At the heart of great teaching is differentiation; this teaching tactic of differentiation inside of the teaching content area applies to language acquisition, stages of language, and academic language development; this work will help students across multiple content areas (P2).
In researching this teaching topic area, I reflected on two effective techniques for teaching academic language through a differentiated approach.
FIRST: Three Tiers of Words for Differentiated Instruction
- Tier One includes vocabulary that the student already knows; teaching these words will help the student activate their prior knowledge.
- Tier Two words are important over many years in many disciplines both your own and others; examples include parallel, theme, and base; teaching these words will help students make connections to ideas outside of the content and reinforce the meaning in the content.
- Tier Three words are technical with narrow definition; these words should be taught for the lesson and looked up for further clarity; a student will engage the text at an analytical level.
SECOND: Three Levels of Reading for increased meaning and differentiated instruction
- Level One, read for general understanding (identify words in all three tiers)
- Level Two, making personal connections to other content areas
- Level Three, extending the text to connect and converse with other texts
Breaking the academic words into these three tiers allows both the teacher and the students to strategically approach the task of learning. By emphasizing the vocabulary early in the process of learning it can be reinforced at every step of the lesson.
In pre-reading students can identify words across tiers and note their meanings.
In connecting to personal experiences, a second stage of effective reading, students can connect their experiences of each word (especially Tier Two Words) in other classes to the text that they are examining and use the Tier One Words, words they already know, to build their knowledge and connection to the new text.
Finally as a student reads for deeper meaning, they are ready to ask bigger questions about the words and their interconnected meanings. By engaging in a process of inter-textuality, they will solidify the understanding and be able to comment on the text in relationship to other texts they have read.
Academic words in all three areas continually emerge in both Theatre Arts and English Language arts because both content areas examine texts from multiple sources with multiple narratives. I often tell my students that my class is not simply a drama class. Rather, my class is every class in the disguise of a drama class. Students must be prepared to speak about any topic that they know about. Because of this, they build their understanding of both of the first two tiers. Some common examples of these words are: inner-monologue, character development, and memorization.
The third tier words are then used most commonly through the language demand and are particular to the performance assignment. One simple example would be, blocking (the specific movement of actors on the stage).
Because of my research into the three tiers of academic language and three common phases of reading, my instruction has changed. I am more apt to point out academic words that make a connection between subjects and encourage students to read a text three times for increased clarity and deeper meaning. With each reading of the text I can guide the student by suggesting that they look for general understanding on their first time through a text, connections between the text and other subjects on their second read, and the conversation between one text and another in their third reading.
By using this three tier and three read through strategy, students are more likely to fully understand and personalize the text. Because a central practice of Theatre Arts is personalization and finding increased meaning, these strategies are invaluable to the students (and to myself). Further, different students will be reading at different levels. Knowing which level a reader is working on will allow myself to differentiate my instruction for that student.
One consequence of using this technique is lost time. It will take students three-times longer to complete any reading assignment. Because of this, reading assignments must be both shortened and be given in class time for guided completion. However, the benefits will outweigh the cost. Students will generate more connections inside of my content area and in content areas outside of my classroom.
THE PROBLEM: The problem with American Textbooks is that they are often bland and outdated. The textbook replaces the standards that the teacher should use to derive original and refreshing lessons that are relevant to the student population. A textbook is a homogenous text that is made for universal appeal. With a mandated textbook, teachers are left to either follow the textbook in full (which is hardly teaching) or assemble their lessons around the required components. A textbook, when used as a primary or exclusive teaching device, is equivalent to letting another teacher (the author of the textbook) into the classroom and puts the primary teacher into a position of student management monitor.
THE SOLUTION FROM THEATRE AND ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS: Fortunately, both of these subjects have a broader range of choices than the average science or math class. These highly structured fields contain a set sequence of information that the student must master from one year to the next (Daniels and Zemelman, 2014). However, with English Language and Theatre Arts, the instruction has a spiral structure (Daniels and Zemelman, 2014). Students are required to build on past (and similar) learning experiences with the same structure and processes from one year to the next. In English Language Arts, students read texts (ideally in a wide array of genre) and respond to those texts through writing and other interactive activities (such as group discussions). In Theatre Arts, students study a new play each time they go through the process of performance; the text is always changing and the skills build upon the past experience of the student. Both of the subjects are focused on the personalized application and interpretation of the content.
THE QUESTION FOR EDUCATORS: Where does the information for your field live? Suggestion, take a cue from the humanities. Knowledge lives in the student; by capturing the student experience as they interact with the primary source of information, knowledge is formed. A textbook in science can be a reference tool for an educator because it contains the “required information” for the grade level. However, a textbook in Theatre Arts does not exist and a textbook for English Language Arts is seldom used. Further, students will learn and retain more information when the teaching is not exclusive to information processing (a.k.a. regurgitation). Information is retained through a personalization of the information – that is how it turns into knowledge. Lastly, this is how literacy can be build, across the subjects. Literacy must include the ability for one to personally translate, utilize, and generate information within the content. That cannot happen if the information is merely being read, memorized, tested, and forgotten.
Daniels, H., & Zemelman, S. (2014). Subjects matter: Exceeding standards through powerful content-area reading (Second ed.).