Differentiated Literacy Instruction for Gifted Readers - Assessing, Modifying, and Integrating Literacy Instruction

Differentiated Literacy Instruction for Gifted Readers - Assessing, Modifying, and Integrating Literacy Instruction

Identifying Characteristics of Gifted Readers

The first step to effectively differentiate instruction for young, gifted readers is to properly identify these students. Early identification and intervention are essential to the growth and development of high ability readers. To identify gifted readers, teachers should obtain qualitative data, through careful observations, rather than to rely solely on standardized tests. The process of determining the reading talents of students is a long-term process, in which parents, teachers, and the students themselves work together to develop their talents (Feldhusen, 2001). Vosslamber (2002) emphasizes that identification is a vital aspect of serving the gifted child, but not an end in itself. “The main purpose of identification is not so we can label children, but so we can effectively match children to appropriate learning tasks—both in the pace of learning and the level at which tasks are set” (Vosslamber, 2002, 17).

In order for teachers to appropriately identify gifted readers, it is imperative for them to become familiar with the common characteristics of gifted readers. On average, gifted readers have the ability to read two or more years above their chronological grade level (Dooley, 1993; Catron & Wingenbach, 2001). They usually begin reading long before kindergarten, or they easily master the skill shortly afterwards (Catron & Wingenbach, 2001). Their cognitive abilities to analyze, interpret, and comprehend reading materials often far surpass their classmates. Gifted readers often attain language competency much earlier than their same aged peers. They often have an extremely advanced level of language development and verbal ability. Also, they are usually able to articulate themselves well, while using complex sentence structures (Catron & Wingenbach, 2001; Lamb & Feldhusen, 1992; Smutny, 2000).

Students with advanced reading abilities possess other unique character traits as well. For instance, they often have the ability to grasp new material and complex ideas at a much faster pace than their peers. They can easily discuss, reflect, and elaborate on their thoughts (Dooley, 1993; Parke, 1992; Smutny, 2000).

According to Catron and Wingenbach (2001, 134), “gifted children usually exhibit the ability to generalize, to work comfortably with abstract ideas, and to synthesize diverse relationships to a far higher degree.” Smutny (2000) claims that young gifted children exhibit bright curiosities and especially original imaginations. She also suggests that a gifted child has an excellent memory and thinks altogether differently than a child of the same age. As a rule, advanced readers possess an intellectual intensity that sets them apart from their classmates (Tolan, 1997).

The Importance of Differentiating Literacy Instruction for Gifted Readers

Research shows that most gifted and talented students spend most of their time at school in a regular classroom setting. Unfortunately, the instruction in the average heterogeneous reading program is usually not tailored to meet the unique needs of gifted readers. This situation places gifted students at risk of becoming bored and/or failing to achieve their full potential (Parke, 1992). The needs of gifted children extend beyond the instruction offered in the regular classroom environment. It is imperative that gifted readers are given ample opportunities to challenge themselves to the full extent.
Studies have suggested that young, gifted children who participate in specialized programs with flexible grouping excel more than those who remain in whole-group instruction with heterogeneous groups (Dooley, 1993). Therefore, it may be presumed that gifted readers are in need of a distinctive educational program, and they require a specific kind of reading instruction (Collins, 1995). It can be quite a challenge for teachers to find developmentally appropriate ways to support the literacy growth among gifted readers (Lamb & Feldhusen, 1992).

High-functioning readers require very different language arts experiences than other students if they are to be sufficiently engaged (Van Tassel-Baska, 2003). It is likely that grade-level reading materials do not adequately challenge them (Dooley, 1993). In order for gifted readers to thrive and make the most of their exceptional talents and abilities, their needs must be taken very seriously. Too often, many teachers fail to recognize certain children’s reading precocity and do not adapt instruction to their special needs (Lamb & Feldhusen, 1992). Thus, many gifted readers are unfortunately withheld proper advanced reading instruction in the regular classroom. Marland (1972) reports that talented readers are ones who are the most educationally deprived of all.

In order to nurture their literacy growth and preserve their enthusiasm for reading, it is essential for teachers to provide challenging, appropriate, differentiated reading programs for these advanced learners (Dooley, 1993). Teachers must be willing to accommodate their advanced reading skill and interest to prevent boredom, loss of interest in reading, or becoming complacent with less demanding text (Dooley, 1993). Feldhusen (2001) reports that talented readers can often engage in literacy activities with very little teacher involvement, as long as the teacher provides good instructions and materials. This approach to teaching encourages self-direction and individualized learning for gifted readers. Because of their inherent desire to take initiative and work independently, they are often able to achieve curriculum goals and objectives with less direct instruction (Dooley, 1993; Smutny, 2000).

Strategies to meet the needs of gifted readers

When differentiating the curriculum for gifted readers, there needs to be a higher level of expectations in regards to content and concept demands (Van Tassel-Baska, 2003). Teachers can employ many practical strategies that challenge and stimulate gifted readers, without overburdening themselves with too much extra work (Smutny, 2000). Such strategies that should be integrated into the classroom for the benefit of advance readers are: curriculum compacting, content modification, process modification, and discussion groups.

