The Window: A Glimpse Into Our Classrooms
Differentiating Instruction: A Focus on Modalities
One of my favorite sights on our campus is the community gardens. Over the years, parents, students, teachers, and administrators have contributed their time and energy to helping them flourish and it is a joy to see the products of the collective efforts. It strikes me, too, that a garden is in many ways a microcosm of our classrooms. Students grow under the care of their teachers and parents from one season to the next. Like plants, which all need sun, water, and soil, all students have basic needs that must be met in order for them to develop: a safe learning environment, a knowledgeable and dedicated teacher, and a rigorous, engaging curriculum. However, in order to truly thrive, students must have teachers who can tailor their instruction to meet their particular needs, just as a gardener might cultivate diverse plants within one plot by giving abundant sun to one and shade to another.
Many of you may have some understanding of what this instructional practice might look like in schools, even if you are not familiar with the term “differentiating instruction.” In a differentiated classroom, a commonly held approach is to tailor instruction and planning through four lenses: through the way in which a student absorbs information (learning modalities), through a student’s developmental readiness (including strengths and challenges), through a student’s interests, and through a student’s life experiences. As we complete this particular type of work this year, we are excited to share details of our practice with you, focusing the next four editions of this Window on each one of these techniques. This week’s post will explore the process of differentiating by learning modality.
Learning modalities are the sensory channels (seeing, hearing, touching/moving) that students use or engage while learning. The three broad modalities are visual, auditory, and tactile-kinesthetic. Most people have strengths or preferences in more than one learning modality; however, there is usually a clear frontrunner. Providing opportunities for students to interact with class material through their preferred learning modality can increase both engagement and success. For example, visual learners best learn by seeing information; auditory learners do best when they hear information; tactile/kinesthetic learners learn by touching materials and/or moving their bodies as they learn. There are many different ways to cater to students' preferred learning modality. This might look like a teacher explaining a new concept (auditory), while demonstrating it on the Smartboard (visual), and then providing opportunities for students to play an interactive game to solidify the ideas (tactile/kinesthetic). It might also look like centers designed to help small groups of students with the same learning modality practice a new skill. To learn more about the characteristics of the different learning modalities and the useful strategies teachers (or you at home) might use with your child, click here. If you are curious about your own learning modality, try this learning style survey.
Please find examples of ways in which we differentiated with modality in mind below:
In Kindergarten, we accomplish differentiation through a variety of avenues. One example is called Nametag, which is a regularly-scheduled component of the program. During these time segments, children are intentionally grouped and assigned to work on specific teacher-directed activities. Nametag sessions expose children to different skills and thematic areas, introduce children to new activities, reinforce concepts, and provide children opportunities to explore social connections. During these focused periods of time, every child participates in integrated activities that build skills in language development, mathematics, science, and art, as well as social skills. When beginning our tree exploration, one teacher took her group on a “tree walk” to stop and notice a selection of trees on the property (kinesthetic). They took a few minutes to simply look closely at each tree (visual). Back in the classroom, she facilitated a discussion about what the children wonder about trees. Each child offered a “wonder question” for them to investigate (auditory) and illustrate. Some other examples of Nametag activities include apple tasting and graphing, leaf rubbings and identification booklets, and flag making.
In an effort to continue to strengthen their phonic skills, 2nd graders recently began completing a type of activity called “word sorts.” First, students were paired in groups that targeted different spelling patterns. They were shown a list of words, which they took turns reading aloud (auditory/visual). Then, they were asked what they noticed (visual). Some students noticed that several of the words listed were homonyms, or words that sounded the same but had different meanings (auditory). Other students noted patterns relating to the letters, including commonalities among vowels or word endings (visual). Building upon these observations, students identified specific patterns in the word list that had to do with the order of consonants and vowels that made up each word. Next, students took out their highlighters and highlighted the different vowel combinations they discovered. They then reviewed how different combinations encouraged different types of sounds (auditory). For example, an “e” on the end of a word most often makes the other vowels in the word represent a long version of sound (auditory). Upon completing this discussion, each word was cut out and placed in one of four grouping categories: short “a” with a consonant/vowel/consonant, long “a” with a consonant/vowel/consonant followed by an “e,” long “a” with a consonant/vowel/vowel/consonant, and an “oddball” category for words that didn’t fit the pattern (kinesthetic). As a culminating activity, students then looked around the room for an additional number of words that could fit into one of these categories. Identifying these patterns with increased frequency will be an important tool as our 2nd graders become more fluent readers. They will continue to practice these particular spelling patterns through various activities in the week ahead.
Third graders started the year building community and developing friendships. To complement this work, in music class each homeroom group spent time working on a long-range cooperative project. We harvested bamboo and sawed it into lengths to create musical pipes. Then we used these pipes to compose original music inspired by the Indonesian gamelan. This is an instrument made up of many percussion instruments including metallophones, xylophones, and gongs. They are played by large ensembles of players working together to make a unified sound. By the end of the project, students had created the instrument, composed their own music, and made video recordings of performances of their pieces. This was a highly multisensory experience, broken down into finer detail than the traditional visual, auditory and kinesthetic pathways. According to Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, students’ experiences included:
- Naturalistic – Working out of doors to cut and shape a natural material (bamboo)
- Musical – creating an original composition; incorporating musical techniques such as repetition, crescendo, accelerando, etc.
- Bodily-Kinesthetic – using tools; shaping and playing the pipes
- Auditory – experimenting with ways to use the pipes to make rhythms and pitches; following auditory cues in performing the pieces
- Visual – writing down and reading the rhythmic patterns in order to remember and perform them, and watching classmates and the teacher in order to stay in sync with the group
- Intrapersonal – building on previous experiences and new ideas to create original compositions
- Interpersonal – cooperating and compromising with a small group and the entire class
- Logical-Mathematical – using rhythmic notation, beats per measure, etc.
Multi-sensory Spelling in 1st Grade
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