Edwin S. Ellis
Edwin S. Ellis
Edge Enterprises, Inc.
Not your parents’ graphic organizers, DVTs’ visual designs and embedded semantic prompts explicitly focus on specific Core ELA standards for reading literature and informative text as well as argumentative and narrative writing. DVTs are differentiated in the sense that different DVTs are designed to address different ELA standards in a manner that makes thinking visible. For example, some DVTs focus on differentiating between explicit text information and inferences drawn about a character, while others target literacy skills such as identifying themes and central ideas, recognizing multiple points of views, or identifying author bias. Unlike traditional one-size-fits-all generic graphic organizers, the program provides a sequence of leveled DVTs, each corresponding to the level of complexity reflected by a strand of standards associated with developing a literacy skill. Thus, the leveled DVTs offer teachers a powerful resource for implementing developmentally appropriate differentiated instruction.
Included in this program are:
Edwin S. Ellis
Edwin S. Ellis
Edge Enterprises, Inc.
Differentiated Visual Tools: Research Summary
Edwin S. Ellis, Ph.D. Affiliate Research Scientist,
University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning
Basic graphic organizers (GOs) like webs and Venn diagrams have been found to be highly effective when teaching literacy skills and content information because they make visible the hidden information structures (e.g., hierarchic, comparison, cause- effect, problem solution) (Dexter & Hughes, 2011; Ellis, & Howard, 2007). However, basic GOs often prove inadequate when one attempts to convey complex information reflected in secondary school learning standards, resulting in compromising the integrity of the information and presenting a false, over-simplified notion of the content (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008).
Differentiated Visual Tools (DVTs) are discipline-specific graphic organizers (GOs) designed to enhance content and language literacy. Each DVT is individually designed for teaching a specific content and/or language literacy standard in a manner that maximizes learning, while at the same time, reduces teachers’ cognitive load (for a review, see Ellis & Deshler, 2017).
The development of the DVTs model has been based on “design studies” articulated by a number of researchers (e.g., Bannan-Ritland, 2003; Bannan-Ritland & Back, 2008; Kelly, 2004; Kelly, Lesh, & Baek, 2008; Shavelson, Phillips, Towne, & Feuer, 2003) in which “the design act is comprised of different studies belonging in stages within a larger trajectory that animates the program or portfolio of work” (Kelly, 2004, p. 125). Essentially, development of the DVT Model has been, and continues to be, an evolving process. Iterations of DVTs, and the nature of resources, professional development, and support within schools that teachers need to implement the DVT Model effectively are based on a combination of action research and beta testing, empirical data collection using small and large N scientific research designs, program evaluations, and most importantly, on-going feedback from teachers and students (see Shavelson et al., 2003).
For example, Smith, Ellis, Deshler & Alzahrani (2016) examined the impact of online DVT-based instruction on the reading comprehension and knowledge of geography generative ideas of fourteen 7th, 8th, and 9th grade students with identified cognitive disabilities. On reading comprehension measures, the average pretest data (when DIVTs were not used) indicate students scored 17 correct out of 45 correct opportunities. Posttest data (when DVTs were used) shows an average of 30 correct out of a possible 45 score, indicating a nearly doubling in score as a result of the brief, digital-based intervention (See Figure 1). A paired samples t test was conducted with proportion correct as the dependent variable. Analysis of pre- versus post-test reading comprehension scores indicated that students performed
significantly better when using DVTs, t (13) = 2.90, p = .013. The effect size was large, d = 1.02. The study also yielded important information about how students view the utility of DVTs and what aspects of the instructional procedure they found most effective as well as recommendations they had for modifying it.
Figure 1. Impact of impact of DVT-based instruction on the reading comprehension and knowledge of geography generative ideas
In a multiple-baseline study, Long (2015) evaluated the impact of DVTs on 9th grade students with learning disabilities’ understanding of math concepts and impact on word problem solving ability. As illustrated in Figure 2, students’ knowledge of the algebraic concepts improved dramatically after the DVTs were used to teach them. Likewise, Figure 2 shows how students’ ability to apply this knowledge when solving word problems associated with the algebraic concepts dramatically improved in kind.
