Chunking for Learning and Differentiation

Chunking is a simple idea.  The teacher breaks information and processes into smaller chunks that are easier for students to digest.  Reviewing each chunk before moving on to the next, also helps students to both remember and connect various chunks, eventually forming a big picture concept or entire process. This fits into Design Question 2 in the Art and Science of Teaching (click here to read more about this).

The curriculum documents we use already has chunks within subjects, concepts and processes.  When a teacher does their own planning s/he chunk the curriculum into units, weeks and lessons.  The best teachers chunk their lessons into manageable portions as well.  This chunking is a simple idea but a difficult skill to master.

Chunking is also an important teaching strategy for differentiating instruction.  Some students need to work on larger chunks while others need to work on smaller ones.  Some students may need to revise some chunks more than others.  Some students need more opportunities to rehearse a skill or steps in a process.

When assigning tasks for students (whether it’s a practice task, informal note taking or assessment task) chunking makes the task more accessible and achievable.  This is especially true for students with special learning needs.  Michelle from Teach 123 posted about an easy strategy for chunking assignments, click here to check out all the details.

folder cut in sections

Cut flaps in the front of a manilla folder so the student can see only one section of the task sheet at one time.

 

 

I love this folder idea and I know I will be using it in the next few weeks with my students.   Closing the flaps over completed work allows the student to focus only on the work at hand.  For some students this would minimise distractions and help them focus.  Other students may benefit from being able to see how much work or how many chunks they have already completed.  It gives them a sense of achievement and the confidence to continue.  A piece of card moved down the page to reveal one question at a time could work just as well as a folder with several flaps.

exam

Exams spilt into separate pages.

 

A colleague of mine gave her students in a secondary maths class one page of the exam booklet at a time.  Instead of students being presented with a 5 page booklet with an overwhelming number of questions, students worked through 2-5 questions and had a short break before moving to the next page.  Students were also allowed extra time to complete exams and dividing the exam into smaller sections helped them to better manage their time.

Chunking new information into smaller pieces is “just good teaching” and many pedagogical frameworks include this facet of teaching.  This “good teaching” is even more important when working with students who have learning difficulties.  Students who experience any of the following difficulties will benefit from chunking strategies in teaching and modifying tasks.

  • Working Memory Difficulties
  • Executive Function Deficits or Delays
  • ADHD/ADD
  • Receptive Language Difficulties/ impairments
  • Intellectual Impairments/ Disabilities
  • ASD

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How to adjust your worksheets for effective differentiation

All teachers use worksheets.  While we know that using worksheets all the time is not the best teaching practice; we also know that a well constructed worksheet, used purposefully, can be a great tool for independent or scaffolded practice.  Worksheets can also be a valuable formative assessment tool.

Unfortunately, some worksheets involve so much reading (deciphering instructions) that some students are unable to complete them accurately.  Sometimes the worksheet you choose is only appropriate for students who are accomplished readers. Students may give up as they see the task as being “too hard” or teachers see the results and assume that the students do not understand the concept.

How do you adjust worksheets so students with learning difficulties are able to participate and show what they know just like everyone else? Here are some tips!

  1. Blow the photocopy budget

    The size of text on worksheets seems to get smaller every year and students with reading difficulties, dyslexia or vision impairments, are immediately behind the eight ball.  Increase the font and line spacing to make reading instructions and questions as easy as possible.  If supervisors are questioning the amount of photocopying you are doing, tell them it is due to an important strategy for differentiation in your classroom.

  2. Use Different Fonts

    basic fontsInstructions should always be in a bold font while example responses (see tip 3) can be put in italics. This makes it easier to access the text on the worksheet.  Changes to font help students to separate different types of text.  Be warned: too many changes in font type can become very confusing, so ensure that each time the font modulates, from one type/ size to another, it has a clear purpose.