The classroom should be an environment where all children (including gifted children) can easily engage in activities and projects at their own pace and level (Smutny, 2000). Flexible pacing strategies, such as curriculum compacting, should be used for highly capable readers within the regular classroom. Curriculum compacting can be defined as a systematic “process of compressing the essentials so that [students] can advance beyond the material they have already mastered (Smutny, 2000, 5). This strategy can be used for gifted readers who learn information at an accelerated rate, can rapidly master the “basic curriculum,” and who demonstrates proficiency of the regular curriculum. Curriculum compacting allows accelerated readers more time to participate in a specialized reading program (Dooley 1993).

Content modification is a way to differentiate the curriculum for gifted. For instance, gifted readers should be encouraged to study and investigate topics of particular interest to them (a real-life problem, perhaps), which may or may not be part of the regular curriculum. Or, they may select topics related to the theme or unit the class is studying, but explore these topics more in-depth than their fellow classmates. Independent research projects, mentorships, and/or classes at another school of higher learning can provide added enrichment for gifted readers (Parke, 1992; Smutny, 2000). Also, these activities also enable talented readers to make unique discoveries and innovations (Smutny, 2002). Opportunities to immerse them in more complex subject matters promote enthusiasm for learning. Modifying the content for gifted readers helps them better understand themselves, others, and the world around them (Dooley, 1993).

Creating a learning environment that modifies the processes used to explore the content is called process modification. This strategy requires higher levels of thought, such as critical/creative thinking and critical/creative/inquiry reading through comprehension questions (Dooley, 1993; Smutny, 2000; Vosslamber, 2002). Teaching in the language arts has typically emphasized basic reading skills and low-level questions, instead of more challenging, high-level exercises. The emphasis on low-level skills fails to adequately challenge advanced readers who have already mastered basic fundamental reading skills. Therefore, literacy instruction for gifted readers should focus on high-level applications such as active learning, inquiry, critical reading, and vocabulary development (Van Tassel-Baska, 2003).

Young, gifted readers are often capable of working “comfortably with abstract ideas, and to synthesize diverse relationships to a far higher degree” (Catron & Wingenbach, 2001). Therefore, book reports may be of limited value for gifted readers, if they only require students to simply state characters, setting, and events. Instead, a more appropriate assignment would ask questions that involve critical and analytical thinking. This would encourage students to develop advanced reasoning and problem-solving skills and to explore their own unique insights (Catron & Wingenbach, 2001; Smutny, 2002).

Highly able readers process text for immediate comprehension. “Gifted readers go beyond learning to read, and instead read to learn” (Catron & Wingenbach, 2001, 135). Therefore, they should be spending more time focusing on comprehension skills, and less time on decoding skills (Catron & Wingenbach, 2001). If certain students are already fluent readers before entering school, teaching decoding skills to them should be minimal, if at all. Catron & Wingenbach (2001) feel that teaching skills which gifted readers have already been mastered is a “rote and meaningless waste of time” (137).
Literacy discussion groups provide gifted readers more time to focus on comprehension skills. Judith Wynn Halsted writes in her book, Some of My Best Friends are Books: Guiding Gifted Readers from Pre-School to High School, that discussion groups are a central part of a differentiated reading program for gifted readers. The purpose of literacy discussion groups is to encourage students to think critically, and to support and defend their positions (Tolan, 1997). These are very important skills for gifted readers to develop.

Literature that challenge gifted readers

Gifted readers should be exposed to a wide assortment of texts that can be appreciated on many levels, in order for them to gain deeper understandings. They should be supported and encouraged to read and discuss quality literature, especially ones whose main characters are gifted (Tolan, 1997). Teachers and parents will want to lead gifted readers toward books that cognitively challenge them. Such books use rich, precise, and varied vocabulary, points of view, varied story structure and content, as well as ambiguous endings. These literary components encourage questions and discussion from readers (Austin, 2003).


Educators have a responsibility to ensure the academic growth for all students, including those who have demonstrated superior reading abilities. Teachers are in a unique position to advance the talents of gifted readers in a stimulating environment of original thinking and discovery (Smutny, 2000). The educator’s role in the classroom should be that of a facilitator of learning. The teacher should help the students develop the appropriate skills to learn and understand in a differentiated literacy program (Parke, 1992). Strategies such as curriculum compacting, content modification, and process modification may be put into practice to create an appropriate program that will challenge highly able readers, while benefiting other students as well (Dooley, 1993).

Gifted children are not a dispensable population, and they need to feel that their talents can help create a unique and enduring place for them in the world (Smutny, 2002). With proper education, gifted readers have the potential to truly benefit society by becoming the inventors, philosophers, innovators, and leaders of tomorrow. Teachers who are sensitive to the special needs of young gifted readers can make a significant difference in their future development and happiness.


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