Figure 2. Impact of DVTs on 9th grade students with learning disabilities’ understanding of math concepts and word problem solving ability.
Large N research indicate that DVT-based content instruction is significantly superior (p < .001) to traditional text-based / guided note-taking instruction, as well as instruction featuring generic graphic organizers such as webs and Venn diagrams, on measures reflecting gains in 96 students’ depth and breadth of new content knowledge (see Figure 3) . These results were found in high-, typical- and low-achieving students, as well as low achieving students classified as learning disabled. These results were consistent across all teachers participating in the study. Qualitative measures indicate that both teachers and students highly value DVTs and perceive them as tools that improve instruction and learning while also reducing cognitive load (for a review, see Ellis & Deshler, 2017).
Figure 3. High-, typical, -low, and low-achieving students identified with learning disabilities’ breadth and depth of new knowledge relative to form of instruction
In a related study, Ellis and Wills (in preparation) compared the effects of DVTs vs. hierarchic outlines when each was used in conjunction with guided-reading / note- taking content instruction. Analysis of mean gains in measures of students’ relational understanding of new knowledge addressed during the lessons indicated that the DVT-based instruction consistently produced superior results. Under the DVT condition, high achieving students demonstrated 14.8% greater levels of relational understandings than when hierarchic outlines were used, typical achieving students scored 18% higher, and low achieving students scored 21% higher (see Figure 4).
Figure 4. High-, typical, and low-achieving students’ breadth and depth of new knowledge relative to form of guided reading / note-taking instruction
A series of program evaluation studies (Elis & Farmer, 2009) investigated DVT-based instruction’s impact on high stakes writing assessment performance. For example, an examination of 26 schools indicate that, when compared to schools’ test performance (e.g., % of students who met or exceeded performance standards) prior to DVT implementation, performance markedly increased after a year of DVT-based instruction, regardless of the schools’ prior performance history, including historically high- performing schools. The most significant gains were found in very low performing schools on “alert” status. The relative impact of DVT-based instruction gradually diminished in schools with increasingly higher levels of prior performance on the state writing assessment, but nonetheless, all schools demonstrated significant gains in test performance (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Impact of DVT-based instruction on percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards on high-stakes writing assessment performance across 26 schools with varying prior performance histories
A Before/After descriptive study examined the impact of DVT-based instruction on rural versus suburban schools with similar prior high stakes test performance histories demonstrated similar increases in test performance in both schools (see Figure 6).
Figure 6. Percentage of rural vs. suburban 7th grade students meeting or exceeding standards before and after DVT-based instruction
A Before/After descriptive study examining the impact of DVT-based instruction on 5th grade high stakes writing assessment in two semi-rural elementary schools with similar low performing prior test performance histories found that, following two years of DVT- based instruction, schools respectively increased the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards by 49 and 55 percentage points as compared to average performance over a two year span year prior to DVT implementation (see Figure 7).
Figure 7. Percentage of semi-rural 5th grade students meeting or exceeding standards before and after DVT-based instruction
Research on Supporting DVT Implementation
Although evidence from scientific research supports the use of DVT-based instruction, qualitative research examining factors that impact the degree to which teachers use DVTs with fidelity and on a sustained basis has also informed DVT professional development practices as well as the design of DVT instructional resources.
Traditional professional development (PD) in SIM CERs often involves a SIM CER Overview presentation, followed by a series of 90-180 minute workshops, each focusing on a specific universal CER such as the Framing Routine. These workshops are often attended by heterogeneous audiences representing different curriculum areas (e.g., social studies, science, English, etc.). This form of PD is sometimes paired with more collegial forms of PD (e.g., instructional coaching, professional learning communities).
In a qualitative study, Howard (2007) examined high-users of DVTs (e.g., frequency of instances of DVT use, number of different types of DVTs used, different subject areas included, types of applications) to determine key factors that contributed to frequency and sustainability of implementation. While most of the teachers became aware of DVTs through PD workshops, two dominate emergent themes associated with frequency and sustainability were “deliberate plans to promote sustained use” and “opportunities to think through the instructional approach and how it can be used for their students.” Of the various personal competencies revealed, the most consistent factor was collegiality (demonstrating willingness to share knowledge with other teachers). Moreover, a dominate theme throughout was the value of the accessibility to samples of how teachers used DVTs.
