What Barriers Do You Face in
Differentiating Instruction?

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In the May issue of School Library Connection, Maria Cahill takes a look at responses to our most recent survey and highlights articles to help you overcome common barriers to differentiating instruction.

Survey results

For our May 1QS, we asked school librarians, “What barriers do you face in differentiating instruction?” As expected, time is the barrier that school librarians face most frequently, and as the table illustrates, this problem tends to be even more pronounced at the elementary level. Lack of resources was identified as a challenge for nearly one-third of respondents, and support from teachers and/or administrators was indicated to be the third most common obstacle to differentiating instruction.

On a positive note, there are very few school librarians who reported lacking knowledge for differentiating instruction. And some surprising, but good, news is that one-sixth of the 428 respondents indicated they face no barriers at all: they are able to differentiate instruction effectively to meet the needs of all learners. More than a quarter of the middle school librarians who participated in the survey, in fact, are able to differentiate instruction without any hindrances!

Other barriers to differentiation that school librarians identified included lack of common planning time with teachers and limited knowledge of student needs. As one school librarian wrote, “I often plan a few differentiated options, such as higher/lower level texts, or a variety of apps that allow for voice recording versus typing. While I plan these extras, however, I don’t often know which students need them since I see everyone in the school. Often, I will approach teachers quietly before class starts and ask them who would benefit from those choices.”

In addition to the solutions found in this issue, librarians facing barriers can look to the School Library Connection archives online for more strategies and ideas:


Librarians with limited time might find a learning center design to be a viable and time-efficient means for differentiating instruction. Julie McCormack (Library Media Connection, 2014) provides ideas for creating such centers in her article “Caution! Free Range Children.


When it comes to finding resources to differentiate instruction, librarians should consider that their existing collections provide a wealth of resources written with differing levels of complexity. In “Complex Text, Reading, and Rigor,” Paige Jaeger (Library Media Connection, 2012) describes how to find the Lexile levels of books and web-based documents and how to work with a vendor to level a library collection using the Lexile framework.

Tracey Wong (School Library Connection, 2015) enumerates a variety of eTools to support at-risk students in “eTools and Ideas for English Language Learners.”


In the article “Assessment and Tech Tools…A Powerful Match,” Michelle Moore (School Library Connection, 2016) discusses how assessment should drive instruction and enable a school librarian to differentiate instruction based on student need.


School librarians who lack support from teachers and/or administrators to differentiate instruction might learn advocacy strategies from Ken Haycock’s (School Library Monthly, 2012) “Leading Change.


Cahill_MariaMaria Cahill, MLIS, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky in both the School of Information Science and the Department of Education. She received her master’s degree from the University of South Carolina and her doctorate in education from the University of Tennessee. She is author of numerous papers in such journals as Knowledge Quest, School Libraries Worldwide, and School Library Research and has served in numerous professional leadership positions, including on the Educators of School Librarians Section of the American Association of School Librarians and the American Library Association’s Literacy and Outreach Services Committee.

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