  3. Lead by Example

    Sentence Starters, Modelled Responses and Examples all point students in the right direction.  Students who struggle with receptive and expressive language often don’t know exactly how to put their answer/ knowledge into a format that makes sense to others. Don’t leave them guessing about what you want from them.  Don’t let them use “I didn’t know how to start!” as an excuse for not attempting a task.

    workshet with example

    While this is a worksheet for early years, it is a perfect example of showing students how to complete the tasks.

  4. Use Visual Supports

    Icons for types of questions, small images of required materials and diagrams are all good examples of this.  When appropriate, allow students to draw/ sketch their answers as this will invite reluctant writers to provide an answer.  Your visual learners will thank you too!  Check out my recent post about visuals.

    ten types of visuals

  5.  Don’t use 10 words when 2 will do.

    writer breeds more words than he needsStudents with poor working memory, receptive language difficulties and reading difficulties will struggle to read long directions and questions.  So keep it brief and clear.  A great way to check if your directions are clear is to ask a friend to read it and see if they know what to do.  A friend who isn’t a teacher is the best person to ask.  This ties in well with the Rule of 7 Lesson Planning Challenge!

Admittedly, it is difficult to make all of these adjustments to every worksheet you use in a week.  This is especially true if you are teaching a course you have taught before and you are hoping to re-use the resources.  Each week, I aim to adjust one worksheet/ activity for each class that I teach.  By the end of the semester I have at least 20 modified worksheets that I can use next semester.  I can adjust one worksheet a week next time I teach the course as well.  Every semester the students in my class have different needs so it makes sense that some of the materials will need to be adapted to accommodate them.

There is so much you can do to support the diverse needs in your class.  The ones above will make written materials so much easier to access for most of the students in your class whether their specific needs are related to difficulties with vision, reading, comprehension or even intellectual disability.

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Differentiation Using Visual Aids

Everyone knows that using visual aids when presenting information is a good strategy.  Everyone from businessmen to teachers know how effective visual aids are when you want to grab the attention of your audience.  We all know that there are some things that are just easier to explain with a picture or a drawing.  We all know that.

10 20 80 hear read and see

Even though we know it, this infographic supports my point.  It is  better to use visuals in our lessons and in the materials we use (i.e. worksheets etc).

 

Most Primary School Classrooms are filled with visual aids and concrete materials that teachers use.  We use posters for rules and routines.  We have big and colourful word walls with pictures to support new vocabulary.  We display flow charts and diagrams and photographs and symbols to remind students of lessons we have taught.  Primary School Teachers tend to use visual aids all the time.The fact is that students are more likely to retain the information presented in class if it is repeated in different ways (including words and visuals).

Secondary School Teachers are less likely to use visual support.  Why is that?

I don’t need to convince you that using visual aids is just good teaching.  You might be wondering how using visual aids in the classroom is a differentiation strategy.  Here are some examples.

  1. Visual Prompts for classroom rules/ routines: I have told you about how I display my class rules/ routines. Photos of students following the rules and carrying out routines makes rules clearer to students.  Seeing what is expected is a better reminder than being repeatedly nagged by the teacher repeating the rules.  This is especially true for students with autism.

    Stop Look Listen Visual Prompt

    I use this when teaching and rehearsing our attention getting signal. I ding a bell then point to the sign.

  2. Icons on Worksheets: when I create maths worksheets I include a small image of a calculator.  If the calculator is in a circle and crossed out, students know they are not allowed to use a calculator.  If the calculator has nothing around it or over it, the students know they can use their calculator.  My students who struggle with reading can see quickly and easily if they are allowed to use a  calculator.

    calculator circled

    The calculator icon is circled in red.

  3. Icons/ Colour Coding on Teaching Slides: I use a bold font in green for instructions (or questions students need to answer).  If there is information that students need to copy into their note books, I use a different font in purple or blue and a small picture of a pen.  This highlights text for students with dyslexia and students who get overwhelmed with large amounts of text.

    teaching slide independent task

    This slide includes the directions for an independent task that students complete at the beginning of the lesson.