Thus, two key factors inform best practices for supporting DVT implementation. First, since DVTs are discipline-specific with individual DVTs designed for specific learning standards, providing workshops to heterogeneous groups of teachers is less feasible. While discipline-specific DVT workshops are desirable, they are often not financially feasible, especially for smaller school districts. Collegial PD approaches (e.g., instructional coaching; professional learning communities) for supporting DVT implementation are likely to be more effective and cost efficient.
Second, the design of DVT instructional resources needs to be conducive to collegial PD approaches. Thus, DVT resources need to include features such examples of how teachers used DVTs, instructional checklists for various Cue * Do * Review routines, sample instructional goals, etc. Likewise, the instructional resources must minimize the demands associated with planning DVT instruction. For example, DVT software enables teachers to select a specific standard they plan to address, and the program then provides ready-to-use interactive digital DVTs designed for the targeted standard, sample of how teachers used the DVT, and access to instructional checklists that can be used as lesson plans.
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Product Name: Differentiated Visual Tools
Author: Edwin (Ed) S. Ellis, Ph.D.
Affiliations: Professor Emeritus, Special Education and Multiple Abilities
University of Alabama
President, Makes Sense Strategies, LLC
Research Affiliate, University of KS Center for Research on Learning
Certified SIM Professional Development Specialist
Background information. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my interest in learning and teaching began way back in 1965 at age 15. My youngest brother had been diagnosed with learning disabilities, and with both parents working 80+ hours a week, much of the responsibilities for his treatment fell on my shoulders. This was back when perceptual motor training to establish brain hemisphere dominance to cure LD was vogue. I spent countless hours doing “angles in the snow” related activities with him and trying to help him learn to read and write, albeit somewhat clueless about how to do it. His and my own emotional experiences led me to pursue college studies in psychology, but becoming a teacher never crossed my mind. I accidentally fell into special education when opportunity presented itself with a tuition grant to pursue a master degree in special education/learning disabilities. I didn’t have anything else to do, and it seemed like a way to extend my interest in psychology in a practical way. Only when I had my own classroom and became very invested in understanding my students did I realize that I was one of those persons who was “born to teach”… and born to observe and think about learning. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Due to service volunteer experiences developing a pretrial diversion program for delinquent adolescents and working in a adolescent drug rehabilitation program, paired with my experience as a LD teacher, I became the education coordinator for one of the Child Service Demonstration Center (CSDC), federally funded programs charged with developing and validating interventions for students with learning disabilities during the late 1970s. Our particular CSDC program focused on developing interventions for adolescents with LD who had been adjudicated (convicted). Of the many CSDCs that were funded, only a few focused on services for adolescents, and fewer still actually did anything to validate their effectiveness; one of these was a CSDC directed by Don Deshler, a new assistant professor at KU, and another directed by Naomi Zigmond at University of Pittsburgh. Those of us concerned with validation of our services would meet at conferences to share what we were doing and our data. There were exciting times for all of us, and especially for me because I was collaborating with some brilliant people, and we were all trying to figure out what to do, how to do it, and how well it worked. Most of the CSDCs, however, failed to validate their interventions, so subsequent federal support shifted to funding five research institutes where learning disabilities could be addressed in a systematic, empirical manner and LD interventions would be scientific research validated. Dick Sheffelbush and Don Deshler were awarded one of these grants, and thus the Institute for Research in Learning Disabilities (KU-IRLD) was born. Deshler recruited many of us who had been collaborating with him via the CSDCs to come to KU for doctoral studies and to work at the KU-IRLD, and that’s how I landed in Kansas. The products which I have developed since then build on the tradition of Strategic Instruction and have been published by Edge Enterprises, Inc.
The Story Behind Differentiated Visual Tools
Edwin S. Ellis, Ph.D.
Differentiated Visual Tools (DVTs) is an approach to Content Enhancement that focuses on use of discipline-specific graphic organizers (GOs) to enhance both content and language-literacy instruction. Each DVT is individually designed for teaching a specific content and/or language-literacy standard in a manner that maximizes learning, while at the same time, reduce teachers’ and students’ cognitive load.
