Differentiating literacy across the content areas

The varied ability across classrooms in the United States is, oftentimes, a daunting challenge for today’s teachers. Considering the limited time and resources available in which to meet all those needs, leaves the educator asking the question, how do I divide my time, resources and myself in order to effectively meet the needs of all my learners? This article will examine how teachers can leverage high impact, research based instructional literacy principles and strategies in order to achieve academic growth across all content areas.

Defining Differentiation in the Content Areas
According to Carol Tomlinson, differentiation is defined as a methodology of providing alternative instructional and educational opportunities for learners that ensures that all grow academically. Differentiation practices also appreciate the non-linear road that a student can use to achieve their goals while refusing to assume that the path they are on is the same as anyone else's. When we speak of the content areas we are specifically referring to literacy within a defined domain of academic study. The most common content areas that form the backbone within most curricular systems include, but are not limited to: English Language Arts, Mathematics, Social Studies and Science. For the purposes of this discussion, we will be focusing on exploring differentiation practices in areas of nonfiction.

Where to Differentiate: The Five Components of Differentiation
Advancements in brain science and educational psychology continue to reveal that the brain does not learn in a sequential, linear format, but is rather sculpted through a cycle of work, experience and practice. Successful educators realize that in order to develop the capacities of all the students in their class, instruction should be modified to engage what the learner currently knows in order to introduce them to new content. Because it is impossible to differentiate every lesson, everyday, for every single student, high impact differentiation is really the result of strategic choices about when and how best to differentiate for groups of learners. In order to do this, educators should consider the four domains where differentiation can occur:

  • Content: Because students have different interests and abilities teachers can leverage this in order to provide students with text choices that engage those interests. Generally speaking, students who have access to reading material that is appropriate in level, culture and interests, increases a student’s receptiveness to engage in new more challenging material. Additionally, when students’ interest are activated they are more likely to retain the appropriate background knowledge needed in order to master more complex topics.
  • Instructional Strategies: Students enter the classroom with a variety of abilities and preferences on how to learn. Although students may have a preferred “style”, developments in cognitive science indicate that a student’s preferred learning style can vary between subjects and time periods within the instructional day. It is critical for educators to spend time understanding what instructional strategies benefit the learners within the class. Consider whether a student succeeds better during independent work or collaborative work? Deep discussion on content or through project based learning opportunities?
  • Products: Teachers can differentiate how a student demonstrates what they have learned based on students’ varied capacities. When practical, teachers can provide students with choices to express how they’ve understood new learned content. Consider whether a student best demonstrates their knowledge in a more traditionally written format or through artistic expression.
  • The Classroom: Teachers can leverage both the environment in which learning takes place and how they manage it. It is important to consider how the environment enhances or distracts from the learning that is taking place. For example, a student who struggles with ADHD may have difficulty focusing in an overloaded print rich classroom. Similarly, another student may struggle synthesizing new content with visually displayed “important” topics posted throughout the classroom. Consider how you use your space for optimal student performance.

Domain Specific Content Area Reading Strategies:
General reading strategies often include tips such as monitoring reading growth, setting goals for reading with students, and fictional comprehension tactics (inferencing, summarizing etc.). Domain specific area reading strategies prioritize vocabulary acquisition and content understanding, primarily in non-fiction. Consider the strategies introduced below and how/where/when to differentiate during content area instruction:

  • Strengthen content knowledge : What information is absolutely essential in order for my students to grasp the principles I want them to? Do all students require the same level of support in order to grasp the current skill?
  • Determining main and subordinate ideas within nonfiction: What is the author’s main point? How is that point supported throughout the text? How can I support students who struggle in identifying/comprehending the author’s main premise?
  • Compare claims and propositions between texts: How are the ideas presented similarly within each text? How are they presented differently? Where can I differentiate for students who have a hard time seeing the similarities and differences between texts?
  • Pose discipline related open ended questions in order to allow opportunities for collaborative discussion: What are the “Big Ideas” in this unit that will connect to my student’s lives? Why is it important for them to understand this? Can I create smaller questions that lead up to the Big Idea in order to support all my learners?
  • Create norms for effective reasoning within the discipline: What is effective evidence? How do we decide whether the speaker is reliable and is to be believed? How can I develop a process for evaluating credibility for my students who believe everything they read and see online?

