Accommodations for Individual Differences without Classroom Ability Groups: An Experiment in School Restructuring

Article excerpt

Differentiated assignments, focused questions, and intermittent tutoring are some of the strategies that teachers use to accommodate individual students who differ vastly in reading ability. Grouping and supplementary instruction, however, are the most visible and enduring means of addressing ability differences. Hiebert (1983) and Barr and Dreeben (1991) observed that grouping students for reading instruction is almost a universal practice. In his review of ability grouping, Slavin (1986) commented:

The lack of studies of grouping in reading is

surprising. It may be that [ability grouping for

reading instruction] is so widespread in

elementary schools that formation of ungrouped

control groups is difficult to arrange, even on an

experimental basis. (p. 317)

Ability grouping for reading instruction does not end at the classroom door . Special and compensatory education programs create still other reading groups when they remove students for instruction. Moreover, some schools rely on ability grouping as an organizing framework that dictates children's classroom placement, as in crossclass and cross-grade grouping plans.

Differentiated reading groups provide a convenient means for teachers to adjust instructional pace, content coverage, assignments, and even the difficulty of text so that they more closely approximate students' abilities. But not every practice succeeds in its intent; and in the case of ability grouping, educators increasingly doubt its benefits, especially for children who find themselves in the lower tracks. Ironically, these doubts arose in part because researchers reported that high- and low-ability groups actually receive different instruction--not entirely a surprise given the reasons for creating these groups in the first place. However, the nature of the observed differences has caused concern. Compared with higher ability groups, low groups appear, at least sometimes, to receive less time in reading instruction (Hunter, cited in Barr & Dreeben, 1991; McDermott, 1976); spend less time on task (Gambrell, 1984); read less material (Allington, 1984; Barr & Dreeben, 1983), and emphasize skill and drill, and decoding rather than meaning (Allington, 1980; Collins, 1986).

Another assumption about ability grouping is also open to question. The most fundamental reason for grouping students is that it allows teachers to match reading materials to their students' nascent abilities. Ideally, such matching would take into account factors like students' background knowledge for and interest in specific reading content, as well as their familiarity with the text structure and reading vocabulary of the selections. In practice, however, the matching of texts and students is not very precise. Typically, teachers assign groups of students to different levels of a basal reading program, which vary on an uncertain and, at best, crude index of "difficulty." Few studies, however, have examined the effects of materials difficulty. In one, Juel (1990) reported that 1st-grade children with low readiness scores learned decoding skills more quickly in an "easier" reading series (i.e., one in which new words were introduced more slowly than in a comparison series). But in another study, Kamil and Rauscher (1990) found that variation in materials difficulty made little difference on reading achievement of students in Grades 3-5. Perhaps we have overestimated either the importance of matching materials to student abilities or our ability to perform this match effectively.

Supplementary instruction, the other major strategy for accommodating individual differences, is transmitted primarily through remedial and special education programs in which specialisis, or teacher aides supervised by specialists, provide help to struggling readers, usually outside the classroom. Like ability grouping, supplemental instruction from specialists has attracted critics, especially in connection with pullout programs. …