It didn't take the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 to get teachers' attention. Reaching all the students in the classroom–both gifted and otherwise–has always been a challenge. D
ifferentiating instruction becomes even more important than it previously was. By offering all students the opportunity to grow as learners, teachers instill life-long skills that ultimately benefit those students in their future careers.
Gifted students are no different. They equally require the opportunity to learn, even though they may learn differently and/or at different paces than other members of a regular-education classroom. Therefore, the obligation that exists for teachers to differentiate instruction to include those gifted students offers a similar pay-off, one that also benefits those students in their future careers. But how do we do it? How can teachers alter instruction so that every student is given equal opportunity to learn?
The Concept Behind Differentiation
Differentiating instruction means that all students are presented an equal opportunity to learn. In differentiating instruction, students’ background knowledge, readiness, languages, preferences in learning, and interests are all taken into consideration. It boils down to the fact that since we are all different, we may learn differently. What one student responds to may be what another student cannot comprehend. Therefore, strategies must be put in place to allow the latter student the same opportunity as the first. Instructors meet each student where he/she is, thus maximizing each student’s growth and success. Instruction is differentiated in three components: Content, Process, and Products.
In differentiating content, a variety of elements and materials is used in teaching. According to Hall, Strangman, and Meyer (2009), these elements and materials “may include acts, concepts, generalizations or principles, attitude, and skills." Tasks will be aligned with learning goals, typically assessed by state or other standardized testing. Instructional objectives focus on the broad spectrum, rather than focusing on small details or simply facts.
Process may be differentiated in several ways, too. Flexible grouping is often encouraged, allowing students to work together in an effort to learn a new skill. Classroom management also plays a major role. Teachers who differentiate instruction need to maintain some level of organization and select appropriate strategies for addressing curricular goals.
Regular assessment of students is essential when differentiating instruction. Teachers must have a way of measuring growth to figure out if strategies are working or need amending. Students must also be held accountable for their learning. In a differentiated classroom, the students are challenged. Tasks that are repetitive or uninteresting will lead to boredom and a lack of understanding. Teachers should offer choices for outcomes, meaning that expectations and requirements are varied allowing students options for products. The use of rubrics is highly recommended in the differentiated classroom. Using prefabricated rubrics or creating ones using sites like RubiStar will outline expectations up front, giving students the opportunity to achieve the optimal grade without constantly having to ask what they need to do to earn that grade.
According to the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), a gifted student gives “evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, [with a need for] services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities (NAGC 2008)."
Gifted students are not always high achievers. The gifted child that is a high achiever is likely to be identified by the school system; however, the gifted child that does not always put forth effort or appear to want to learn is likely to be unnoticed. Some of these children may be discipline problems or bear a special education label.
It is the responsibility of special education professionals to identify and address the needs of gifted students. Some schools have personnel put in place specifically for gifted students. A person like this might be referred to as the GT Coordinator or even a school’s diagnostician. Naturally, the earlier the child is identified, the better. To better aid in addressing the needs of gifted students, the NAGC adopted new standards in 2010 that are designed to prepare teachers for the educational needs of this particular group of students.
Teaching gifted children is sometimes difficult. Differentiation plays a key role in keeping students engaged in learning. In order to reach all students in the classroom, a teacher needs to have curriculum that will accommodate each student, be they gifted or of an extremely low-level. When addressing the needs of gifted and talented students, make sure you provide challenging curriculum. Give options or choices. And, don’t forget about the needs of the other students in the classroom, either.
How Do You Do It?
Gifted students, in particular, need variety. Below, you will find various ideas that may be adopted for any classroom to aid in differentiating instruction for gifted students. Please note that I am merely offering suggestions. Instruction may be differentiated in many, many ways.
- Reader’s Theater allows students to interact with a text. Some are rewrites of classic stories or fairy tales, while others discuss the lives of settlers or the invention of the light bulb, thus allowing them to be adapted for most subjects. By implementing Reader’s Theater in the classroom, teachers offer students a new way to approach written works. Reader’s Theater may be done as a whole class, but I suggest having students do it in small groups, with each group presenting their version of the play, or even having the various groups each perform a different play of their choosing. Doing so allows for differentiation, in that students can view and present in different ways. Since no two people are alike, no two presentations will be. One group may use a lot of expression, whereas another may not. Giving students the option to use props or design their own props is of added benefit. A teacher may even allow the students to use costumes when they present.
