Gone Fishing…Back in August

photo of fisherman casting at foot of falls

The Literacy Beat team is taking a summer break. We’ll be back posting the first week of August.
Happy summer days,
Bernadette, Dana, DeVere, Jill and Bridget

Differentiation Meets Digital Technology

A Planning Process for Differentiated Instruction with Digital Tools

By Thomas DeVere Wolsey

Differentiating instruction is a time-tested way of thinking about meeting students’ needs as they make progress toward achievement or learning targets.  Differentiation is an elegant mindset that suggests to teachers a framework that permits them to engage students while focusing on learning results, and digital technologies offer many opportunities to differentiate instruction in meaningful ways.  However, differentiating instruction takes a concerted planning effort on our parts as teachers and teacher educators. This is especially so as we develop a mindset that differentiation can be effective. In this post, I propose a three-phase approach to planning differentiated instruction:

  1. Where do we start planning for differentiated instruction with technology?
  2. What are considerations for who we teach, what we teach, and how we plan?
  3. How do I put it all together?

Throughout this post, you will notice a pattern of threes based on where, what and who, and finally how. Because examples often help, this post will close with one which I hope will inspire you to even better differentiation with technology.

Where Do We Start the Planning Process?

  • Curriculum: What standards and lesson objectives are appropriate?
  • Results: What are the key attributes of the target concept to be learned? What is acceptable evidence that students are learning?
  • Resources: What human, digital, and traditional resources are available?

Let’s start with a premise: Planning differentiated instruction enhanced by technology is a perfect fit for the principles of understanding by design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) in which teachers plan instruction based on the results they intend for their students.  This means that before any digital tools are chosen, before a single activity is determined, before assessment instruments are designed, the intended results must be decided. Results are informed by standards and further refined by lesson objectives. They are carefully honed predictions for student learning that require the teacher to determine the key attributes of target concepts and consideration for what acceptable evidence of learning might be. Once we know we have this down, the rest falls into place.

Right now, you might be wondering, “Hey, where’s the technology?” At this point in our three-phase approach, we can ask ourselves what human, digital, and more traditional resources are available to support these learning events.  It will be tempting to think something like, “I really love Prezi and Glogster” so I’ll design my activity around those two tools.” An analogy might be helpful here as a kind of caution about choosing the technology before moving forward with other aspects of instruction.

In my backyard, I have decided to build a shed to store potting soil, extra pots, shovels, and so on. I know I have a claw hammer and a sledge hammer. I like my hammers, so I decide that those are the tools I will use.  Already, you can see this will not work out well. I may need other tools, and I may even have to borrow one from a neighbor or go to the hardware store and buy a tool for this task.  To be successful, I will need a pretty good inventory of the tools that are required for the job, the tools I own, and the tools I will borrow or buy. Planning to use technology to improve differentiated instruction is like that, too.  The technology should match the demands of the tasks.

What Do I Differentiate + Who and How?

  • Differentiate curriculum by process, product, or content
  • Based on readiness for learning relative to the standards and objectives, student interests relative to the standards and objectives, and the way they learn in general
  • While considering overall lesson design and time requirements

Once we have a firm grasp on what results we expect based on standards and objectives, we can begin to think about the best ways to challenge our students. Embedded in what we differentiate are considerations for who our students are and what we know about them along with what aspects of the curriculum might result (there is that word again) in effective student learning.  Curricular elements we can differentiate commonly include the processes of learning, the products of learning, and the content on which learning is based (Tomlinson, 2001).  Juxtaposed with those elements are the needs of the students including their readiness for learning relative to the standards and objectives, their interests relative to the standards and objectives, and the way they learn as a general rule. Learning needs and curricular elements or demands can be thought of as a matrix, as represented in figure 1. What cell on the matrix might produce the best learning results for the specific students sitting in the classroom? Finally, we need to decide what part of the lesson will be differentiated, how much time is available, and how this lesson fits in broader learning goals.

Differentiation Matrix

Figure 1: Differentiation Matrix

How Do I put it All Together?

