Pre-Assessment and Differentiation Strategies for Teaching Academic Language

I know that some teachers become squeamish when you say the words “Common Core” and “differentiation” in the same sentence. In fact, the phrase “differentiation for the Common Core” read a bit like an oxymoron. It means we hope to achieve standardization through a non-standardized approach. Differentiation implies not only a range of different learning groups of different levels, but of different needs. It likewise implies continual assessment to allow for movement between groups. Fast readers, for instance, can’t always speak eloquently about what they’ve read. Meanwhile, talkative storytellers are not always the most adept at close reading. Differentiation ensures that student’s complex make-up of skills is well-understood by both the teacher and student. This way, students can focus on making the biggest gains towards the standards outlined in the Common Core.

On Academic Language

A key shift for ELA that the Common Core presents is an emphasis on regular practice with complex texts that feature academic language. As teachers, we need to raise the bar so that students don’t assume the fifth-grade level language of most web content will suffice in college or the workplace. The academic language of peer-reviewed journals, monographs, scientific research, and historic texts presents a challenge to many students. The Common Core calls for students to sink their teeth into high level vocabulary, domain-specific jargon, and figurative language. It asks students to interpret various forms of persuasive speech and styles of discourse.

In doing so, the Common Core seeks to debunk the myth that linguistic immersion teaches academic language. We need to find ways to assess and ensure that academic language is understood and employed by all students. For students with a limited verbal range, such as ELLs or students with special needs, academic language can seem daunting. That’s why ELA teachers have to employ a wide range of means for teaching various levels within the classroom.

Honigsfeld and Dove (2013) suggest that diverse learners need explicit instruction, which I’ve emphasized in my differentiation strategy. The reason for this is that they are not necessarily exposed to academic text and its conventions may be entirely new material for them (18-19). They need to learn and understand text in small building blocks that they can assemble. These textual building blocks can be reinforced through image, sound, and other media-rich associations. Teachers should create an environment for ongoing exposure to academic language for those who don’t receive it elsewhere.

In this case, I’ve applied different teaching strategies to a model text. This approach aims at ensuring students learn about academic language from an an authentic text. By considering the text from a variety of perspectives, we can spend time using a model text as a window into reading, writing, academic expression, vocab, and grammar alike. Honigsfeld and Dove (2013) recommend the following model texts for learning grammar:

(Honigsfeld and Dove, 2013, pp. 27)

(Honigsfeld and Dove, 2013, pp. 27)


The below outline reflects one approach to using a model academic text such as a famous speech or essay as a basis for developing the use of academic language. The four stages of the lesson will each include a pre-assessment strategy as described.

Text as Point of Reference: Some students may have already read or studied the academic text I’d like to use. I need to discover which students already know this text, and determine how well they know it. For instance, I should see if they know the author, the approximate date it was written, the main idea of the text, and the purpose it was written. This is an especially important area to assess if it is a famous speech or essay, as some students may have already been taught the text.

  • YES/NO Pre-Assessment Strategy:

    • Pass out the text.

    • Give the students two minutes to scan it.

    • Then ask students to turn the text over (face down) on their desks.

    • Students hold up one finger for “yes” and one question for “no” to answer the assessment questions.

      • Do you know the author of this text?

      • Do you now the date the text was written?

      • Do you know the main idea of the text?

Text as Meaning: Next, I’ll need to assess the students’ ability to discern the meaning of the text at the word-, sentence-, and whole text-levels. For paragraphs, I can easily check the student’s comprehension by asking for the main idea and offering a scale of: I don’t know it, I think I know it, I know it and can write it.

  • Self-Assessment Pre-Assessment Strategy:

    • Pass out a small sheet of paper with a grid including a list of ten vocab words and text-specific phrases.

    • Students rate themselves on a scale of: I don’t know it (1), I think I know it (2), I know it (3), and I can use it in a sentence + example (4).

    • Students score their peers’ papers and form groups for the scores of 10-20, 21-35, and 36-40.

(Honigsfeld and Dove, 2013, pp. 29)

(Honigsfeld and Dove, 2013, pp. 29)

Text as Model: I would also like to assess how well students can mimic the structures within the text.

  • Sentence Structure Mimicry Pre-Assessment Strategy:

    • I’ll use a small learning ticket with two sentences from the text written on the sheet of paper. I ask students to mimic the same sentence structure in the spaces below the sentences in the context of advocating for or against more school rules (Adapted from Honigsfeld and Dove, 2013, pp. 15).

