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A qualitative study of teacher understanding and use of differentiated instruction to promote reading achievement

Dissertation
Author: Kristen M. Driskill
Abstract:
Teacher accountability and test scores currently drive many practices within the field of education. Concurrently, student populations have become increasingly diverse, causing classroom teachers to feel pressured to teach to the test. Differentiated instruction has emerged as a best practice to help maximize learning for all students. However, implementation of the instructional approach remains inconsistent. In addition, the specific connection between differentiated instruction and reading achievement is unclear. This research study was conducted with fourth grade general education teachers in an urban, upstate New York school district, where student needs are highly diverse, to ascertain teacher perceptions of differentiated instruction. In addition, this study was conducted to collect examples of practical application of the strategy. Interviews were conducted with participants; narrative data collected show a common understanding of what differentiated instruction entails. The major theme found within the data indicates that teachers perceive differentiated instruction to involve tailoring instruction to the individual needs of students. The data also show a wide range of use of the instructional approach in regard to reading instruction. Major themes found within the data address scaffolding tasks and products, and the use of flexible groupings in order to reach the diverse needs of all learners.

TABLE OF CONTENTS LIST OF TABLES ................................................................................................... xii CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION .............................................................................. 1 Background of the Problem ....................................................................................... 2 Statement of the Problem ........................................................................................... 7 Purpose of the Study .................................................................................................. 7 Significance of the Problem ....................................................................................... 8 Significance of Study .......................................................................................... 8 Significance to Leadership ............................................................................... 10 Nature of the Study .................................................................................................. 10 Research Questions .................................................................................................. 12 Theoretical Framework ............................................................................................ 13 Definition of Terms.................................................................................................. 17 Assumptions ............................................................................................................. 18 Limitations ............................................................................................................... 19 Delimitations and Scope .......................................................................................... 21 Summary .................................................................................................................. 21 CHAPTER 2: REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE .................................................. 23 Title Searches, Articles, Research Documents, Journals ......................................... 23 Historical Perspectives on Diversity and Literacy ................................................... 24 Immigration and Diversity ................................................................................ 25 Educational Reform Efforts .............................................................................. 27 Differentiated Instruction .................................................................................. 31

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Reading Achievement ....................................................................................... 33 Summary of Historical Perspectives ................................................................. 37 Contemporary Findings on Diversity and Literacy ................................................. 39 Immigration and Diversity ................................................................................ 40 Educational Reform and Teacher Accountability ............................................. 43 Differentiated Instruction .................................................................................. 46 Reading Achievement ....................................................................................... 55 Summary of Contemporary Findings ............................................................... 58 Conclusion ............................................................................................................... 60 Summary .................................................................................................................. 62 CHAPTER 3: METHOD ......................................................................................... 65 Research Method and Design Appropriateness ....................................................... 65 Research Questions .................................................................................................. 69 Population ................................................................................................................ 69 Informed Consent..................................................................................................... 70 Sampling Frame ....................................................................................................... 71 Confidentiality ......................................................................................................... 73 Geographic Location ................................................................................................ 73 Instrumentation ........................................................................................................ 73 Data Collection ........................................................................................................ 75 Internal and External Validity .................................................................................. 77 Credibility ......................................................................................................... 78 Transferability ................................................................................................... 78

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Dependability .................................................................................................... 78 Confirmability ................................................................................................... 79 Data Analysis ........................................................................................................... 79 Summary .................................................................................................................. 82 CHAPTER 4: RESULTS ......................................................................................... 85 Data Collection Procedures ...................................................................................... 86 Pilot Study ........................................................................................................ 86 Solicitation of Participants ................................................................................ 87 Participant Information ..................................................................................... 91 Analysis of Data ............................................................................................... 91 Findings.................................................................................................................... 92 Perceived Definition of Differentiated Instruction ........................................... 92 Teacher Use of Differentiated Instruction ........................................................ 94 Summary .................................................................................................................. 99 CHAPTER 5: CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS ......................... 101 Summary of Research Conclusions ....................................................................... 101 Methods .......................................................................................................... 102 Assumptions ................................................................................................... 103 Limitations ...................................................................................................... 103 Ethical Dimensions ......................................................................................... 106 Research Findings Relative to the Literature Review ............................................ 107 Data Analysis Findings .......................................................................................... 110 Perceived Definition of Differentiated Instruction ......................................... 111