  • Develop options and choices for learning
  • Based on identified learner needs relative to the standards and objectives
  • While keeping in mind key attributes of the target concept and intended learning results

Options: High-quality differentiation typically means different students doing different things that lead to achievement of a common learning goal.  Developing options is an effective way to put differentiation into effect. Sometimes the options are choices students can make based on the information they have about their own learning needs. At other times, the options are decisions that teachers make for students or are choices students make with guidance and nudging from their teachers. Options for learning in high-quality differentiation are always made with the key attributes of the target concept and effective learning results in mind.

Teachers develop options that meet identified learner needs while keeping key attributes of the target concepts and results in mind.

Checking for Differentiation: To check the effectiveness level of differentiated instructional tasks, fill in this sentence with details from your own lessons. Choose the element from the list in brackets or fill in your learning objectives or standards:

Based on what I know about the curriculum and my students, their [interests, readiness, or learning profiles] are [identify those interests, readiness levels, or learning profiles] relative to the objective of [insert the objective]. The [process, product, or content] will help students [achieve the objective] because…

So, Why Technology?

Early in this post, I asserted that technology offers the potential for powerful differentiation that results in high-quality learning. How digital technologies are embedded in the learning tasks is vitally important. They can be simple tinkering (or micro-differentiation, as Tomlinson, 2001, asserts) or those digital tools can vastly improve how students learn and how they interact in our digital world.  In choosing tools to be part of the options or choices available to students, three (remember our rule of threes for each phase?) questions can guide our thinking about what tools are appropriate and useful.

  • What tools do my students know or might they learn to use?
  • What digital technologies are available to the students in the classroom, at school, at home? And a corollary: What digital technologies can students bring with them to school to assist in their learning?
  • Will the digital technologies that are part of the options for students really improve their learning relative to standards, objectives, and intended learning results?

Another example of high-quality differentiation using technology is available in this video:

An Example from a High School English Classroom

Imagine a high school English course in which students are expected to understand and analyze characters in novels they selected as part of a coming of age unit.  The standard, drawn from the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS, 2010) informs these differentiated tasks.

RL.9-10.3. Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

The lesson objective relates directly to the CCSS standard; that is, students will be able to form inferences about characters from dialog and from their actions. Making inferences about characters from dialog and actions are key attributes that the teacher will use in guiding students as they work on differentiated tasks, and that will inform feedback she provides to students as they work.  In the following example tasks, notice how the tools enhance the learning rather than restrict it; at the same time students are encouraged to use new literacy skills in learning as they complete the tasks. In these examples, presented as directions to students, tasks are based on student choices, provide flexible grouping arrangements, and encourage a limited range of technologies that align with the intended learning result.

Differentiation of Product by Student Interests (based on the novels they selected to read):

1.  Sometimes what characters in novels we read say speaks volumes about them. Work with someone who read a book that is different than your own. Using Voicethread or a podcast, each partner should choose a character from their respective books. Create a dialog between those two characters that is clearly based on inferences you made about your respective characters. If you choose to work with Voicethread, choose appropriate images to correspond with the dialog you create. Ask yourselves, what would these two characters from different novels say to each other about their coming of age experiences? Challenge: Can you include, in your dialog, references to  characters’ actions that lead you to believe characters would respond in a certain way?

2.  Sometimes what characters in novels we read do tells us volumes about them. Work on your own to create a tree diagram, which includes several levels. If you would like to see an example of a tree diagram, click here. Use one of the interactive graphic organizer tools you find on the class webpage (for readers of this post, some possibilities are listed among the many tools here). At level one, identify the character and include the title of the novel. At level two, identify three or four characteristics of your chosen character that are based solely on their actions. At level three, find three or four actions in your novel that support your choice of attributes. Hint: You may want to choose the actions and categorize them, then identify the characteristics based on those attributes. Challenge 1: Share your graphic organizer with another member of your group and ask that person to add to your graphic organizer by either expanding the list of characteristics or adding to the possible actions that support the characteristics you chose. Challenge 2: Can you add a fourth level with an example from what characters say that supports the characteristics you chose?

