Kate Fraser and I collaborated to write this blog. I have learned a great deal from our conversations, as Kate's wisdom on differentiation is extensive. I am confident that others will benefit as well. Look for upcoming blogs highlighting in more detail each of the following points. The heart of differentiation can be summarized with a quote from Kate, "Meet the student where he is."
Teachers of the visually impaired are often called upon to differentiate instruction for students at varying ability levels. This is particularly true for teachers at schools for the blind. Early on in my career teaching at TSBVI, the frustration of one of my students helped me to realize the importance of differentiation. Some of the students in the class comprehended the content at grade level, but several students really struggled with the text. When this particular student would enter the class and the textbooks were out for a brief reading, I noticed that he emotionally deflated. He was a good student and usually a very active participant. The next year he was in my class again, but using a modified high school text at an appropriate reading level. I noticed that he not only didn't deflate when we had a reading assignment, but that he understood the material. In retrospect, what this student needed was for instruction to be differentiated by being offered a text at a lower reading level. This and other ideas for differentiation will be introduced in this blog.
When considering how to best instruct students in a single class of varying ability levels, it is vital to consider the following:
A student's reading level is usually available from the English teacher. If the text for the class is more than 1-2 years above the student's reading level, it is important to find text at a level the student can comprehend so as not to frustrate the student. If possible teachers can begin to compile electronic files of science reading at various grade levels beginning at the Pre-K level. This way, students in one class can be provided with text covering the same content at different reading levels. Newsela for science is an on-line resource which was recently reviewed at https://newsela.com/. Although this resource is limited in content, it provides science articles at varying reading levels and has been a useful tool for me.
Science Content Knowledge
It is valuable to assess the content mastery of science concepts to be taught. The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) has an easily modifiable assessment that can be given at the beginning of each unit taught, NSTA - Uncovering Student Ideas in Science: http://www.nsta.org/publications/press/uncovering.aspx
Kate has found this tool particularly helpful as a formative assessment given to students prior to a unit allowing the instructor to accurately gauge a students' prior knowledge. As the assessment can be given on a unit by unit basis, the teacher will have needed data as he/she plans lessons based on the students' greatest areas of need
Differentiating Hands-On Activities
In classes with widely varying ability levels, focus on hands-on instruction rather than reading in class. This will allow students of all ability levels to participate in a meaningful way. Reading can be assigned as homework and each student should be given text at an appropriate reading level. Place students in ability level groups and tailor instruction to each group. For instance, in the example below, one group of students might focus on the flexibility of the backbone related to its structure while another group may move into a more detailed description of the function of the backbone, spinal cord, and the peripheral nerves.
For an example of an activity that lends itself well to differentiation in a multi-level class please see Modeling the Backbone and Spinal Cord http://www.perkinselearning.org/accessible-science/modeling-backbone-and-spinal-cord
Differentiated Instruction: Resource Roundup
Differentiated Instruction in Science
Blind and Visually Impaired Students in the Classroom: Differentiated Instruction
Differentiated Instructional Strategies: Deaf-Blindness