Reading Program Update Part 3: Data of Differentiation

Part 3 of this five part blog series on the advances in my reading program is on the wonderful differentiation inherent in free choice reading programs.

The data I reference below is from one of my level 3 classes. You can access the info by clicking on the link to analyze yourself. Don’t worry. I have waivers signed from these students giving me permission to publish stuff from class:

Book Analysis

Sorting the data by student reveals a tremendous amount of differentiation in instruction. Take Cassidy, for example, whose proficiency has some of the most room for improvement in class.

First Name Book Pages Rating out of 10
Cassidy Brandon Brown Quiere Un Perro 69 10
Cassidy El Ratón Pablito 109 9

She has found comfortable reading among two of the most basic, yet interesting books out there.

The most important aspect of collecting this data is that it is actionable. The teacher can make observations that can inform future reading decisions. With Cassidy, for example, you can bet on Monday, I’m going to pull some similar books, such as La Familia de Frederico Rico and Daniel El Detective, for her to peruse. I’ll also pull a few titles to help her stretch in new directions: Cuentos De Chonko is a compilation of short stories like El Ratón Pablito, but with much more language breadth and increasingly advanced texts as the book progresses. The same is true for Ataques de Hambre. I’m also thinking of presenting her with options that contain more serious themes than she’s read about to date but that are still pretty basic in language: El Escape Cubano, Fiesta Fatal, Isabella Captura Un Congo, and Esperanza. Perhaps more mature content will captivate her even more!

Joseph is another student who I know has a more basic proficiency level in this class. His reading selections bear this out as well:

Joseph El Ratón Pablito 109 9
Joseph Billy Y Las Botas 49 8
Joseph Agentes Secretos y el mural de Picasso 67 7
Joseph Billy Y Las Botas 49 7
Joseph Billy Y Las Botas 49 7
Joseph Brandon Brown Y El Nuevo Houdini 62 7
Joseph Brandon Brown Quiere Un Perro 69 6
Joseph El Ratón Pablito 109 6
Joseph Fiesta Fatal 74 6
Joseph La Casa De La Dentista 114 6
Joseph La Casa De La Dentista 114 6

You can see he has read much more than Cassidy, yet his selection unequivocally speaks to the books he’s found success in. All of these books are accessible to level 1 second semester students. Research shows that the quickest gains via reading happen when over 90% of the text is already comprehensible to students. Joseph is independently seeking out reading material that accomplishes this truth, mostly comprehensible with some new words here and there that aren’t too frustrating to figure out from context or look up in the glossary.

With this data, I’ll suggest that he peruse La Familia De Frederico Rico and Cuentos De Chonko since he liked El Ratón Pablito for the same reasons I mentioned with Cassidy above. Those other two are also built around each chapter being a somewhat independent short story, with lots of fun illustrations along the way. I’ll also suggest Esperanza, as a step forward from Fiesta Fatal. And perhaps Carl No Quiere Ir A México, since it also features a young male protagonist going on adventures, like Brandon Brown, and would be an incremental step forward in text level. I might also suggest Felipe Alou, since I know he’s a baseball fan, yet I haven’t put that fact together with reading selections for him yet.


Differentiation naturally happens along the entire range of student abilities in class, not just among the lower levels. Take Luis for example, a freshmen heritage Spanish learner with completely native listening and speaking proficiency. I couldn’t convince to switch out of level 3 into 5 or AP (we don’t offer a Heritage class), probably for a variety of reasons–his best buddy is also in this class, he likes me as a teacher, I’m the soccer coach and he loves soccer, he was perhaps intimidated by level 5 or AP, etc.) He’s not learning anything from me during normal class. His interpersonal communication is better than mine given the decade and a half of native input he’s received at home. But the reading program is most likely doing wonders for his reading proficiency, spelling, and writing:

Luis Brandon Brown Dice la Verdad 81 10
Luis El Ekeko 84 10
Luis El Nuevo Houdini 62 10
Luis Fiesta Fatal 74 10
Luis La Casa de la Dentista 114 10
Luis La Llorona De Mazatlán 73 10
Luis Vida y Muerte en La Mara Salvatrucha 51 10
Luis Noches Misteriosas en Granada 65 9
Luis Los Baker van a Perú 50 8
Luis Robo en la Noche 74 8
Luis Tumba 53 8
Luis Billy Y Las Botas 49

He reported that he hadn’t read in Spanish since a kid, but his interest in reading has obviously been rekindled via the reading program. He has read a wide variety of texts from the easiest I offer (Brandon Brown Dice La Verdad) to some of the hardest (Vida Y Muerte En La Mara Salvatrucha and Sobrevivientes, which he didn’t report having read, but I know he has…). The important observation is that he just loves reading; he’s ranked everything above 8 out of 10! How wonderful!