3.  Sometimes what characters in novels we read do and say tells us volumes about them. Using the Twurdy search engine, find three reviews of your novel that include analysis of the characters in the novel you read.  Post your findings along with a paragraph indicating why you agree or disagree with the reviews you found. Be sure to include evidence in the form of inferences you have drawn from dialog or actions. Three to five examples will serve as evidence.  Work with a member of the class who read a different book than you did to determine if there are common attributes for the characters in the two different novels. Use Google Docs to create a matrix similar to the one you see here. Share your link on the class wiki. Challenge: Can you identify a character from your novel that is like any of the characters in our reading of a Shakespeare play (or other touchstone text) earlier this year?

In each example task, the students act on the interest in the novel they have read, and they create a product that is true to the standards and objectives.  Each can be assessed based on the intended results that are embedded in the standards, and each includes technology components that might increase student learning through collaborate to further enhance learning. Using the sentence frame suggested above, the teacher checks for differentiation:

Based on what I know about the curriculum and my students, their [interests ] are [grounded on the novels they selected to read for literature circles] relative to the objective of [character analysis]. The [product] will help students [analyze characters] because they must attend to the critical attributes of a character’s actions or interactions in dialog.

In your classroom, what successful tasks have you designed with the end in mind that were built on solid principles of differentiation and use of digital technologies? Use the comment button to add your thoughts to the conversation.


Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). Standard RL.9-10.3. Common Core State Standards for English language arts & literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards/english-language-arts-standards/reading-literature-6-12/grade-9-10/

Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Tomlinson, C. (1999). Differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners: Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (Expanded 2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Multimodal Supervision of Literacy Lessons

Since my retirement from the California State University in 2010, I have become a self-styled “Internet Freeway Flier.”  A freeway flier is what we used to call instructors who were employed part-time by several community colleges or universities. Those intrepid individuals “flew” over the freeways of Southern California from one assigned class to another.  I like teaching online—although I also like teaching in the brick and mortar university—so in the past two years, I have been asked to teach online classes at five different universities in five very different programs. Each assignment has allowed me to investigate the intersections (pardon the pun) of literacy and technology.

Most recently I was asked to teach an online supervision course in the Reading Language Arts Authorization (RLAA) program at Fresno State University. The RLAA is a graduate level literacy program designed primarily for experienced teachers as part of a larger Master of Arts in Teaching program. Usually, teachers come to a brick and mortar clinic where children also come to be tutored. The teachers are supervised by university faculty to make sure that they learn how to assess the students, how to address students’ identified strengths and needs through tutoring, and how to evaluate the outcomes of instruction in order to plan their next instructional steps. This recursive process requires feedback from the supervisor to the teachers. I have taught in such brick and mortar clinics before.

In this case, Dr. Glenn DeVoogd, Chair of the Literacy and Early Education (LEE) program at Fresno State asked me to do an experimental class, which he and I will be writing about at length in other venues. But for this blog, I’d like to immediately share how this course was structured, how teachers responded to it, and what they say they learned from the process.

Teachers were enrolled at Fresno State in a course, LEE230, which used to be taught on campus.  This class was taught in a 5-week time frame, so the pace was intense, and the teachers and I never met face-to-face. Teachers were required to spend 20 hours of tutoring a small group of students. Instead of coming to a clinic, teachers could select the small group from their own classrooms, from that of another teacher, or volunteer in a classroom if they were not currently teaching. All of these scenarios played out during the course.

Teachers turned in weekly lesson plans twice; on the Sunday before the school week and Friday or Saturday, after the school week, they re-submitted the same lesson plans with detailed reflections on their teaching. We met twice on Elluminate for class sessions to talk about readings. Students participated in discussion boards on pertinent topics and did a WebQuest (https://literacybeat.com/category/webquest/) on the CCSS.

But the centerpiece of the clinical course was the use of a smart phone application, known as Qik (http://www.qik.com) which teachers used to record 5-10 minutes of a lesson three times over the five-week course.

About Qik

Virtually every smart phone is supported by Qik and there is a published list of those on the Qik website. You can pay for Qik, but the free application allows you to store 25 videos, more than enough for our purposes. You can also use Qik on your iPad.

