Sample Unit – Differentiated Reading

One of the easiest ways to incorporate differentiated instruction into the classroom is to build units around essential questions instead of a specific text. It isn’t difficult, has measurable advantages, and once the planning is done, the same unit can be used over and over. So it's worth the investment!

What is an Essential Question?
Essential Questions are BIG questions that require a student to explore a topic and reflect on the meaning of texts. Essential questions are not easily answered. They are never yes/no questions; in fact, essential questions often don’t have one right answer. Some examples of effective essential questions include:

•    Why are some stories worth telling more than others? (Literature/ELA)
•    Why do human beings create governments? (Social Studies)
•    What do effective problem solvers do when they get stuck? (Mathematics)
•    How does the natural world – an ecosystem, an organism, a chemical compound, a geophysical structure – struggle to maintain balance? (Science)
•    How can the human body maintain momentum when dealing with obstacles? (PE)

For more information about essential questions and how to use them, read Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTigue.


A 7th grade ELA teaching team had a unit based around the book, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Every year they taught the same book. As the teachers, curriculum director and I evaluated the effectiveness of the unit we determined that:

• the majority of students were able to read the text independently or with minimal support
• a few students struggled with the text, even with teacher support
• many students were totally uninterested in the book and didn’t really finish it
• classroom activities centered around “proving that you read the assigned pages”
• lessons focused on remembering and understanding (the lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy) and rarely approached analyzing, applying, evaluating, or creating.

The teaching team wanted to rework the unit to incorporate differentiated instruction and hopefully inspire all of the students to more actively engage with the text.


Essential question: What are the limits of friendship?

Students were encouraged to choose a “just-right” book from the following options:

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

This 1937 novella has been a classroom staple for decades. The plot revolves around two laborers in California's dusty vegetable fields. The odd friendship between “small and quick” George, and the powerful yet simple Lennie, reverberates throughout popular culture. The author’s writing style and word choice make it accessible to most 7th grade readers. The book is relatively short, but its 112 pages are packed with literary devices like allegory and symbolism. The well-crafted imagery lends itself to classroom activities/discussions about setting and character development.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

This bestselling novel about a young girl's journey towards healing and the transforming power of love is written at a slightly higher level than Of Mice and Men. It includes a more extensive vocabulary and the sentences are often more complex in structure. We hoped that the female protagonist would be appealing to many students. At 336 pages, this book would be ideal for above- or on-level readers who were concentrating on building reading stamina.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

Exploring the conflict between working class “greasers” and a vicious gang of “rich” kids, this 1967 book is still wildly popular with adolescent readers. Because it unflinchingly explored the darker aspects of teen alliances and enmity, this book is often credited with laying the groundwork for contemporary Young Adult fiction. The Outsiders is set in a not-too-distant past, and because the main characters are teens, we believed that students would find it easy to relate to their struggles.

Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers

A realistic look at the pressures to conform and an exploration of how a culture of violence informs a young man’s decisions, Scorpions is a popular book in classrooms throughout the country. Myers unflinchingly looks at the appeal of guns and the role of friendship in street gangs. Like all four book options, Scorpions has strong, clearly delineated characters and a well-described setting. In online reviews, some educators described this as “a book for kids who hate reading.” My teaching team hoped it would appeal to their most reluctant readers.

The class divided up into four “book clubs” for the duration of the unit. Students were assigned to a club based on their choice of book. Throughout the unit, the book clubs met with the teacher for echo reading, book discussions, and formative assessment. Whole class activities included explanation of deep reading activities (like character, setting, and plot analysis activities), vocabulary development, and grammar observations using text samples from the various books. The students were given plenty of opportunities to practice all the activities in small groups. The teachers scheduled large and small group discussions so that students could debate how "their" author attempted to answer the essential question.

The results from re-working this unit were astounding! Student engagement improved by leaps and bounds. The novelty of choosing their own book – even though it was just a choice between four pre-determined texts – gave students ownership of the process. The small group work (in what I call Literacy & Learning Centers) allowed students to engage in a wider range of more challenging activities. And most importantly, the students read their books!

