I pretest. I give 2 words for each level.

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After we test, the kids put their pencil away. I pass out a note card that has their name on it. Once they miss a word, they bring me their card. I stick it in a pocket chart that looks like this:

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I make sure there are at least 2 note cards in each pocket. These kids become partners for the week. Notice the pennants at the top. The kids decorated them with phrases from our class that help them remember to have a growth mindset. Not better, not worse, just different. Don’t quit. Yet. Just try it. Mistakes are part of learning. It is important to build a safe environment and let it be known that level one is where they should start, but that doesn’t mean that is where they will end.

2.) After we have pretested, I prep the games after school. It takes me about 5-10 minutes to print off the correct number of each level. I am ok with this prep time because it shapes my entire week. At the beginning of the year, I even cut the game cards out because I want to speed up the process. The game pieces fit right into the pocket chart.2016-02-17 11-30-53 -0600

3.) I do different reading groups throughout the week. At the beginning of the year, I do 2 days based on guided reading levels and 3 days based on their phonics level. During our reading groups, one of our rotations is partner work. The students gather their game board and cards. They are responsible for keeping track of all of it.

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When students are done playing, they sort their word cards and write their words.

They also get to do a comprehension page. This is done on a different day from the written sort.

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What am I doing in reading group? I start with having students self assess their reading at each level. This helps them see how they grow throughout the week and they take more ownership of their learning.

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We practice hearing the sounds in the words and writing them.

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I will also take the word cards from the game and have students practice reading those. It is a great warm up each day (and a great opportunity to work at higher levels). We also make words on magnetic trays and read phonics readers.

*Please note that these pictures come from different games. We are not working on long i, ar, and short o in one week!

Are you interested in having these resources at your fingertips? Here is a link to my TPT store.


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