Teachers could point the phone and press record and make a video immediately. The videos are directly uploaded and  stored on the teacher’s Qik site, which is totally private, and teachers can invite others to view their videos in several ways—for example, videos could be shared via Facebook, Youtube, or Twitter. For this class, teachers extended an email invitation to me so that I could view their work.

Prior to the start of class, I sent a Qik introduction of the course to all the teachers enrolled before class began.

To view my introduction to the course, go to: http://qik.com/video/50810210

Students found it easy to make the videotapes, but capturing the lessons was more difficult unless they had someone to help them. For example, one teacher propped her smart phone on the table, but the student got enthusiastic, knocking against the table and the phone fell over. After two times, the teacher asked the student to be careful. Another teacher held the phone herself and only videotaped her students.

Other teachers asked students to hold the camera on the action and the example you will see enlisted the help of a fellow teacher.

Once students learned how to share the videos by email invitation (see the double arrow at the top of the figure below), I could access them and provide a response.


 Interestingly, the responses I provided were much appreciated by the teachers, who loved the personal nature of audio (MP3) files. Previously, in this blog I have shared teacher candidate podcasts (https://literacybeat.com/2011/04/15/podcasting-to-teach-content-literacy) and in another project special needs students made audio retellings of a folktale in a PowerPoint presentation (Castek, Dalton, & Grisham, 2012), so I had some experience with making MP3 files.

But none of us likes what we look like on video or sound like on audio. I am no exception! So I gathered up my courage and decided to give audio responses to teachers’ lesson videos.

Being a Mac user to the core, I employed Garage Band to record my responses. First, I watched the teachers’ videos and made notes. I compared what I had seen in the video to the written lessons the teachers had posted in advance to Blackboard. Then, I recorded the responses, which varied from about 90 seconds to almost 4 minutes over the three videos submitted by all 13 of the teachers for a total of 49 responses overall.

Once the recording was made in Garage Band, I “shared” it with iTunes, converting to the MP3 file format. Then I downloaded the MP3 files and attached each one to an email to the teacher.

Based on questionnaires administered after the course, everyone LOVED the responses.  They felt a connection. I believe that teachers need validation for the work they do. Teachers can also accept criticism, as long as it is couched in positive terms. Writing can be very impersonal, but the voice can convey support.

In response to the question about the MP3 responses, here are what two teachers wrote:

“Again, something new to me in this class, but incredibly useful. The audio feedback was terrific. It made me feel like I was in an in-person class. Very personal. I think every online class should have this.”

“I enjoyed being able to gain almost immediate feedback from the videotaped lessons. It was nice to know that someone with experience could see areas of concern and help me shape my teaching more effectively.”

An Example of the Lesson and the Response

Written permissions were obtained for students to be videotaped and the teacher whose videos you see here granted permission for me to share her video.  The second file is the audio response to this lesson.



Concluding Thoughts

The growing number of online and/or hybrid classes is remarkable. Technology changes were referred to as “deictic” by Don Leu back in 2000 and deictic means a veritable onslaught of transformations that are irresistible and ever-evolving.  Combined with an economic downturn and increasingly diminished higher education budgets, administrators may increasingly turn to the more economic option of online classes. It is popular right now to regard online classes as somehow “less” than brick and mortar classes, and in some cases this may be true.

But online classes offer access to many graduate students who cannot attend a brick and mortar university. In another course that I teach at a different university, a middle school teacher from Happy Camp, California (way up in rural Klamath County), was able to improve his practice by learning in an Innovative Masters Degree program that afforded him new ideas, new strategies, new collaborations with colleagues, and new ways to serve his mostly Native American population of students.

In addition, we have new technologies (such as Blackboard, Elluminate, smart phones, and applications of all kinds) that permit us to make the online courses more personal and more relevant to the students we teach. We can give of ourselves as teachers and mentors through these new technologies. Our students can benefit from what we do online, as shown by the reactions of teachers to the LEE230 class.

I am greatly interested in what others think about online learning and hope you will read this blog and share your own experiences!

