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Differentiating Texts for Content Area Teaching

Dr. Katherine McKnight


Differentiating TextbooksWhen I work with teachers all over the country, we discuss the typical readers in their classrooms and their challenges serving students at different levels of proficiency.


They shared that:

More than half of the readers in the class are not at the level we would call “proficient”.

In the non-proficient level, about half of those students are a few years below level and the other half are more than a few years below level.


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A few students of their students are above level unless they are in an advanced level class.


A handful of their students (say 5-6) are “proficient” readers.


With these staggering numbers, (that are represented by all kinds of school districts: suburban, urban, and rural), meeting the individual needs of a group of diverse readers has never been greater. 


Middle and high school teachers are especially taxed in meeting these new realities since most have not taken courses in reading and the professional development for the teaching of literacy skills in order to learn and access content has been largely insufficient. 


The textbooks most teachers have at their disposal aren't helping. The textbook challenge can be summed up as follows.


Textbooks are…

  • Often Superficial
  • Exceedingly Hard to Read
  • Badly Designed
  • Authoritarian
  • Inaccurate
  • Not Written for Students

Many teachers ask me how they can differentiate texts so that they can teach content and develop struggling readers into proficient ones. 


Here are some strategies that can be easily implemented:

  1. Empathy: Do you remember when you had difficulty in a subject and the text was difficult?
  1. Help the students to get started.  We need to “front-load” our teaching. Use think alouds, and strategic reading activities.  Many of these can be found at
  1. Don’t leave kids alone with their textbooks!  Students can work in groups to read and unpack text.  Give students roles in the groups (i.e. vocabulary detective, questioner, researcher, or graphic organizer).
  1. Choose wisely.  Be more selective with textbook reading assignments.  Be strategic about what is most important.
  1. Supplement richly with materials from other sources: blogs, newspapers, magazines, websites.

Most textbooks are not written at reading levels that are accessible for many of our students and should actually be used as a resource rather than the sole source for content information. 


The following are substantial resources for making texts accessible to all readers:


Daniels, H. and Steineke, N. (2011). Texts and Lessons for Content-area Teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

aniels, H. and Zemelman, S. (2004). Subjects Matter: Every Teacher’s Guide to Content Area Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Lattimer, H. (2010). Reading for Learning: Using Discipline-based Texts to Build Content Knowledge. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.


How do you differentiate texts for your students? Share in the comments section!

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