Standards/Skills-based Assessment

I just got a great question from a teacher: "What are your thoughts on this whole data-driven reading instruction? Do you agree with this approach and is there research that supports this pedagogical practice?" Since I know she isn't the only one who has this question, I thought I'd share my answer.

In a nutshell, "data driven" instruction can be a tool for a larger understanding of where students are in their skill development – but it isn't the entire story. When we engage in data driven instruction, I always caution against “getting too obsessed.” In other words, don’t be held hostage to one way of grading and assessing. Reading is a developmental process and not every aspect is easily discernible by reading comprehension tests. Cultural disconnects, for example, mean that many of these tests are inherently flawed.

With that being said, standardized testing measures can be useful when they are used as a tool for figuring out the “whole picture”. And that’s why, in general, I’m a huge supporter of standards/skills based assessment. Quite simply, in the schools where I primarily work and serve, it leads to tremendous growth and achievement. I have case studies on my website that showcase some of these schools and districts. You can download the case studies by clicking the button at the bottom of this web page.

Many researchers have focused on skills based assessments including Susan Brookhart, James Popham, Margaret Heritage, and Alfie Kohn. I am especially a fan of Kohn’s advocacy for focusing on skills rather than grades. Like Kohn, I think student testing should never be used as a draconian accountability measure that stifles teachers or thwarts them from creating inspiring classrooms.

So many schools are looking for guidance in this area – and I think I’ve come up with an affordable solution. I’m in the process of scheduling a one-day conference on grading and assessment strategies. You can read more about it here. The date and location haven’t been determined yet, but if you sign up for my newsletter you’ll be among the first to know the details. Of course I do in-school consultations and PD, too. Please share my information with your administrators. Invite them to contact me if they want to discuss bringing me to your school. I’d love to help you all implement a grading/assessment system that effectively communicates learning, accurately informs instruction, and meaningfully develops students’ skills. Trust me, it can be done!

Why Literacy and Learning Centers Work: Stories from East St. Louis

You may know about East St. Louis, Illinois. Jonathan Kozol featured the district in his seminal book, Savage Inequalities which many educators read in college courses. Brutally capturing the cruel truth about the inequities of public education, East St. Louis was depicted as one of our most heartbreaking realities. Children in East St. Louis were not receiving the level of education that all children deserve. Fast forward decades later, there is a new administration and commitment to ensuring that the children in East St. Louis succeed. 

The Learning and Literacy Center model that I developed was implemented at the middle school and high school level at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year and continued during the 2015-2016 school year.

East Saint Louis is an urban district with historically under-performing schools and high poverty. The majority of adolescent students were significantly below grade level in reading. As we implemented the Learning and Literacy Center model in East St. Louis, we placed particular emphasis on differentiating reading materials, promoting skills in collaboration and student self- regulation. Through significant coaching and professional development, the results are exciting. At the two middle schools and high schools, student growth is evident through district tracking that includes NWEA, with double digit gains.

It is evident that our strategy of providing students the opportunity to practice literacy skills while developing content knowledge is working. Consistently incorporating a teacher-led center has proven to be a critical component of this success since many of the students need targeted skill instruction. These teacher-led centers create the much-needed instructional time to target specific skills for more individualized instruction. Click here to see a classroom in action.

To learn more about the Learning and Literacy model used in the East St. Louis School District –
and to discover how you can employ it in your own classroom – join me at a Reading2 Learn conference!

Building Skills One Center at a Time

In six weeks, I will host my second Reading 2Learn, Literacy and Learning Center conference! In the past four years, I have been working with centers in classrooms of older students (grades 4th-12th) and it is increasingly clear that this pedagogical framework is very effective for the development of literacy skills and content knowledge for the following reasons:

  1. The combination of self-directed activities and short specific tasks lends itself to the developing adolescent. Students are able to focus, stay on task and become increasingly independent in this format.
  2. As I work in classrooms, students with special needs, in particular, report that they feel “safer” in these smaller center groups. 
  3. Since the model has a teacher led center, descriptive feedback and one-one discussions can occur more frequently.
  4. The Literacy and Learning Center(LLC) model allows for greater opportunity to differentiate instruction with older students.
  5. The introduction of the College and Career Readiness standards, like Common Core, promote the importance of students to develop greater independence in their learning. The LLC model promotes student independence through its compatibility with the Gradual Release of Responsibility framework. 
  6. Formative Assessment and student checks for understanding are compatible with the LLC model. 