Digital Technologies for Literacy in Early Years Classrooms

A post from Bernadette

There is considerable evidence that young children (aged from 0 to 6) are immersed in a digital world from birth. For example, surveys conducted in the U.K. revealed that young children were active users of digital technologies engaging in a range of multimodal experiences (Marsh, 2005).

However, recent research has highlighted a dissonance between technology use in the home and at school and indeed a general under-utilisation of digital technologies in early years classrooms (Aubrey & Dahl, 2008).

Given that young children are engaging with digital technologies and digital practices in the home the possibilities afforded by these early digital experiences need to be more fully explored and accommodated within the classroom curriculum.

So how can we utilise digital technologies in ways that support children as readers, writers and thinkers? How can we use technologies to support the development of essential early literacy skills and increase motivation and engagement with literacy and learning?

I have been reflecting about this recently and here are some tentative musings and suggestions.

• Young children should engage with digital literacies in ways that encourage “playfulness, agency and creativity” (Burnett, 2010). Indeed, research has shown that children can draw on narratives and characters from their use of multimedia in their own play (Pahl, 2005).

• Digital technologies should not replace ‘busy’ workbook type activities in the classroom in drill-and-practice type scenarios. Freddy Hiebert noted, in her Frankly Freddy column, that “tricked out rote exercises will not support children’s love of language and literacy in the long run” (Hiebert, 2012).

• Digital technologies and multimodal texts offer the potential to support the development of early literacy skills. They present multiple means of representation, provide robust supports to meet the diverse needs of pupils in the classroom, and reduce the barriers to text (e.g. decoding difficulties) through embedded supports.
BookBuilder from CAST (CAST.org ) is a particular favourite of mine and I have previously blogged about how BookBuilder can enhance the Language Experience Approach

• Digital technologies should complement or supplement teacher read aloud. For example, children can listen to or re-read favourite class room texts though storyline online, developed by the screen actors guild (http://www.storylineonline.net/) or through apps such as, a Story Before Bed-Personalized Children’s Picture books.

• Digital technologies should build on the creativity of children, provide opportunities for engagement and response and encourage children to become authors and producers of text. In addition digital technologies should encourage experimentation and expression with regard to the generation and construction of a story or message. Apps such as, Sock Puppets allow child to create a story, choose a background and record their voices. The sock puppets then automatically lip-synch to the child’s recorded voice. Other examples include Strip designer, for creating comics; Book Creator for Ipad and Story kit for creating stories to share with an audience outside the classroom walls.

• Digital technologies can supplement the development of fine motor skills for handwriting. Apps such as, Dexteria, which was developed for children with special needs, develops fine motor skills e.g pincer movements, finger strength and hand movements and letter formation. Watch the You tube video and you’ll see how appealing this app is. I would caution, however, that to my mind, nothing replaces concrete materials, like pegs and peg boards, sand trays, and making letters with plasticine for the development of fine motor skills for handwriting.

Would love to hear your views on ways to embed and integrate digital technologies to support literacy development in the early years classroom. Jill has recently blogged on Expressive Learning: Encouraging Students’ Multimodal Expression to Enhance Content Learning and using apps for education so do read her blog here.

Aubrey, C. and Dahl, S. (2008). A review of the evidence on the use of ICT in the Early Years Foundation Stage. BECTA. Accessed online May 2009 at: http://partners.becta.org.uk/uploaddir/downloads/page_documents/research/review_early_years_foundation.pdf

Burnett, C. (2010). Technology and literacy in early childhood educational settings: A review of research. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 10(3), 247-270.

Hiebert, E.H. (2012) Children’s literacy learning and screen time accessed June 2012 at http://textproject.org/frankly-freddy/children-s-literacy-learning-and-screen-time/

Marsh, J., Brook, G., Hughes, J., Ritchie, L., Roberts, S. Wright, K.(2005). Digital beginnings: Young children’s use of popular culture, media and new technologies. Literacy Research Centre, Sheffield

Pahl, K. (2005). ‘Narrative spaces and multiple identities: Children’s textual explorations of console games in home settings’ In: J. Marsh (2005) (Ed.), Popular Culture, New Media and Digital Literacy in Early Childhood, pp. 126-143.London: Routledge.

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