How to Differentiate Reading Passages in High School (With Examples)

Differentiation is the 2020 call-to-action for teachers. As self-contained classes disappear and more special needs students are enrolled in gen ed classes it is incumbent upon us to learn how to effectively modify class instruction at every entry point to allow all students to succeed.

With a little bit of practice it’s very figureoutable (a Marie Forleo term that I love).

Modifying instruction for special education students and English language learners takes many forms. When assigning a reading passage or primary source document there are several quick and easy accommodations that will enable your diverse population to gain access to the material:

  • format in a larger font and/or increase spacing
  • pre-annotate the document
  • embed definitions into the reading
  • chunk the reading into smaller parts
  • include each question directly after the paragraph containing the answer (rather than all questions at the end)
  • rewrite the most difficult sentences to a lower lexile level
  • create a bulleted list of the main content

Uniform heading

Whenever possible I try to make the overall look of the student handouts the same. I keep the identical heading, title and overall layout. This allows me to assign 2 or 3 different levels to the appropriate students without it being glaringly apparent.

That being said students very quickly adapt to being assigned differentiated work. I was extremely reluctant to distribute varying handouts to students and really pushed back for a while. My thinking was that the students with special needs would be embarrassed. Another concern was that the gen ed kids would demand the easier work.

As a result I would differentiate my instruction, the groups and the activities, but not the readings and documents. More of my class time would be spent guiding the students that had difficulties, but everyone got the same handout.

I spoke to a few of my colleagues about this issue and received unanimous assurance that it was not a problem. The English teacher has 2 or 3 separate readings and as students enter the class she points them to the one they should take. “You, take that copy, you take that one.” She says there has never been a problem. Of course, she has an intimidating personality — I wouldn’t push back either!

Another social studies teacher walks around distributing at least 2 versions of his work for the day. In the beginning of the semester one or two students questioned it or asked for the other version. He just very matter-of-factly told them, “Try this version. If you are struggling, we’ll talk.” Within a couple of days it was a universally accepted practice.

Larger font/spacing

This tactic addresses several issues. Students who suffer from sight challenges have definitely been a minority in my teaching experience. However, students who need glasses but don’t have them or refuse to wear them is VERY common.

Reformatting to a larger font and/or increasing the spacing is a psychological benefit for some students. It looks much more approachable and less like a scary thesis paper when you can easily read the text. Sometimes just changing the actual font and not the size helps.

For example, type something in Calibri Lite or Arial Narrow, 2 common fonts. Now type the exact same words in the same size font using Comic Sans. See the difference? It is a bigger, bolder, and more “friendly” font.

Strategic annotation

This works really well for both students with reading and comprehension barriers as well as ELLs. If the reading is Word or Google document that you can edit try bolding pertinent portions of the text. If it’s a copy from a book or PDF use a highlighter and pre-annotate for your struggling learners.

What to annotate depends upon the activity students are assigned. If there are a series of short response questions annotate the answers. Sometimes students will be discussing or debating a topic in the reading. In that case annotate the main ideas. Perhaps they need to use evidence from the document to create conclusions. Annotate all possible evidence that would be appropriate in their response.

This may seem too easy for the student. “I’m giving them the answer!” It’s important to remember that many students cannot interact with work that is at their grade level for many reasons. I remind myself by picturing the reading in Spanish and imagining myself trying to answer the questions (I don’t speak or read Spanish). You better believe I would need the answers bolded, and would probable STILL choose the wrong annotation for the question!


I have seen many textbooks and PDFs include a word bank at the top of a reading passage. Don’t like it. Imagine you are a struggling reader and you happen upon a word that you don’t know. You have to stop reading, draw your attention to the word bank, look to see if the word is there and then read the definition. Finally, you have to find your place in the passage again, reread the sentence using the definition (IF it was there) and try to figure out the sentence. Nope. In some ways that’s actually more confusing than helpful!

That’s why definitions should be embedded within the reading. Whenever there is a potentially difficult term add the meaning in parentheses right after the term itself.

Another tip: don’t use Webster’s dictionary definition. Make it as short as possible to make sense in the sentence. Many words have several meanings and nuances. Use a definition that a student can read instead of the word and the sentence will flow.

This paragraph about the 13 Colonies is slightly modified. The word tumultuous is an important adjective in the sentence that a struggling student probably would not know. Difficult is not an exact synonym, but it clarifies this sentence and topic.

The word political was not replaced, rather a definition follows in parens. Is law a definition for political? No. However laws are a part of “political”, it’s not wrong and it clarifies the sentence better than political (relating to the public affairs of a country).

Modify difficult passages

There are many primary source documents that are incomprensible to students with learning barriers. In order to allow the ability to work with the passage rewriting it might be necessary.

I know this is not possible on a regular basis. As teachers, our workload are already overwhelming — at least mine is. Perhaps once in a while, or just a short document or quote, this method can be utilized.

