The Missouri Reader Vol. 41, Issue 2 - Page 10



The two authors of this article have each devoted our careers to differentiation, the how and why of adapting literacy instruction to fit the learner. So, let’s begin with the question, “Why differentiation?” Figure 1 details instructional techniques for beginning readers that work with every child every time. Imagine Figure 1 is preceded by an electronic drum roll.

Figure 1

Figure 1 is blank because we believe there is no one instructional technique that works with every single child every single time. Effective literacy instruction requires that literacy teachers differentiate instruction.

In this article we will describe approaches for differentiating instruction among beginning readers in preschool and early elementary school; yet we make no claim to offer a one-size-fits-all magic pill for teachers of young children. We believe that an important step in improving instruction is to admit that we are still learning, no matter how many years we have been in the field or what degrees we might hold.

As we address strategies for effective differentiated instruction, we also stress the value of the “unpackaging of literacy” (Scribner & Cole, 1988) and an unpackaging of literacy instruction. Our approach is grounded in a sociocultural view of reading, which emphasizes the role of participating in social and cultural activity systems including school, family, and playtime for a child developing literacy skills. As Scribner and Cole (1981) contend, “literacy is not simply knowing how to read and write a particular script but applying this knowledge for specific purposes in specific contexts of use” (p. 236).

A Brief Review of the Research

A brief review of reading research related to differentiated instruction supports the notion that no one method of teaching reading works the best. It has been over 50 years since Bond and Dykstra (1967) published what came to be known as the First Grade Studies. In this landmark work, Bond and Dykstra (1967) concluded: “No one approach is so distinctly better in all situations and respects than the others that it should be considered the one best method and the one to be used exclusively” (p. 416).

The next 50 years saw a great deal of debate on the topic of how to best teach beginning reading. In 1997, on the 30th anniversary of the First Grade Studies, Reading Research Quarterly devoted a special issue to topics surrounding the First Grade Studies. In that issue, Pearson indicated Bond and Dykstra’s conclusions included “(a) that combination approaches are superior to single approaches, and (b) that reading instruction is amenable to improvement…” (p. 88). He also cited Dykstra's 1968 article that indicated, “Data from the Cooperative Research Program in First-Grade Reading tend to support Chall’s conclusion that code-emphasis programs produce better overall primary grade reading and spelling achievement than meaning-emphasis program” (Readance & Barone, 1997, p. 21). The National Reading Panel Report (NPR, 2000) is often cited as evidence that a program of