Research Based Recommendations for Content Area Teachers
In 2010, the Center on Instruction released its study Bringing Literacy into Content Area Instruction which released five researched based practice to enhance literacy across the content areas. They succinctly summarize practices content area teachers can incorporate in order to enhance literacy instruction for their students. Consider both how the practices referenced below can be differentiated in order to meet the needs of our learners, and what supports or scaffolds would be needed to effectively implement. .

  • Principle 1: Teachers across content areas should provide explicit instruction in comprehension strategies along with effective opportunities for practice throughout the instructional day. Even though content heavy disciplines such as science or social studies have reading and writing skills that are domain specific, recent studies suggest that common practices that can be especially beneficial to literacy enhancement are:
    • Explicit instruction that involves teachers modeling thinking about how, when and why to use a particular strategy or skill
    • Creating meaningful, relevant opportunities to practice the skill as well as receive teacher feedback on the successful utilization of the skill
    • A gradual release of accountability in performance of the skill between instructor and learner.
    • Providing opportunities for discussions that allow students to reflect on their own thinking and establish a goal for mastery of learned skills.
  • Principle 2: Provide opportunities for rich text based discussion.
    According to the research allowing multiple opportunities to students to explore larger ideas within a text has many benefits. Strong correlations exists between students who engage in text based discussion and the ability to:
    • Think critically about their world, society and themselves
    • Collaboratively mine for shared norms of understanding about a text while simultaneously increasing their own capacity to process complex ideas
    • Increase students ability to read independently
  • Principle 3: Set, maintain and continuously encourage high standards for text, questions and discussions.
    In order to meet the rigorous demands of district, state and national standards for academic proficiency,it is important that schools move to incorporate high impact instructional practices. However, because students come from all sets of circumstances and beliefs about themselves as learner, creating a collective growth mindset can be an extraordinary challenge. While some students may come to the classroom prepared and confident to excel, more often students may be less inclined. This may be the particular case for students of trauma or who come from negative early educational experiences. As such, teachers should consider what barriers prevent students from adapting effectively to rigorous work and provide differentiated scaffolds in order to address those needs.
  • Principle 4: Encourage engagement through culturally relevant text choices.
    Students learn most effectively when the material they are asked to interpret is explicitly relevant and meaningful. As educators, we serve as guides, meeting students where they are in order to lead them towards greater understanding within the domains. As such, teachers should have a thorough understanding of who their students are in order to provide relevant text choices. Additionally when students receive differentiated readings that reflect their personal interests and skill levels, they are more likely to feel invested with the classroom culture and more willing to take academic risks.
  • Principle 5: Provide appropriate content support in order to assist students in mastering critical concepts.
    Background knowledge is an important factor when considering a student’s capacity to attempt the learning of a new skill. Because students create meaning by integrating new material with previously learned information, a vital question to consider as part of the planning process is whether students understand the prerequisite information to effectively comprehend new content. Additionally, teachers should also strategically and collaboratively determine what background knowledge is absolutely needed in order for students to process new content. Once this information is decided, teachers can then begin to think strategically of how to connect what we are teaching to who we are teaching.

Closing thoughts:

The path to successful differentiation begins with a thorough understanding of who your students are as people and how best they learn. By varying how we differentiate, combined with high impact content area literacy practices, teachers can leverage student interest in order to enhance academic growth. Founded in trust, and continued through rapport, teachers can then create learning experiences that empowers student choice in order to meet the needs of everyone.



● Center for Development and Learning (1997). Learner-centered psychological principles: A framework for school reform. Retrieved from 

● Kosanovich, M. L., Reed, D. K., & Miller, D. H. (2010). Bringing literacy strategies into content instruction: Professional learning for secondary-level teachers. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.

● Marzano, R. J., & Brown, J. L. (2009). A handbook for the art and science of teaching. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

● Reis, S. M., & McCoach, D. B., Little, C. M., Muller, L. M., & Kaniskan, R. B (2011). The effects of differentiated instruction and enrichment pedagogy on reading achievement in five elementary schools. American Educational Research Journal. 48, 462-501.

● Schmoker, M. (2011). Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

● Tomlinson, C. A. (1995). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.