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Teacher Use of Differentiated Instruction ...................................................... 112 Implications of Findings ................................................................................. 113 Recommendations .................................................................................................. 115 Recommendations for Action by Key Stakeholders ....................................... 115 Recommendations for Further Study .............................................................. 118 Summary ................................................................................................................ 119 REFERENCES ...................................................................................................... 120 APPENDIX A: INTRODUCTORY LETTER TO SUPERINTENDENT ............ 131 APPENDIX B: INTRODUCTORY LETTER TO SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS ............................................................................................ 134 APPENDIX C: SUPERINTENDENT’S INFORMED CONSENT: PERMISSION TO USE PREMISES, NAME, AND/OR SUBJECTS ................. 137 APPENDIX D: PRINCIPAL’S INFORMED CONSENT: PERMISSION TO USE PREMISES, NAME, AND/OR SUBJECTS ................................................. 139 APPENDIX E: INTRODUCTORY LETTER TO TEACHERS ........................... 147 APPENDIX F: CONFIDENTIALITY LETTER................................................... 150 APPENDIX G: INFORMED CONSENT: PARTICIPANTS 18 YEARS OF AGE OR OLDER .................................................................................................. 153 APPENDIX H: INTERVIEW QUESTIONS ........................................................ 156 APPENDIX I: LETTER OF APPROVAL FROM CHIEF OF ACCOUNTABILITY ............................................................................................ 159 APPENDIX J: MEMORANDUM TO SCHOOL PRINCIPALS FROM CHIEF OF ACCOUNTABILITY ...................................................................................... 161

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APPENDIX K: INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPTS .................................................... 163 APPENDIX L: COMMON THEMES IDENTIFIED IN INTERVIEW DATA ... 199

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LIST OF TABLES Table 1 Timeline of Participant Solicitation

............................................................ 87 Table 2 Background Information of Participants

.................................................... 91 Table 3 Participants’ Definition of Differentiated Instruction

................................ 92 Table 4 Participants’ Explanation of How to Differentiate Instruction

.................. 93 Table 5 Ways Participants Differentiate Reading Instruction

................................. 95 Table 6 Ways Participants Alter Content during Reading Instruction

.................... 96 Table 7 Ways Participants Alter Processes or Activities during Reading Instruction

................................................................................................................ 96 Table 8 Ways Participants Alter Expectations or Products During Reading Instruction

................................................................................................................ 97 Table 9 Participants’ Perception of Impact of Differentiated Instruction on Reading Achievement

............................................................................................... 98 Table 10 Participant 1 Interview Transcript

......................................................... 164 Table 11 Participant 2 Interview Transcript

......................................................... 172 Table 12 Participant 3 Interview Transcript

......................................................... 182 Table 13 Participant 4 Interview Transcript

......................................................... 187 Table 14 Participant 5 Interview Transcript

......................................................... 194 Table 15 Common Themes Found in Data Grouped by Interview Question, as Coded in NVivo 8

................................................................................................... 200