In future blogs, I will share resources, both print and visual to help you get started with Literacy and Learning Centers. Of course, I am also hope to meet you at my upcoming conference. 

For more information about my upcoming conference in Orlando, click here.

Developing Student Independence Is Not a New Concept

In my recent newsletter, I shared some tips regarding Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR).  Building student independence is not necessarily a new concept.  I would trace its origins back to influential educators such as John Dewey and Marie Montessori.  These iconic educators promoted the importance for students to develop independence while learning since I lead to greater motivation and achievement.  With the introduction of the Common Core State Standards and other state equivalents, greater emphasis is being placed on fostering student independence.  It’s not enough for students to just know content or have skills, they must know when and how to use them.  I discuss GRR as part of my theoretical model for my Literacy and Learning Centers.  If you missed my latest newsletter, here it is!  You can also register for my newsletter at

Learning and Literacy Centers & Gradual Release of Responsibility

They go together like sha-na and na!
And we can use both strategies in tandem to fill our classrooms with confident learners who accept responsibility for their own learning.

Learning and Literacy Centers & Gradual Release of Responsibility

By now we’re all aware that the new college and career readiness standards promote greater student independence. And the popularity of Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey’s book, Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility, has made the GRR model the go-to framework for helping students achieve independence in the classroom and beyond. This educational model is being instituted in school districts all over the country because, frankly, it's kind of fabulous – and it augments the Learning and Literacy Center classroom perfectly!

Just look at how the steps in a Learning and Literacy Centers lesson match up to the GRR steps:


Here are two tips to help you keep Learning and Literacy Centers run smoothly in YOUR classroom.

Tip 1: Offer Written Instructions at Each Center

Ideally, you’ll offer a brief overview instructions for each center at the beginning of the class period. But give students the option of confirming the instructions before beginning each activity. How? Individuals, pairs, or teams read instructions themselves. Hang signs on the wall, tape hand-written instructions on top of each table, or display all the instructions on the whiteboard on via LCD projector.

Tip 2: Read 3 Then Ask Me

What good are written instructions if the students start waving their hands before they even settle in at the center? I've seen some really effective teachers nip that impulse in the bud by instituting the Read 3 Then Ask Me rule. They instruct students to read the written instructions at each center at least 3 times before asking the teacher for help! This simple step increases the amount of independent reading, fosters independence, and frees the teacher to lead a center or institute formative assessments. It's a simple tip to keep things running smoothly in the centers-based classroom.


Join me at the
Reading2Learn Conference in Orlando, Florida
October 3-4, 2016

Take advantage of this limited time offer. Now through Labor Day we’re offering a Pair Discount for teams of two. Just use the promo code PAIROFFER at check out. (This offer isn't being advertised to the public so you won't see it on the registration page. But if you enter the code PAIROFFER, you'll get the special pricing.) It's my way of thanking you for subscribing to my newsletter.

Free e-books about Literacy and Learning Centers

I’m so excited! My two little books about Literacy and Learning Centers have just been published as part of the Sadlier School Professional Development Series. If you’re new to the idea of using collaborative learning centers for grade 4-12 learners, these booklets will help clarify the concept. If you’re already using centers in your classroom - and know how effective they are - these booklets will give you some great tips so you can continue to build on your success. Download them FOR FREE directly from the Sadlier School website. Click the picture below:

Literacy and Learning Center Teacher Tip

As we create Literacy and Learning Centers for students, we need to remember that classroom management and organization is essential for success. In this teacher tip video, Adrienne Clerici, an 8th grade English language arts teacher from Hermosa Middle school in Farmington, NM explains how she uses baskets to keep her students organized and prepared to work.