Development of each DVT involves analyzing a given standard to determine its critical “essential understandings” as well as analyzing key thinking / learning processes associated with the standard. This information is then used to custom design a DVT for teaching that targeted standard.
The story behind DVTs is a tale of persistence in the face of a ton of epiphanies and nagging questions that begin with, “What if…”
What if there was a simple way to enable teachers, without outside assistance, to focus more on essential understandings?
The idea behind DVTs as I observed novice as well as seasoned teachers’ use of generic ready-to-use “blank” graphic organizers (GOs), such as webs, Venn diagrams, and boxes with arrows. In particular, I noticed two things. First, the information teachers chose to put on the GOs too often failed to reflect critical information about the topic they were teaching, and it very rarely addressed generative understanding about the information or implications and relevance associated with the information.
Second, I noticed how much planning time and effort is required by teachers in order to identify substantially important ideas to address when using GOs while teaching content-area subjects. I realized that many teachers who struggled with identifying essential understandings of their lessons seemed to fall into two categories: those who were content-novices (e.g., because their knowledge of the topic was limited, they were unable to identify essential understandings) and those who were content experts (e.g., because they knew so much about a topic, to them, everything was essential to know).
As a teacher-educator, I noticed that a lot of my instructional coaching focused on helping teachers develop content for their graphic organizers, especially with the process of identifying big ideas and “essential understandings.” Through use of questioning strategies, we would eventually identify key big ideas, but developing the ability to do this independently was a slow process for many of the teachers with whom I worked.
I hypothesized that rather than starting with a blank graphic organizer and then helping teachers think through the process of identifying essential understandings to note on the GO, it might be helpful to scaffold this process by providing teachers with pre-constructed GOs that had built-in semantic prompts that focused on essential understandings of the lesson’s key topic. That way, I would be doing the “heavy lifting” (e.g., analyzing the lesson’s content to determine generative ideas and then adding prompts to the GO to target the topic’s essential understandings). When planning the lesson, the teacher still had to identify the key content associated with the prompts I had put on the GO, but I noticed that the quality of information the teacher was noting on the GO increased dramatically, as did the teacher’s instruction. Moreover, feedback from teachers indicated they greatly valued the GOs with the added “essential understanding” prompts and these specialized GOs were effective with regard to students’ learning. As an added “plus,” teachers indicated that feedback from their students was very positive as well.
What if teachers had a series of specialized GOs, each focusing on generative topics they frequently taught?
About this time, state departments of education (SDEs) began emphasizing the importance of teaching in relation to specific learning standards. In search of a guide to help me identify what the essential understandings were for specific topics, I began analyzing learning standards of specific content-areas to determine, as precisely as possible, what SDEs expected students to learn. This experience led me to conclude that the quality of the standards (at that time) was very inconsistent. Some standards were written such that essential understandings were easy to discern, whereas other standards seemed almost incoherent. I realized that while SDEs’ lists of standards were helpful in some ways, I needed more guidance in determining essential understandings. Thus, I undertook a series of studies that involved triangulating information gleamed from (a) interviews with seasoned content teachers (e.g., English, history, science) about what they perceived to be essential understandings of key topics, (b) information gleaned from analyzing SDE learning standards, and (c) analyses of commercial curriculum materials (e.g., instructional objectives, end-of-chapter review questions, chapter headings and subheadings, etc.).
A Q-sort analysis of the data led to lists of generative “high frequency topics” (HFTs) that, in any given lesson within a content area, were highly likely to be the primary focus of instruction. For example, it is highly likely that any given history lesson will be mostly about a famous person or group, an event, a process or procedure, an issue or problem, a policy or law, a conflict, etc. I then used the question, “What would be essential to understand about ___ (each HFT)?” For example, the Q-sort analysis indicated that generative understandings about a famous person include, personal qualities, issues or problems that concerned the person, the person’s goals relative to those concerns, key factors the person had to consider when deciding what to do about the concerns, actions the person undertook to address the concerns, and impact of those actions.
The generative understandings gleaned from the triangulation described above then guided my development of prompts on GOs designed to address each HFT within a discipline. For example, a GO was designed that any history teacher could use when teaching about any famous person. Similar discipline-specific GOs, each designed for each of the history HFTs, science HFTs, literature HFTs, etc. were developed.