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CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION In the age of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), educators are encouraged, and somewhat pressured, to promote high student achievement (Anderson, 2007; Thompson, Warren, & Carter, 2004). Because of the legislation, districts have raised standards due to accountability measures outlined in NCLB (Edwards, Carr, & Siegel, 2006). In spite of the focus on promoting student achievement, the legislation does not go far enough to support teacher efforts to find and implement effective instructional practices (Hyun, 2003; Ramirez, 2007). One example of the shortcoming of the legislation is the staggering rate of almost 40% of all fourth graders in the United States that are still struggling to read on grade level (Al Otaiba, Kosanovich-Grek, Torgesen, Hassler, & Wahl, 2005; Begeny & Martens, 2006). Another example is the high rate of special education referrals for reading difficulties, making it the highest occurring cause for referral (Al Otaiba et al.). Differentiated instruction has emerged as a highly effective teaching tool to meet the diverse needs of children (Anderson, 2007; Castle, Deniz, & Tortora, 2005; Hawkins, 2007). Differentiated instruction involves altering content, process, product, affect, and learning environment for each child while taking readiness, interest, and learning profile into account (Bailey & Williams-Black, 2008; Powers, 2008; Tomlinson, 2004; Van Garderen & Whittaker, 2006). Although many educational leaders favor differentiated instruction as an instructional approach, the implementation of the strategy within daily instruction has not been consistent and opposition from classroom teachers and administrators is evident (Carolan & Guinn, 2007; Silliman, Bahr, Beasman, & Wilkinson, 2000; Vaughn, Moody, & Schumm, 1998). Teacher opposition may be due to

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a strong belief in direct instruction where the teacher transmits knowledge to students, a lack of reflection in terms of teacher goals and student needs, or the lack of consistent expectations for all students (Silliman et al.). The intent of the current research study, therefore, was to explore teacher understanding of differentiated instruction and use of the instructional strategy to improve reading achievement. Chapter 1 provides background information illustrating why the research problem is of important educational concern. In doing so, the chapter presents the problem statement, purpose for the study, significance of the problem, nature of the study, research questions, and theoretical framework. Finally, chapter 1 includes definitions unique to the current study, assumptions, limitations, delimitations, and a summary of the chapter. Background of the Problem The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was created to ensure "all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at minimum, proficiency on challenging State [sic] academic achievement standards and state academic assessments" (U.S. Department of Education, 2002, p. 1439). The intended purpose of such reform was to diminish the gap between high-achieving and low-achieving students, to include minorities and low-socioeconomic children, by making sure that all students received the same educational opportunities (The Education Trust [TET], 2005; Thompson et al., 2004; VanSciver, 2005). The piece of legislation was written, "because schools are failing to instill desired learning in a sufficient number of students" (Friedman, Harwell, & Schnepel, 2006, p. 2). Due to high numbers of students not achieving, accountability for both teachers and students became a priority

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within the field of education, and aligning teacher preparation programs and curricula with a set of standards became the means to do so (Edwards et al., 2006). Since its implementation, NCLB has resulted in a significant emphasis on higher standards, student achievement, and accountability measures that affect every classroom teacher (Daniel, 2008; Edwards et al., 2006; McBride, 2004). A goal of NCLB is "promoting schoolwide reform and ensuring the access of children to effective, scientifically based instructional strategies and challenging academic content" (U.S. Department of Education, 2002, p. 1440). Unfortunately, the legislation does not support teachers in the pursuit of finding and implementing scientifically based instructional practices, but it does continue to hold high expectations for student achievement (Hyun, 2003; Ramirez, 2007). Test data currently determine level of success in terms of student achievement (Daniel, 2008; Thompson et al., 2004). Teachers often feel pressured to alter instructional approaches in order to prepare students for high-stakes tests adequately (Bravmann, 2004; Castle et al., 2005; McBride, 2004; Valencia & Riddle Buly, 2004; Wertheim & Leyser, 2002). The pressure to alter instructional approaches often leads teachers to adopt instructional practices that are not effective, nor supported by sufficient evidence (Friedman et al., 2006). The stress that NCLB puts on teachers has led many to follow a one-size-fits-all mentality, focusing on the needs of the group rather than the needs of each individual child (Bravmann; McBride). With such a strong focus on accountability, many teachers struggle to reach the margins of the classroom, leaving creativity and enrichment behind in order to focus on test preparation (Anderson, 2007). The struggle