  4. Illustrating Vocabulary Words: insert images on your handouts so technical language is clearer to students or have students draw images beside vocabulary words and definitions.  This will help them to understand and remember the meaning of the new vocabulary.  This also provides an opportunity for your visual thinkers to show what they know.

    Word Wall Term 1 2014

    This colourful Word Wall includes words with definitions that students have illustrated for display.

  5. Visual Aids Displaying the steps of a process taught in class.  Check out this teaching slide where the teacher has highlighted the buttons on the calculator that students need to use when entering an addition or subtraction equation.  This strategy is vital when teaching students with speech and language difficulties (especially receptive language), difficulties with executive function and problems with working memory.
subtraction teaching slide calculator

This slide was used to support the teaching activity, and then it was printed out on large paper and displayed in the classroom for students to refer to during future lessons.

 

The bonus reason for using visual aids in your classroom is that it will make it so much easier to achieve the Rule of 7 Lesson Planning Challenge.  The more images you use, the less words you will need!

 

Let us know in the comments if there other ways you use visuals to support your students with learning difficulties.  Happy Teaching and Differentiating!

 

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Rule of Seven: Lesson Planning Challenge

What if your struggling students actually managed to write all the notes quickly and remembered the main idea of your lesson?  What if students re-read their notes when it was time to study? What if they were able to explain concepts simply without misconceptions!

The rule of 7 is simple.  Seven words, steps or points are the maximum for optimal memory retention.  That means, quick definitions of vocabulary words need to have 7 words or less. Wilfong (2012) states that truncated definitions should be limited to 3-5 words.

cant explain dont understand

Here’s the challenge…

Choose one lesson this week and apply the Rule of Seven. 

 Here are some steps to follow.

  1. Read and (if possible) re-write the lesson goal so it has 7 words or less.  When doing this, consider the main idea of your lesson and what you want your students to remember next lesson.
  2. Review the learning activities that you have planned. How long will each activity last? 5-7 minutes of instructional time (that’s teacher talk) also applies. If you are planning to chalk and talk for 15 minutes you need to rethink how you are going to sequence the lesson.  Split that 15 minutes into three 5 minute blocks or five 3 minute blocks or don’t divide it evenly at all.
  3. Last, but not least, review how much writing you are expecting your students to do.  If you are asking students to copy notes in their books, keep it to 7 or less dot points.  That doesn’t mean that each dot point can be a paragraph! If asking your students to write their own summary of the lesson, limit them to 7 words or less.  It will challenge them.

There it is.  The rule of 7 challenge. It is hard, but you can do it. I know you can.  I would love to hear how you go.  Let us know in the comments.   How does this rule change how you plan? What happens in the classroom when you plan your lessons this way? Is it worth the extra effort?  Is it easy or difficult for you? How do you make this challenge work for you and your students?

I can’t wait to hear from you!

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Lately, I have been seeing pins on Pinterest with a similar format.

I love them so much that I have been pinning them to my Differentiation Pinterest Board to read later. I finally had an opportunity to check out the website that they were all coming from and I had to share it with you!

 

Understand.org is a website designed for parents of children with learning and/or attention difficulties.

While the website targets parents, there are plenty of resources for teachers and specialists.  The professional jargon is minimal and information is concise.  While we are all able to access the technical language associated with pedagogy and therapy, we would all rather read a simply worded summary.

If you are a Literacy Coach, Numeracy Coach, Special Education Teacher or other specialist, you will find the parent toolkit helpful for activities that can be used in PD programs. There are several games that parents/ teachers/ family members can play to experience what it can be like to have various learning difficulties.

I can see this website becoming a go-to site for material to share with my colleagues at school.  As well as characteristics of learning difficulties, this website has information about the social and emotional side of learning difficulties.  There are also recommendations for parents about communicating with their school and accessing assistive technology for their child.

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