- Projects are a great way to differentiate instruction because you can offer a choice of topics or outcomes. For instance, if you are having your students complete a research project, you can offer a variety of topics, all pertaining to some aspect of the unit being taught. Another option is to vary the final product. Instead of telling students their end result will be a picture, the teacher might offer the picture as an option amongst writing a story or creating a comic strip. When writing projects, be sure to accommodate all learning styles and present options for the various levels of learners in the classroom. Doing so allows the gifted students and the struggling students the abilities to choose projects geared specifically for them. All students will be represented, in other words.
- During journaling, which again can be used in any subject, allow students the option of choosing between different prompts. Or, give students the option of drawing a picture or writing an interview with someone related to that topic. They can present their results to the class when they are finished. Most students would enjoy having options. Gifted students in particular need options.
- Learning stations are another great way to differentiate instruction. Please note, though, that stations are not automatically differentiated. They are differentiated if the activities vary in complexity, depending upon student readiness. For example, a teacher may have a small group that he/she works with, while students who do not need that small group attention can complete a different assignment geared more toward their level. Finding stations that are of high interest to gifted students is definitely beneficial. Stations can even be combined with some of the other suggestions, specifically independent study and paired/group reading. Ideas for learning stations on a variety of topics are found in the Take It to Your Seat series by Evan-Moor.
- Independent study projects are preferred by some students. Choices can be presented, and it is okay if each student is working on something different. Independent study allows students to research a topic that is of interest to them. They go at their own pace, but I strongly suggest giving some sort of timeline or assessment schedule up front. Doing so allows a teacher to communicate his/her expectations without hindering the learning that is taking place. This type of project is often used to differentiate instruction for gifted students in particular, since they can select their own topic and find appropriate material for that topic.
- Paired/Group Reading can be of particular benefit to struggling readers. Students are given the opportunity to practice reading aloud, which ideally helps with fluency and comprehension, without the teacher directing the reading. Texts can be altered or varied according to readiness. Literature circles are another form of paired/group reading that allows students to choose what they read and discuss it with students reading the same text. Books are often selected by the students, and assessments are necessary to ensure comprehension and growth. Gifted students are not always the better readers. Using literature circles or something similar allows students to read a book of interest at their own pace and on their reading level. Books that are of a higher grade level can be provided for gifted students who are advanced readers.
Activities to Help You Challenge Gifted Children
- Anchoring Activities are lists of activities that a student may do whenever they finish an assignment. These activities may be in the form of puzzles, games, research, and more. Books such as I’m Through! What Can I Do by Creative Teaching Press offer wide ranges of activities. Websites like Google Earth can be used as an anchoring activity as well and offer technology implementation. Since differentiation is based upon meeting students where they are, these activities can be varied to include all levels represented in the classroom. For instance, gifted students can select activities that are designed to enhance critical thinking skills.
- Accelerating or decelerating allows students to work at their own paces. A struggling student may require altered assignments or the opportunity to work at a slower pace. A gifted student might be able to complete the curriculum at a much quicker pace. By allowing for acceleration or deceleration, teachers cater to the needs of both types of students.
Tic-Tac-Toe grids are another useful tool for differentiating instruction. A typical tic-tac-toe would include options for each learning style and for the various levels of learners. These can be adapted for all classroom subjects. Students are presented with nine options, from which they choose three in a row (vertical, horizontal, or diagonal) to complete. The following nine activities can be integrated into a tic-tac-toe chart. This particular chart was originally designed for 6th grade reading students, but it can be adapted to various other subjects and grade levels.
- Create a brochure or travel poster describing in detail the setting of your book.
- Write an interview between yourself and a character from your book that asks specific questions of relevance to the plot.
- Create a “most wanted" poster for a character from the book with at least 5 important details about the character.
- Create a comic strip or story board with 8 to 10 important events from the book. This may be done on the computer or on paper.
- Create a large bookmark with a summary of the book that would encourage someone to read your book.
- Create a book box with at least 5 items that have important meaning in the book and include a hand-written explanation of their significance. Your box must be decorated appropriately.
- Write a one-page book report that details literary elements in the book (characters, setting, plot, problem/solution, etc.).
- Create a vocabulary game (like Memory or Pictionary) with at least 10 words from your book OR create a picture dictionary that includes 10 words from your book.
- Design a book cover for your book. Include the title, author, a short summary, and illustrations that help the reader understand what the book might be about.
I will always believe that it is the responsibility of the teacher to cater to the needs of all students, be they gifted or struggling or somewhere in the middle. Gifted students have a particular set of needs. They typically need the freedom to choose. Most school districts will have a GT Coordinator of sorts, who is an expert at adapting curriculum to adhere to the gifted learner. Training on identifying and teaching the gifted student and/or in differentiating instruction may also be available in your district.