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between finding and using effective teaching strategies and showing gains in test scores has become a major issue within the field of education (Friedman et al.). Between 1971 and 2004, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scores for fourth graders grew only one grade level (Fuller, Wright, Gesicki, & Kang, 2007). Significant growth was made between 1999 and 2002, but little, if any, growth was made after the implementation of NCLB (Fuller et al.). In addition, achievement gaps that decreased prior to 2002 have not shown any further decrease since 2002 (Fuller et al.). Since the implementation of NCLB, the number of children in grades 3 through 8 who fail high-stakes reading assessments has either grown or remained constant each year (TET, 2005; Valencia & Riddle Buly, 2004). Specifically in New York, reading achievement has improved for fourth grade students, but short-term gains are not clear (New York State Board of Regents [NYSBOR], 2007). "Given rising expectations for literacy in our increasingly technological workplace, the well-documented long-term costs of early reading difficulties are a societal concern" (Al Otaiba et al., 2005, p. 378). If elementary students continue to struggle with literacy skills, the students will fall further behind and will eventually struggle to succeed in society as adults (TET). Prior to NCLB, New York raised state standards in 1999, and as a result, fourth grade reading scores improved. Children scoring at or above the Basic level increased 7% from 1998 to 2007 (NYSBOR, 2007). However, there were no changes, either positive or negative, from 2005 to 2007 in the overall number of fourth graders scoring at or above the Basic level (NYSBOR). In fact, the number of Hispanic students scoring at or above the Basic level decreased from 2005 to 2007, and the number of Black students scoring at

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or above the Basic level increased only 2% from 2005 to 2007 (NYSBOR). While the overall test data do show gains in reading achievement, ascertaining if the improvement was due to the higher standards put into place in 1999, or the implementation of NCLB in 2002 remains difficult. Although New York State fourth graders have shown improvement on high-stakes reading assessments, the numbers of children still struggling to read are alarming. In 2007, only 51% of Hispanic students and 52% of Black students scored at or above the Basic level (NYSBOR, 2007). The scores from 2007 imply that nearly half of all Hispanic and Black fourth graders in New York State are reading below grade level. The test data showing high numbers of minority students reading below grade level could possibly be due to classroom teachers shifting instructional priorities from meeting the increasingly diverse needs of each student to test preparation, a choice many teachers have made due to the pressure to show improved test scores (Hill, 2004). In response to the reform efforts put forth by NCLB and the pressure to show improved test data, achievement has become a topic widely discussed within education. Many administrators constantly strive to find highly effective strategies to show gains in achievement (Edwards et al., 2006). With the strong focus on student achievement, and the increase in diversity of student abilities and needs, differentiated instruction has emerged as a best practice because it enables teachers to reach each student while still preparing for high-stakes testing (Anderson, 2007; McBride, 2004). Differentiated instruction allows teachers to help students work toward common goals via multiple pathways based on individual student needs (Bravmann, 2004; King-Shaver, 2008).

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Differentiated instruction allows a teacher to analyze students’ current abilities and needs, base instruction on the identified individual needs, and allow students to reach maximum potential (Castle et al., 2005; Kingore, 2005). According to Tomlinson and Allan (2000), differentiated instruction is grounded in empirical research on learner readiness, interest, and intelligence. The approach is inherently constructivist in that teaching is student-centered, and making meaning is essential throughout the learning process (Tomlinson & Allan) Simply put, differentiated instruction allows teachers to maximize the capabilities of each student by catering instruction to his or her learning styles and needs (Anderson, 2007). Differentiated instruction has grown in popularity over the past decade, and as a result, more literature in support of the approach has emerged on the topic (Rock, Gregg, Ellis, & Gable, 2008). The current literature on differentiated instruction is greatly anecdotal, illustrating ways in which to implement the approach or dispelling myths that exist surrounding the approach (Rock et al.). However, as educators continue to explore the approach, empirical evidence continues to emerge. Empirical evidence that does exist corroborates the claim that differentiated instruction addresses the diverse needs of learners and connects the strategy to overall improved achievement (Rock et al.). However, the specific relationship between the strategy and reading achievement is unclear (Castle et al., 2005; Hawkins, 2007; Hoffman, 2003). Due to the high numbers of students failing reading assessments each year, it would be beneficial to examine a potential relationship between differentiated instruction and reading achievement.