The actionable inference from this data with Luis is to help him move from leveled readers to authentic texts so that he develops a habit of pleasure reading as part of his identity. I have a few native-audience young adult books (the Harry Potter series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and a few Spanish versions of popular graphic novels like Sisters, Smile, and Maus). But he hasn’t picked any of those up yet. So, we’ll see if any of those stick when I suggest them. If not, I’ll check out a broader variety of titles from the local library for him–Hunger Games, some non-fiction about soccer since he loves soccer, etc…

There are other students who differentiate based on content, rather than text level. Nevaeh is one of these kids. Unfortunately I don’t have her data yet because she was absent, but I still know what she’s been reading. She recalls loving reading in elementary school, but she now reports hating reading. Most likely, this change is due to the lack of free choice pleasure reading in middle and high school and its replacement with teacher-dictated, class-wide novel selections and the tedium of work tacked onto that reading in the form of book reports, text analysis, and so on.

Given her rejection of any form of reading, she’s gravitated toward the most visually interesting novels because they hold her attention best: Edi El Elefante with its wonderful watercolor paintings, Sr. Wooly’s fantastic graphic novels Billy Y Las Botas and La Casa De La DentistaPablito El Ratón and La Familia De Frederico Rico, both by Craig Klein Dexemple with his playfully illustrated short-story format, and my own Cuentos De Chonko–a compilation of class and teacher co-created stories a la Ben Slavic’s Invisibles that she helped to create last year.

I am thrilled to report that the free choice reading program in Spanish class is starting to change Nevaeh’s feelings toward reading. Last class, while I was collecting all of this data and the kids were filling out our book sticky notes, I threw out a question about whether the Dork Diaries were as beloved as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. (I’m interested in offering an equivalent to the Wimpy Kid series but with a female protagonist.) Nevaeh jumped in with how much she loved the Dork Diaries….and The Magical Tree House series, and the Corduroy books. Next thing I knew, she was practically yelling for me to check Amazon for Spanish versions, which there were, which left her demanding for me to add them to the library–with a huge smile on her face!

Just awesome!

Obviously, the actionable inference with Nevaeh is to buy her the Spanish version of the books she remembers from her childhood. Tina Hargarden out in Portland reports great success with having students read the Spanish and English versions of their favorite books side-by-side for added comprehensibility when the L2 versions are too hard but the content is worth it to the kid. So, I might ask Nevaeh to bring in her English copies as well.


As a quick side note from this differentiation conversation, this last of Nevaeh’s selections, Cuentos De Chonko, is an interesting reading choice with lots of future potential to CI teachers. It is by far Nevaeh’s favorite reading material of the year. She’s read it at least 3 times, which speaks to the huge levels of engagement it generates. And when I sort the data by book, the average rating out of 10 for Cuentos De Chonko is a 9.6 and 9.3 in my other section. One student even wrote in 1000 out of 10 (haha).

The book is a compilation of short stories created by Nevaeh’s class, among others, last year. The activity is a popular CI technique invented by Ben Slavic in which students and teacher co-create stories based on interesting, class-chosen imaginary characters. The students invent these invisible characters and send them on adventures solving a key problem with a creative solution. Slavic describes this activity in detail in his amazing book A Natural Approach to Stories. The level of engagement story-creation generates in students is almost impossible to over-exaggerate.

Building on this work, Mike Peto has written extensively here about the power of including class-created, textual content like these co-created stories in the library as possible reading selections. My observations about the popularity of these stories in my reading program certainly corroborates his findings.


Observations on the differentiation via free choice reading is replicated throughout the entire class, and among my other levels. I’ve taken note of observations for nearly every student, which will guide my future collaboration with them on their reading journey. But, for the most part, they don’t even need me. The format itself of free choice reading is automatically differentiating: students choose books based on interest and keep reading them because they are successful enough for their unique level. Their language gains are as efficient as possible because the language exposure is perfectly customized by both level and content. It’s impossible for that to happen from textbook reading or whole-class novels, and it is difficult to overstate the benefits of choice in a reading program.



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