Following a series of field tests, a scientific research study was undertaken to determine the relative effectiveness of the discipline-specific GOs. The study compared the relative impact of traditional universal GOs (e.g., webs, Venn diagrams, boxes with arrows, etc.), discipline-specific GOs that focused HFT essential understandings, and instruction without GOs. The depth and breadth of 96 students’ new knowledge of history, relative to each form of instruction, was assessed. On both measures, instruction featuring HFT essential understandings proved significantly superior (p < .001) with all subgroups of students (high-, typical- and low-achieving, as well as low-achieving students identified as having learning disabilities).
What if the discipline-specific GOs included embedded prompts designed to cue teachers and students to engage in specific thinking and/or language literacy skills?
Two key things influenced the next evolution in my work with disciplinary-specific GOs. First, when analyzing SDEs’ learning standards in various disciplines, I noticed that many of the individual content standards reflected a combination of content knowledge (i.e., information students were expected to learn) and various thinking and language-literacy skills (e.g., summarizing text passages, researching, writing expository essays, etc.). From my observations of practicing content teachers, I surmised that many content teachers rarely provided explicit instruction in thinking skills or language-literacy skills, and that when these skills were addressed, it was often in a very haphazard, non-explicit, brief or incidental manner.
Second, the Learning Strategies Curriculum (LSC) provides guidelines for implementing highly explicit instruction in specific language literacy strategies (e.g., summarizing/paraphrasing, drawing inferences, perusing text chapters, writing essays), but these instructional materials are primarily designed for use in remedial contexts, not general education classes. The SIM Content Literacy Continuum (CLC) included instructional routines for infusing core thinking and language-literacy strategies that paralleled those targeted by the LSC into general education content classes (e.g., techniques and activities for promoting summarizing skills while teaching subject matter). Insights gained from research on these tactics and strategies prompted my development of a series of discipline-specific GOs each targeting the HFTs, but also designed to target specific thinking and literacy skills. For example, a series of “famous person” history GOs were developed, each also featuring prompts that focused on cueing use of key thinking skills such as asking and answering questions about the famous person, differentiating between explicit information provided by the text, and inferences drawn about the famous person.
Although bolstered by results of field tests of individual GOs featuring embedded prompts for both essential understandings and use of specific information-processing strategies, observations of how elementary and secondary teachers selected and used these specialized GOs on a daily basis led to two conclusions. First, teachers in the intermediate grades found these specialized GOs to be very useful, and program evaluation studies bore this out. Data showed significant increases in the percentage of students that met or exceeded state standards on 5th- and 8th-grade high-stakes writing tests (see Ellis & Farmer, 2009) following a year of implementation. These teachers likely valued the tools because they viewed their primary teaching responsibilities as including both literacy and content instruction. In contrast, many secondary content teachers did not view instruction in language-literacy skills as their responsibility and therefore less enthusiastic about GOs that included language-literacy prompts. Second, teachers became overwhelmed when provided with too many GO options.
About this time, national professional organizations (e.g., NCSS, NTE) began to identify and/or refine learning standards associated with their respective disciplines. This evolution reflected a number of changes, including (a) a much more systematic, recursive and scaffolded approach to teaching key ideas (e.g., basics of a concept are introduced early, and then revisited at increasingly more sophisticated levels in subsequent grades), and (b) separation of a discipline’s content standards from those that addressed discipline-specific language-literacy skills.
Then the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for Language Arts emerged, which included specific language literacy standards for specific disciplines (e.g., standards for reading history, standards for reading science, etc.). Standards addressing these literacy skills also reflected a more coordinated and scaffolded approach to teaching language-literacy skills across the curriculum. The net result was a clear expectation that secondary content teachers are responsible for effective discipline-specific content and language-literacy instruction.
