I sincerely believe in the practice of differentiating instruction for the needs of learners. To help learners grow and improve, we need to meet them where they are and craft variations in output, outcome, process, scope or purpose in order to help students move from A to B…so they can eventually get to Z.
But, a heretical wondering has been bouncing around my head lately.
Over my career I have had many students who, when we are tasked with reading a novel or other long work, either by IEP, 504, or personal preference, end up engaging with the audiobook version of the text rather than the printed version. I’ve always considered that a crucial form of differentiation.
As I was preparing to teach the current unit (Romeo and Juliet) to my 9th graders, I was mulling over how to engage them with the intimidating complexities of Shakespeare. It had been a few years since I last taught the play, so on an early morning run I was going over past unit plans, assignments, and ways I had engaged students. I came to this conclusion: I wanted my students to gain confidence when faced with complex or intimidating texts. That, to me, was more important than whether they “got” all of the nuanced details of the play.
It was clear in my head: The act of reading was what I was trying to teach, to some degree, no matter what literary text we were studying. My learning goal wasn’t that kids simply knew who, what, when, where, and how: it was that kids had the skills to decode the written word in order to be able to figure those things out from reading.
My heretical wondering: Might differentiation inadvertently place students on a lower trajectory for success if that differentiation is misapplied? To be blunt: Will listening to the audio book help a teenager learn to process a text visually? Of course, audiobooks are a necessity for students with visual impairments, but if my goal is to help students improve their processing and comprehension of text, might differentiation such as audiobooks actually get in the way of developing that skill?
I did some cursory research, and all of it was consistent: Using audiobooks to augment the reading of a text increases student comprehension of that text. My question, though, is about the enduring skill of being able to read and make meaning. Yes, listening to the text will increase a struggling teen reader’s comprehension of that text…but what does it do for their reading skill when they face a new complex text that isn’t or can’t be accompanied by audio?
I’m seriously rethinking all of the differentiation I plan in my class. If my goal is for my teenage readers to “get through” the text and know what happens, or even be able to interpret the literature to depth, the audiobook will suffice if I am teaching content. If I am teaching skills, though, I must focus on differentiating the learning of the skill (how I help kids strengthen the act of reading) rather than being satisfied that they “got” the content. When I think back over 16 years of teaching various complex texts where audiobooks were a go-to mode of differentiating, I feel confident my kids left knowing content but I wonder if I did a darn thing to cultivate their transferable skills. I wonder if I might have inadvertently flattened their potential trajectory as a reader.
A central theme of Romeo and Juliet is that “virtue turns vice, being misapplied.” In other words, being loving is a virtue, being lustful and misapplying that emotion turns that same sentiment to a vice…and in the case of the play, a tragedy rather than a love story.
I now wonder, too, if differentiation of instruction isn’t subject to that same theme: It is a virtuous idea which, if misapplied, might do more harm than good.