Making the Most of Differentiation: A Group Within Groups

Differentiation. We all know what it is, right? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as: “The action or process of differentiating or distinguishing between two or more things or people.” So, what exactly does that mean with regards to teaching? How do we ensure we are differentiating for our students?

 As reading specialists, we always begin with ensuring that we know each students’ strengths and challenges in order to plan accordingly and guide their learning. Each year I strive to do this better. Try though I might, I never fully feel like I’m doing the best I can to meet this challenge. I know what differentiation is; I just don’t know how to best achieve it regularly for all students.

 This year I set a goal of spending one day a week implementing groups within groups. In my classes of 18 students, I have three groups of six students each, and groups are initially based on Lexile. I facilitate the content in the ReaL Book to these groups, which means all three groups are working with the same material. As each of you, in a class of 18, heterogeneous groups still have a broad range of Lexile and ability. Therefore, if I teach the same material the same way to all three groups, I am not even coming close to differentiating based on student needs, but rather providing the necessary scaffold to differentiate for a group of students. So, on this level of differentiating for the groups by altering how I present the material, what we do with it, and what questions I might ask to assess understanding of it, I’m confident and feel successful. It works, but is it truly differentiation based on individual student needs? Don’t be polite. I know, “No, it’s not!” This year I wanted to do better and step it up a bit by really utilizing the differentiation materials provided in Teacher Central.

 I decided that in order to be better at differentiating, I would set aside one day to do what I call groups within groups. I analyze student responses and determine which students are really getting the concept and which students are still challenged. Here is an example of student responses I recently gathered for “Think Big” in Lesson 5:

Looking closely at these responses, I see that they are all correct in that the students stated an opinion and supported the opinion with evidence. However, though all students understood the task, there is a clear difference in these. As I look at what the task was-- to include text evidence-- I see that the student on the right clearly understood the task. This student says where the evidence comes from. To me, this indicates that she understands how to locate and cite evidence, showing she is ready for a challenge. The students on the left and in the center both used text evidence, but did not cite their evidence. In digging deeper and looking at their books, I noticed they did not underline the evidence, but rather pulled it from memory. To me, this is a red flag and teachable moment for those two students. I can very easily go back and have them work on justifying their answer by locating the support for it in the text.

 HMH Teacher Central and the Blended Learning Handbook offer a plethora of resources for differentiation, and I am focused on utilizing these more this year. Based on what I saw in the student responses, I opened the Resources for Differentiated Instruction from the Lesson Overview tab, and found ready to go support for the areas of need. 

I plan to use these with students in what I call a group within a group lesson. In order to maintain the three rotations I have going and not get too crazy with regrouping students, I begin with a quick look at each group of six and assess who needs support and who needs extension. On group within group days, students do not start out whole group. Rather, they go straight to their first rotation. I separate the six I have at the teacher table based on their needs. Students who need an extension will be given brief directions and set to work on their task while I work with those who need support. The students needing support will work on the task with me for the bulk of the time I have the group. Towards the end of the time, I will check back in with the extension kids while the support kids work on finishing up their task. This way of differentiating is forcing me to do a better job of digging deeper with their responses in the ReaL Book, and it’s offering me the opportunity to meet students where they are. Isn’t that the true definition of differentiation in the classroom?


What ways are you differentiating for your students? What’s working for you?



Jessica Button is a fourth generation teacher, having been preceded in teaching by a great grandmother, both grandmothers, and her mother. She earned her B.A. in Education in 2006, and her Masters in Reading Education in 2010, both from Arizona State University (Go Sun Devils!). She has been teaching at her current school since 2007, and has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grades. She was hired as her school’s Reading Specialist in 2016, and currently teaches READ 180 Universal Stage A to fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students. Jessica strives to help others achieve their dreams of becoming teachers, working as an Associate Professor for Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, and also serving as a mentor to Teacher Candidates. She is passionate about building relationships with students, and greatly enjoys helping them unearth their strengths and learn to find reading fun! In her spare time, she loves to read, hike, cook, and spending time with her family and friends.