    • I’ll collect the sheets of paper and quickly assess the grammar in terms of low ability to mimic (lacking grammar and flexibility), medium ability to mimic (mostly lacking flexibility), and high ability to mimic (exhibits both grammatical accuracy and ease in mimicry) and group students accordingly.

    • Students will underline other interesting sentences from the text in pairs while I’m grading.

Text as Object of Inquiry: Ultimately, my goal is to enable students to form an argument about the text, using cited evidence. For this stage, the students should already be familiar with the text from the previous activities.

  • Text Citation Pre-Assessment Strategy:

    • Students read statements that reflect the opinions of the author.

    • Students underline three sentences in the text that provide the best evidence for the given statements.

    • Students compare their answers with the teacher’s key shown on an overhead projector.

    • The groups are divided by exact matches, mostly correct answers, and mostly different answers.

Differentiation Strategies

Let’s assume the results of my pre-assessments leave me with three groups of students: 5 gifted students, 12 average students, and 5 students with low performance due to a lack of basic knowledge or skills, or other challenges such as a language or learning need.

Group A

The first group consists of those without any difficulties in the pre-assessment. They already know the text, they understand its meaning, they are good at mimicking its form, and they are able to identify the textual evidence for the opinions of the author. The following activities are designed for them.

  1. Text as Point of Reference: Students compare and contrast another text (provided by teacher) from the same author, or time period in terms of SCOPE to refine their knowledge of the given text in relation to another.

  2. Text as Meaning: Students cull the text for interesting phrases and use a word notebook to describe the words and phrases in terms of etymological roots, prefixes and suffixes, polysemic use (multiple meanings), and synonyms and antonyms. Students adapt the meaning of the text into a different written medium such as a song, poem, short story, or documentary.

  3. Text as Model: Students adapt the overall form of the piece of writing for a different purpose of their choice (i.e., to persuade their crush to date them) matching as many stylistic features of the text as possible. They then share and edit each other’s work, giving suggestions (time-permitting).

  4. Text as Object of Inquiry: Students write an outline of an opinion essay in response to the sample text.

Group B

The second group consists of those who generally scored in the middling range for the pre-assessments. They are somewhat familiar with the text, they mostly understand its meaning, they mimic its form with some limitations, and they could cite textual evidence for some of the author’s opinions.

Text as Point of Reference

  1. Text as Point of Reference: Students research the basic facts of the piece in groups of four and learn three new details each about the piece. Students then re-group with one member from each other group in a jig-saw exercise to share their additionally learned information about the text.

  2. Text as Meaning: Students annotate the whole text for the meaning independently, highlighting important words and their meanings in the context of the piece using context clues. Then in groups of four, they create a reverse outline of the main ideas and structure based on their notes including topic sentences and transitions. A sample outline will be provided. Groups then share and discuss their outlines with another group.

  3. Text as Model: Students use the same practice exercise used by Group C, then they check their work in pairs. Students then create mini-speech using three sample sentence patterns they’ve selected.

  4. Text as Object of Inquiry: Students write three sentences about what the author thinks or believes, include a piece of evidence from the text that demonstrates the opinions, and state whether they personally agree or disagree with the author.

Group C

The third group consists of those who were not familiar with the text, they didn’t understand the meaning of the text-specific words, phrases, or main ideas, they could not mimic the sentence forms, and they could not cite textual evidence for the author’s opinions. For this group, an emphasis on explicit instruction will be made for different skills relating to the text. I’ll spend most of my time with this group, until they begin to work through worksheets or activities for practice.

  1. Text as Point of Reference: Explicit, media-rich instruction regarding the SCOPE of the text followed by a game to check for understanding.

  2. Text as Meaning: Pre-teach vocab using graphic organizers that include collocations, synonyms, antonyms, and a simple definition. Read aloud in a group. Stop after each paragraph to determine the main idea and highlight key words that reflect the main ideas.

  3. Text as Model: Students receive explicit instruction about the structure and grammar of the sample sentences. They practice the parts by filling in blanks, and they eventually correct their initial mistakes on the pre-assessment.

  4. Text as Object of Inquiry: Students review the structure of the essay from when they studied its meaning by filling in a model outline in pairs. They receive new opinion statements and practice finding the cited evidence in the same pairs.

Visual Lesson Flow


Differentiation and LR Information for SAS Teachers (n.d.) Pre-Assessment Ideas. [Web page]. Retrieved from

Honigsfeld, A. and Dove, M.G. (2013) Strategies for Academic Language Development. In Common Core for the Not-So-Common Learner (pp. 15-48). Thousand Oaks, California; Corwin.

Erica Eller