A key feature of the CCSS is the manner in which specific thinking / information-processing skills are targeted early in the primary grades and then are systematically built upon throughout the grade levels. While this approach is based on sound instructional principles, it presented teachers in upper grade levels with very significant challenges. For example, 8th-grade content-area teachers were suddenly expected to teach very sophisticated literacy skills that had not been previously addressed in the lower grades (e.g., CCSS.ELA-Literacy.R.8.8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; recognize when irrelevant evidence is introduced). Their students did not have the opportunity to gradually develop these thinking skills in a manner that prepared them to be ready to learn an 8th-grade application of them.
Moreover, I observed that upper-grade teachers often lacked critical knowledge and skills to systematically teach these advanced literacy skills, while, at the same time, teach their content. Thus, I surmised that teachers needed instructional resources that enabled them to literally see how to address these complex standards in relatively simple ways.
I also surmised that many commercial publishers, in their rush to sell “CCSS” material, simply retrofitted their existing curriculum products rather than investing time, energy, and money in the process of developing and validating new curriculum products that systematically address the CCSS standards across the grades based on principles of explicit instruction. Given the previous work I had been doing to integrate thinking and language-literacy skills into the discipline-specific GOs, it was a short leap to begin designing GOs specifically for individual CCSS-ELA standards.
What if the GOs were available to teachers that enabled them to differentiate instruction based on the developmental needs of their students?
Universal graphic organizers (e.g., webs, Venn diagrams, boxes with arrows) are typically “one-size-fits-all” tools and thus do not reflect scaffolded complexity or varying degrees of sophistication. For example, the same Venn diagram used in 2nd-grade to compare characters in a story might also be used in a 9th-grade biology class to compare reproductive processes. Second, as previously noted, CCSS-LA standards are scaffolded in a manner that reflects increasing levels of sophistication in use of specific thinking and language-literacy skills at each grade level. As I began to develop GOs for specific CCSS-LA standards, I quickly understood that the GOs I was developing reflected the scaffolded nature of the CCSS-LA standards. For example, the GO that I designed for teaching the CCSS.ELA-Literacy.R.8.8 standard was slightly more complex than the one I developed for the previous, parallel 7th-grade standard, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.R.7.8.
My big epiphany came when I realized that scaffolded GOs could be valuable tools when providing differentiated instruction. For example, if 8th-grade students lacked sufficient background knowledge and skills to be ready for grade-level instruction in the CCSS.ELA-Literacy.R.8.8 standard, then the skills leading to readiness (e.g., CCSS.ELA-Literacy.R.7.8) could be reviewed or taught using the GO designed for teaching that standard, which in turn, would lead to students’ readiness for instruction related to the more advanced standard.
Clearly, good tools are strategically designed to be effective and efficient. That is, they provide a lot of “bang-for-the-buck” to get the job done, while at the same time, they require minimal time and energy to use. As my work with GOs evolved, the nomenclature for the visual devices changed several times (e.g., from “Smartsheets”, to “Smart Visuals”, to “Discipline-specific Graphic Organizers”), but none of these names seemed to really capture their multi-dimensional essence. A good name for a tool is self-defining, thus it was while I was pondering ways to use the devices as tools for differentiating instruction when “Differentiated Visual Tools” (DVTs) struck me as a perfect name. DVTs differ by discipline and learning standards, by thinking and language-literacy skills, and by developmental levels of sophistication. The embedded “essential understandings” prompts on the DVTs greatly help teachers differentiate their curriculum, and the leveled nature of the DVTs provide practical tools for differentiating instruction.
At the risk of stating the obvious, there are a lot of learning standards for each grade level, so creating DVTs for each standard is not practical. Thus, the focus of DVT development has been on targeting those standards where DVTs are likely to have the greatest impact. For grades K-5, DVTs primarily target the CCSS reading and writing literacy standards. For middle school, the DVTs become discipline-specific and target high-frequency topics in science, literature, and social studies across grades 6-8. For high school, the focus is on developing DVTs for use in specific courses for which educators and test data have indicated the greatest need. These include DVTs for English grades 9-10 (available now) and for Civics/Government, Economics, Biology, and Algebra 1 (currently under development). These DVTs focus on both high school CCSS literacy standards and content standards published by various professional organizations. For example, Civics DVTs for each of the NCSS Standards for Civics are currently being developed and field-tested.
Please direct inquiries to Dr. Edwin Ellis (205) 394-5512 firstname.lastname@example.org