Differentiated Reading Instruction for Gifted Students
As an MA reading specialist, much of my time is spent advocating for differentiated instruction. Clearly, not all students progress at the same rates nor have the same academic needs. Most of my attention is on encouraging teachers to help students “catch up” on gaps in their reading skills while they “keep up” with grade level standards. However, reading differentiation also applies to students at the other end of the academic spectrum. Gifted students frequently get lost in the mix because their needs tend to whisper, while the needs of remedial reading students tend to shout.
A common misconception about gifted students is actually a misconception about the nature of reading instruction. Most educators view reading from the dichotomous framework of learning to read and reading to learn. Reading is viewed as a skill set to be acquired much like memorizing the multiplication tables. Once both reading and multiplication are mastered (typically in the third grade), these tools are used to read the social studies textbook for content and complete long division. All that is left to learn for reading is more vocabulary. All that is left to learn for multiplication is different applications such as multiplying fractions, decimals, etc.
However, reading is not solely a basic tool to be mastered. Reading is not a simplistic “how-to” that is once learned well and thereafter applied. Academic reading is multi-faceted and complex. In other words, there is plenty to learn that will challenge gifted students throughout their K-12 experience. In fact, the old learning to read and reading to learn dichotomy is limiting our “best and brightest” students. In a 2002 study, fully half of college-bound juniors and seniors were not proficient at reading freshman survey course college text (ACT).
Tips to Differentiate Reading Instruction for Gifted Students
1. Use a good diagnostic assessment to screen gifted students, just as you would for students of all levels. Gifted students should demonstrate greater proficiency, and have less specific challenges, than remedial reading students; however, it has been my experience that some gifted students do struggle with basic reading skills, such as decoding, and that they are simply adept at using coping skills to avoid confronting their reading issues. Sometimes “gap filling” can make all the difference in the world to a gifted student. Former California State University education professor, John McFadden, tells his personal story as a gifted nine-year-old who could not read.
“…We learned reading by the look-say method of Dick and Jane reading. The other students seemed to catch on, but I struggled. In third grade, my parents hired a tutor, who taught me phonics. Phonics unlocked the door of reading for me, and I quickly became a good reader.”
2. Make independent reading an important part of your teaching, especially for gifted students. Allow students free choice of authors and genres, though encourage exploration with new ones. Self-initiated and self-directed learning are critically important skills to nurture in gifted students (Passow 1982). Make sure that your students are self-selecting at their instructional level. All-too-often, gifted students read below their grade level. I recommend using word recognition as your primary means of matching reading levels. For more, see How to Determine Reading Levels. Avoid the arbitrary constraints of Degrees of Reading Power (DRP), Fleish-Kincaid, Lexiles, Fountas and Pinnell Levels, Accelerated Reader ATOS, Reading Recovery Levels, Fry’s Readability, John’s Basic Reading Inventory, and Standardized test data reading levels. Motivation is important as well as average length of word, sentence, and vocabulary.
3. Teach gifted students to be analytical readers. Training gifted students to internalize reading discussion with the author will prompt the “out of the box” critical thinking that we hope to see in these students. Beginning reading instruction tends to teach the wrong message to many of our gifted students. Gifted students who catch on early to reading instruction can be habituated into practicing reading as a passive activity of blending and word calling. The more we can stress the active and relational nature of reading instruction as a conversation between author and reader, the more we will challenge our students. Using comprehension discussion starters is a terrific means to this end.
It’s time to differentiate reading instruction for all students, including our gifted ones. An entirely different curriculum is not the answer, but gifted students do need to be taught differently to maximize their progress and love of learning.
Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activities, phonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 390 flashcards, posters, activities, and games. Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books.