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Statement of the Problem The general problem is that close to 40% of all fourth graders in the United States do not perform well on state achievement tests for reading, and read below grade level (Begeny & Martens, 2006). In the state of New York, 31% of all fourth graders performed below the basic level on the New York State English Language Arts assessment in 2007 (NYSBOR, 2007). Specifically, in one urban school district in upstate New York, 43% of all fourth graders performed below grade level on the New York State English Language Arts assessment in 2005 (Rivera, 2005). Given the research that supports the use of differentiated instruction to improve achievement (Rock et al., 2008), it would be valuable for educational leaders to determine teachers’ perceptions of lived experiences using differentiated instruction in order to support the use of the strategy to improve reading achievement. In an attempt to understand teacher perceptions better, the current qualitative, phenomenological research study explored teacher understanding of differentiated instruction and use of the instructional strategy to improve reading achievement. The general population included fourth grade general education teachers from the above-mentioned urban school district in upstate New York. Purpose of the Study The purpose of the current qualitative, phenomenological research study was to explore teacher understanding of differentiated instruction and use of the instructional strategy to improve reading achievement. According to Denzin and Lincoln (2005), qualitative research allows a researcher to study subjects in their own environment, make sense of a central phenomenon through the perspective of the participants, and thus better understand the issue at hand. A phenomenological research approach was appropriate for

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the study as lived experiences and perceptions were explored given data collected from interviews. The central phenomenon the current research study explored was the understanding and use of differentiated instruction as a teaching strategy for the improvement of reading achievement. Given the data regarding the number of fourth grade students not reaching grade level standards within a particular urban school district in upstate New York, 20 fourth grade general education teachers from that school district comprised the identified sample for the current research study. Participants’ lived experiences were ascertained via a phone interview, during which all conversations were tape recorded, subsequently transcribed, and later coded in order to determine common themes within the narrative text data. After analyzing the data, a comprehensive definition of differentiated instruction was developed, along with a compiled list of ways teachers use the strategy during reading instruction. Significance of the Problem Significance of Study Once a child falls behind in reading skill development, the child will likely struggle to catch up to proficient readers, and as a result, will develop a negative attitude towards reading (Al Otaiba et al., 2005). Working to prevent early reading difficulties is essential not only to combat negative attitudes toward reading, but also to help decrease the number of fourth graders reading below grade level across the United States (TET, 2005). Although early reading difficulty prevention is a priority for many schools, teachers often are overwhelmed by the large number of struggling readers that must be serviced in general education classrooms (Al Otaiba et al.).

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Given the increased prevalence of diversity within general education classrooms, teachers must use instructional practices that reach all learners, address all learning styles, and celebrate diversity rather than making different students feel inferior (Baglieri & Knopf, 2004). Research supports the use of differentiated instruction to help fulfill or address the diverse needs of learners (Begeny & Martens, 2006; Castle et al., 2005; Hawkins, 2007; Hoffman, 2003; Powers, 2008; Rivera, 2005; Valencia & Riddle Buly, 2004). However, the connection between the use of differentiated instruction and improving reading achievement remains unclear. The current research study is significant because it determined fourth grade teacher understanding of differentiated instruction. If any misconceptions exist within the field of education, the research can serve as clarification to provide a better understanding and increased knowledge of differentiated instruction. Establishing a clear definition of the instructional approach may also help to alleviate some of the opposition that classroom teachers exhibit in terms of using the strategy in daily instruction. Second, the current research study explored ways teachers use differentiated instruction to improve reading achievement. The findings of the study identified specific ways for teachers to use differentiated instruction to improve students’ reading abilities. A major benefit of the current research study is that it clearly illustrated how fourth grade general education teachers differentiate instruction. The study is useful to classroom teachers looking for ways to reach the diverse needs of fourth grade students while improving reading skills. The data collected can also serve as a model for teachers who are eager to differentiate but uncertain as to how to go about using the strategy in reading instruction.

