Challenging gifted students in reading is not quite as clear-cut as math; there are overlapping skills that must all be mastered in order to become great elementary-school readers.
Still, we can apply a few basic principles to challenge our advanced students.
Reading levels and personal interests
Before we get to the strategies, I’ll share two very important tips.
First, it’s critical to be aware of your students’ reading levels throughout the process that follows.
I'm not talking about knowledge based on a formal assessment. Assessments are important, but it’s just as important to rely on your “teacher's ear” as you walk about your class and listen in. This knowledge will guide you as you implement these strategies.
Second, it's also very important to learn the personal interests of each of your elementary readers. They may be into volcanoes or dogs or princesses or space travel… make it your business to know, and think a bit about how their topic can be addressed by both fiction and nonfiction books in your classroom library.
Why? Because this is absolutely one of your “secret weapons” for getting your gifted kids to work on higher-level texts!
When an early-finisher has zipped through their reading lesson, you’ll sometimes be asking them to apply their skills to a different selection. Of course, this can seem like more work to them… unless you direct them toward one of their favorite topics!
That can turn their grudging willingness to work a little harder into eager anticipation about getting started.
Reading level and reading interests – learn them, know them, use them.
Reading extension strategies
Here are the basic ways to challenge gifted kids in reading when they finish their work:
1. Change the context
2. Change the subject matter
3. Expand the subject matter
4. Push to a higher standard (including next grade level)
Not every one of these are appropriate for every grade level. Let's get into the details.
Change the context
Let’s look at a fourth-grade example of changing the context to add rigor. Our topic is main idea or theme, from CCSS RL.4.2.:
Determine the theme of a story, drama or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.
Here is the question on our hypothetical worksheet, based on upon Goldilocks and the Three Bears:
What is the theme of the story? How do the main character’s actions help create this theme?
We can change the context of this question to add rigor by changing the point of view:
“That’s a super answer, Corey! Can you think of how the theme of the story would change if it was told from the baby bear’s point of view? How do the characters’ actions support that theme?”
See how that works? We have not added a ton of work for our early finisher, but we’ve gotten his brain excited about a new concept and he’ll be eager to find an answer.
But what about those students in primary grades?
Changing the context can be quite helpful in the lower grades. For example, if the kids are learning about a particular letter sound, they may be identifying pictures of objects on a worksheet. If one of your gifted kids finishes early and can demonstrate mastery, you can give her a pad of sticky notes and ask her to put a note on every item in the classroom that begins with the sound.
Be warned, though: every kid in the classroom will want to master that sound so they can do the same thing… not a bad motivator, in my opinion!
Of course, you must follow up and confirm that she actually did it correctly and didn’t just randomly putting sticky notes on everything.
Changing the context can take a little imagination, but what it doesn’t take is advance preparation. Just put a twist on it, so to speak.
Change the subject matter
If the reading selection you are working on is from a biography (for example), then ask your early finishers to apply what they've learned to a completely different genre different:
“I see you got the concept of ‘main idea’ smarty-pants… but can you answer the same question with a selection from science?”
And then point out a paragraph in a nonfiction book from your classroom library. Remember, we do this playfully. From their point of view, you are not just giving them something else to read… it's not reading, it's science!
(As noted earlier, bonus points if you know it’s a topic they are interested in.)
Don’t think you have to use only books – you can hand them a copy of the day's newspaper or a classroom magazine.
Expand the subject matter
This is similar to adding multiple steps in math. If the student shows she can apply the concept you’ve taught to a paragraph (for example), then ask her to apply it to the entire chapter… or even the entire book by reading the table of contents.
It might sound like this:
“Okay, you got the ‘main idea’ of this selection, but can you tell me the main idea for this entire chapter?”
“So, apparently that wasn’t hard enough for you, was it?! Well… I wonder if you can tell me what the main idea of the entire book is just by looking at the table of contents?”
This technique is great for really solidifying a concept in a student’s mind. If they can meet the standard at one or two levels higher than is expected of them, then you know they’ll do great on the assessment. Again, not a technique that is ideally suited to primary kids, but the next one is.
Push to a higher standard
This approach is ideally suited for kids who are taking their first steps in reading. Let’s take this kindergarten standard as an example… CCSS RF.K.3.B:
Associate long and short vowel sounds with the common spelling.
If a student has mastered that standard, then you can jump to the next level by asking an early-finisher to identify classroom objects that include the long or short vowel sound, or to find words in a book that follow the pattern. Treat it like a treasure hunt to add additional student interest!
In the intermediate grades, pushing to a higher grade level could involve the following example approaches, depending on grade level and the standard being taught:
- Highlighting or sticky-noting text that confirms the meaning of high-level words.
- Comparing a text from your mini-lesson to common Greek myths or well-known traditional literature.
- Asking a student to determine which part of a story should be included in the movie version and which parts shouldn’t and why.
Each of these is a grade-level bump up. This technique does require a solid understanding of the next grade level standards, but it doesn’t require advance preparation – a bonus for busy teachers.
Again, see my Common Core Guidebooks for an easy way to know the next-level standard in a snap.
Illustration as extension
And finally, a word on illustrating. If the standard that is being taught is amenable to illustration, then that can be an extension activity if it is used sparingly. All kids love to draw, so if your gifted kids get to end every reading lesson by drawing, then you will quickly find some unhappiness bubbling up among your other students.
For the occasional illustration activity, be sure to set expectations that the drawing has to be focused on a standard. A way to ensure this narrow focus is to require that the student’s work include direct quotes from the text.
So a student focusing (for example) on setting or character would include the direct textual quote “his hair was as dark as a moonless night” to explain why he is drawing a person with jet-black hair.
This tip will transform illustration from a fanciful, free-form activity into an effective reinforcement strategy.