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What Is Differentiated Reading Instruction?

The overarching purpose of special education is to help students with disabilities be successful in life. Helping them learn to read, write and communicate effectively is central to this goal. Differentiated reading instruction can help them work around difficulties in literacy development.

The University of Louisiana Monroe's Master of Education, Curriculum & Instruction – Concentration in Special Education in Mild/Moderate Grades 1-12 online program devotes an entire course to teaching reading to students with special needs. This study can prepare educators of all types to help students develop the literacy skills they will need in school and beyond.

How Is Differentiated Instruction Defined?

According to Reading Rockets, differentiated instruction is "a process through which teachers enhance learning by matching student characteristics to instruction and assessment."

In reading education, differentiated reading instruction does not change the goal of helping a student learn to read proficiently. Rather, it employs varying educational practices according to a learner's unique needs, strengths and preferred learning styles. The intent is to help all students achieve reading proficiency while allowing for individually differentiated paths toward that end.

What Processes Are Involved in Differentiated Instruction?

Differentiated instruction is based on three fundamental components of education:

  • Content: What the student is meant to learn
  • Process: How that content is taught, delivered and received
  • Product: How student learning is demonstrated and assessed

Any of these three areas of learning can be modified to help accommodate varying learning needs and characteristics. For students with disabilities, the essential determining aspects of differentiation concern their preferred learning styles, modalities and learning environments.

A teacher should also assess readiness based on existing knowledge and skills. As with any scaffolded instruction, prior knowledge and skills are reinforced and built upon incrementally to achieve learning goals.

Exploring student interest and incorporating it into every possible area of learning is also fundamental to differentiation. Students should give input and be engaged throughout the process, from choice in material and project timelines to demonstration of learning outcomes.

Anyone who is engaged and feels the learning is relevant is more likely to be intrinsically motivated to learn. Achievement relies on motivation and engagement, especially for those with disabilities who may see themselves as underachievers.

How Is Differentiation Applied to Reading Instruction?

Learning to read can be difficult for students with different kinds of disabilities, whether cognitive, physical or sensory. If they struggle with reading, writing and communication skills, they are likely to struggle with other educational pursuits that rely on use of those skills. This creates a snowball effect, worsening the educational access and achievement gap. Differentiated reading instruction can be an effective approach to preventing this gap in literacy and achievement.

A teacher might differentiate the process of instruction by changing the form of content delivery. For instance, some have an easier time comprehending a story by hearing it, as opposed to reading it in print. Teachers can make use of this strength by having students listen to an audiobook while reading along. This can help them associate auditory input with visual recognition of printed words. Assistive technologies like text-to-speech software can further the integration of auditory and visual language.

Simple tools and strategies like graphic organizers can help  with visualizing text and connecting concepts. Teachers can arrange the reading library subtly, allowing students to find leveled materials that fit their interests without feeling stigmatized.

Showing learning outcomes (product) can also take many forms. A visual learner could draw a comic strip to show understanding of a story. A small group could act the story out as a play.

Differentiation embraces the creativity and unique skills of individual students, fostering interest and independence. In applying differentiated methods to reading and literacy instruction, educators can help students learn to overcome challenges and become lifelong lovers of reading.

Learn more about ULM's M.Ed., Curriculum & Instruction – Concentration in Special Education in Mild/Moderate Grades 1-12 online program.


Corwin: Differentiated Instruction for Students With Learning Disabilities

Educational Connections: How to Use Graphic Organizers for Reading Comprehension

Reading Rockets: Embedded Supports to Differentiate Instruction for Struggling Students

Reading Rockets: Differentiated Instruction for Reading

Teach & Kids Learn: Using 6 Successful Scaffolding Strategies

The Measured Mom: 10 Tips for Differentiated Reading Instruction in K-3

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