I like to give both the original text and the modified text if it is an important primary source. This allows kids to at look over the original and get a feel for the language and tenor, then read the modified version for comprehension.

Consider the Cold War “Iron Curtain” speech by Winston Churchill:

Imagine a student with a 5th grade reading level, or a second year English Language Learner trying to decipher this quote. The first sentence alone could hurt their brain! Let’s look into a student’s brain.This is Anna’s brain completing the assignment above:

“Who is Stettin? Where is the Baltic? What is the Baltic? Trieste, I remember t-r-i means 3, so maybe it’s 3 of something in a place called Adriatic? Oh, forget it. I wonder what my mother packed for lunch today? I didn’t see Cynthia, who am I going to sit with in the cafeteria?”

Bullet points or charts

I teach in an urban high school and as a result have always had a diverse population of learners in my classes. This is happening more and more everywhere because of the trend to place students in the least restrictive environment. Many children who would have been in a self-contained classroom are now part of inclusion classes.

In addition to this trend there are also students who, for whatever reason, suffer from undiagnosed learning disabilities. Finally, foreign born immigrants comprise almost 14% of the United States population presently and is growing expected to increase for the next 45 years. Some of these kids also suffer from an interrupted education in their own country.

Long story short, there will be more and more students sitting in classrooms who read far below their chronological grade. They cannot even begin to engage with work you have planned for the rest of your class.

I remember a few students in my early years of teaching. There was one girl who did not understand when I asked her, “What is your name?” She came to class every day and gave me 100% of her attention. I was at a loss to help her.

It must be terrifying. A friend of mine is an Italian immigrant. She did not speak English prior to coming to America when she was 14-years-old. As she described her experience she told me she just cried every day for 2 years.

Try creating a bullet-point list and/or redact EVERYTHING except for a few main ideas of the content being covered. This is visually and mentally much more approachable than a wall of text.

But they have to pass the same test!

One frequent push-back on modifying reading content for students is that, in states where applicable (like mine), the students have to sit for the exact same test as the other kids. In New York State all students must pass 5 Regents exams to receive a high school diploma.

While I don’t agree that a passing five 3-hour exams is necessary to be successful in life no one is asking me. As a teacher, one who is measured in part by her student pass rate, it is what must be addressed.

The fact is that there are a few students in my school who will never pass these exams. Some will take them numerous times. However, you can’t begin to get these struggling learners close to passing unless they have some entry-point.

It does help them pass the test.

If you modify instruction, questions and reading passages, at least some of the time, students can begin to acquire the content knowledge they need. Periodically, they should grapple with grade-level work.

Let’s go back to the Cold War. If on day one Angel is asked to compare 2 primary source documents, one from the Soviet point of view (a Stalin speech) and one from the United States’ (excerpt from the Marshall Plan) he’s completely lost.

But what if he was given the documents with a 2 sentence summary of each. Now ask him which point of view he believes is more valid and why. Angel now has an understanding of the content and is being challenged to analyze it.

Let’s do the same thing for Angel (and the others) for the Berlin Blockade, Cuban Missile Crisis and Warsaw Pact (sorry, non-history teachers!).

Okay, now throw a practice exam or some unmodified sources at him. Suddenly, in the midst of a lot of gibberish, Angle sees events and ideas that he does understand. He knows what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis, thanks to modified text, and can extract the gist of the document in front of him well enough to answer the short response question.


You’re not going to get all of your students to read and write at grade level or above. But with a little forethought and some extra work you can get all your students to make progress.

Let’s get real

My school expects us to modify our instruction and handouts EVERY DAY. We get one 45-minute prep period and one 45 minute period for co-planning. That’s on the days that all the stars align: no coverages for absent teachers, lock downs, fire drills, “emergency” meetings, etc.

Every year we have been assigned new protocols and forms and procedures. And never, ever, ever has something been taken away. I’m not a math teacher, but that adds up to increased hours each year.

No way, no how anybody can plan their lessons, write unit and lesson plans, create PowerPoints, handouts, find appropriate videos, grade papers — you know the drill — in that period of time. Now you want me to make 3 versions of my handout every day?!

If you co-teach it can be done. The gen ed teacher creates the handout and the special ed teacher can modify it. It’s doable most of the time., though it does mean being a few days ahead on your planning to give your co-teacher time to modify.

What if you don’t have a co-teacher, or they can’t/won’t/don’t modify the work for you? It’s really stressful. Pick one or two of the modifications that are quick and easy. Use them when possible. Any modification is better than none.

Annotating is the easiest. I make a copy of the handout, grab a highlighter and annotate the main ideas or whatever the focus is for the day. This step alone, if you do nothing else, will really help.

For more examples of differentiated students handouts check out my TpT store. If you look at the previews you can see how each lesson is modified without buying a thing:)

Click on the Image to visit my differentiated products

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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