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Significance to Leadership Educational leaders are tasked with "ensuring the access of children to effective, scientifically based instructional strategies and challenging academic content" (U.S. Department of Education, 2002, p. 1440). However, with the pressures of accountability and increasingly diverse student populations, many classroom teachers are struggling to reach the margins of the classroom and are forgoing effective instructional strategies for test preparation (Anderson, 2007). Educational leaders must ensure that teachers are using appropriate strategies to teach students the skills needed to be successful learners, which will in turn help students to perform well on high-stakes tests. The current research study can help educational leaders support classroom teachers in the use of differentiated instruction to reach the diverse needs of each child while still preparing for high-stakes testing. Educational leaders can use the research to support professional development opportunities when establishing a common definition of differentiated instruction within a school. In addition, educational leaders can use the research as a model when encouraging teachers to use the strategy to help students improve reading skills. Nature of the Study The qualitative, phenomenological research approach of the current research study was more appropriate than other research methods to accomplish the goals of the study. Qualitative research methods enable the researcher to explore a problem and gain a deeper understanding of a central phenomenon (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). In the current research study, the qualitative method was an appropriate way to ascertain teacher understanding of differentiated instruction as well as to learn more from participants about how differentiated instruction may be used to improve reading achievement.

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Quantitative research methods could facilitate the explanation of trends, but would not provide the room to explore differentiated instruction fully. In addition, a quantitative approach would not have allowed participants to provide rich narrative data regarding understanding of differentiated instruction and various applications of the approach during reading instruction. The phenomenological research design of the current research study described, analyzed, and interpreted the participants’ understanding and use of differentiated instruction. Phenomenological research is effective when examining the lived experiences of a particular group or culture, which may subsequently provide insight and understanding of a larger issue (Moustakas, 1994; Ostergaard, Dahlin, & Hugo, 2008). The culture examined in the current research study was fourth grade general education teachers within various elementary schools in an urban school district in upstate New York. Through interviews, the issue of differentiated instruction was explored from the participants’ perspective. The phenomenological research design was appropriate for the current qualitative research study due to the interviews needed to collect teachers’ opinions, perceptions, and anecdotal data regarding the use of differentiated instruction. The design of the current research study was developed specifically to address the problem regarding the high numbers of fourth grade students in an urban school district in upstate New York failing to meet grade level standards in reading. Twenty fourth grade general education teachers from the given school district were sought to participate in the study in order to ascertain lived experiences, perceptions, and use of differentiated instruction to promote reading achievement. Interviews were conducted to collect the anecdotal data needed. Once collected, transcribed, and coded using NVivo 8 software,

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the narrative data were analyzed to find overarching themes within the data (QSR International [QSR], 2007). The themes that emerged provided a common, comprehensive definition of differentiated instruction, and a compilation of ways to use the instructional approach to promote reading achievement. The design choices for the current research study were appropriate in that the data collected best satisfied the research questions, and the findings will likely help to improve the identified problem. Research Questions Given the sense of urgency regarding reading achievement for fourth graders within the United States, the central phenomenon examined within the current qualitative, phenomenological research study was differentiated instruction. Although empirical evidence exists which indicates that differentiated instruction effectively reaches the needs of diverse learners (Anderson, 2007; Castle et al., 2005; Hawkins, 2007), the instructional approach is still not widely used in many classrooms (Carolan & Guinn, 2007; Silliman et al., 2000; Vaughn et al., 1998). Currently, many barriers to differentiation exist, including teacher perceived lack of time, support, and resources; teacher belief that differentiated instruction is another mandate; teacher misunderstanding of how to implement the strategy; a lack of sufficient models for teachers of differentiated instruction used in classrooms; and the lack of opportunity for teachers to study the need for differentiated instruction (Carolan & Guinn; Tomlinson, 2005a). The increasing diversity in classrooms today, along with declining reading scores, supports the need for teachers to differentiate daily instruction. Classroom teachers may not fully understand what differentiated instruction consists of or how to use it in daily instruction. Therefore, the first research question that

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guided the current research study was What do teachers perceive the definition of differentiated instruction to encompass? Determining a perceived definition of differentiated instruction could help to alleviate any misconceptions, create a more unified definition, and help teachers to understand more comprehensively what the instructional approach entails. In addition to determining teacher understanding of differentiated instruction, the goal of the current research study was to explore how differentiated instruction is used to improve reading achievement. Therefore, the second research question that guided the current research study was How do teachers use differentiated instruction as a teaching strategy to promote reading achievement? The narrative data that the research study compiled provide classroom teachers with examples of how to use differentiated instruction effectively. The current research study also provided implications for future research to establish an empirical relationship between differentiated instruction and improved reading achievement. Theoretical Framework The theoretical framework for the current research study focused on four paradigms within the field of education: (a) increasing diversity of students, (b) strong focus on accountability for classroom teachers, (c) the need for scientifically-based instructional methods called for by NCLB, and (d) the number of students failing to meet grade-level standards in reading. The broad theoretical area under which the current research study fell stemmed from the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The purpose of the reform legislation was to diminish the gap between high- achieving and low-achieving students, to include minorities and low-socioeconomic

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children, by making sure that all students received the same educational opportunities (TET, 2005; U.S. Department of Education, 2002; VanSciver, 2005). Creating a set of standards for each subject at each grade level, providing more funding for struggling schools, allowing parents to choose what school a child attends, and influencing teacher preparation programs to alter practices are all hallmarks of NCLB (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). However, the gap between high- and low-achieving students has not diminished as intended (Fuller et al., 2007). "In its present form, the No Child Left Behind legislation could further enhance these inequities and unfairly label children and schools as underachieving" (Smith, 2005, p. 513). Teachers are encountering increasingly diverse student populations in terms of culture, language, and social needs (Castle et al., 2005). The increase in diversity has led to a three- to five-year range in academic levels in any classroom (Castle et al.). The diverse ideas, perspectives, backgrounds, cultures, and solutions to problems that exist in such diverse classrooms are valuable to the learning process for children and should be celebrated by both teachers and students (Carolan & Guinn, 2007). However, many teachers find the diverse needs of students overwhelming, especially when faced with high numbers of struggling readers (Al Otaiba et al., 2005). Empirical evidence exists that supports the use of differentiated instruction to reach the needs of diverse learners and to improve student achievement (Castle et al.; Hawkins, 2007; Hoffman, 2003; Valencia & Riddle Buly, 2004). Test data are the primary method to hold schools accountable, and as a result, many schools have adjusted daily instructional approaches in order to improve poor test performance (Friedman et al., 2006; Valencia & Riddle Buly, 2004). Classroom teachers

Full document contains 216 pages
Abstract: Teacher accountability and test scores currently drive many practices within the field of education. Concurrently, student populations have become increasingly diverse, causing classroom teachers to feel pressured to teach to the test. Differentiated instruction has emerged as a best practice to help maximize learning for all students. However, implementation of the instructional approach remains inconsistent. In addition, the specific connection between differentiated instruction and reading achievement is unclear. This research study was conducted with fourth grade general education teachers in an urban, upstate New York school district, where student needs are highly diverse, to ascertain teacher perceptions of differentiated instruction. In addition, this study was conducted to collect examples of practical application of the strategy. Interviews were conducted with participants; narrative data collected show a common understanding of what differentiated instruction entails. The major theme found within the data indicates that teachers perceive differentiated instruction to involve tailoring instruction to the individual needs of students. The data also show a wide range of use of the instructional approach in regard to reading instruction. Major themes found within the data address scaffolding tasks and products, and the use of flexible groupings in order to reach the diverse needs of all learners.