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Supporting Gifted Learners

In our quest to address unfinished learning and close achievement gaps resulting from the pandemic, which students do you think will learn the least this year? It may surprise you, but in a mixed ability classroom, it is the most able students who will make the smallest amount of academic progress.[1] As educators, it is natural to focus time and attention on our average learners (teach to the middle) and our struggling learners who need intensive intervention to meet essential grade level standards. However, if our goal is to help every learner become all God intends, we must acknowledge that our gifted students are also fragile learners with exceptional educational needs who deserve our time and attention to meet their unique academic and social-emotional needs. In other words, we must provide the same time, attention, and intentional interventions to the growth and academic achievement of our gifted learners as we do our struggling learners.

Who are Our Gifted Learners?
Students are recognized as gifted if they have ability in any area of learning that exceeds grade or age level expectations by two years or more. These areas incorporate intellectual, creative, leadership capacity, or specific academic fields. While most gifted students present themselves as high-achieving students, not all gifted students display their ability in the classroom. Many gifted students have the potential to exceed expectations but are currently underperforming. Other gifted students are “twice exceptional” – gifted and learning disabled. Whatever the scenario, gifted students need teachers who understand their unique learning needs and tailor instruction and assessment to meet those needs, to fully develop their potential.

Meeting the Needs of Gifted Learners
The regular curriculum, designed for grade-level learners of a certain age, cannot, by definition, be at the instructional level of gifted students. The level, pacing, amount of work, and type of learning activities that benefit average learners are just as inappropriate for above-average learners as they are for students who are working below grade-level expectations.[2] So, how do we ensure that our gifted students make forward progress, learn something new and challenging every day in school, and grow in becoming all God intends?

The answer lies in two key practices: compacting curriculum and differentiating instruction. Used together, these practices tailor learning for gifted students in the areas of content, process, product, environment, and assessment. Compacting and differentiation require the teacher to continually be a learner of their students through formal and informal formative assessment and to responsively connect the curriculum to students’ readiness levels, language, culture, learning preferences, interests, and questions.

Compacting the curriculum for gifted learners acknowledges that advanced students need less time for practice and more time with complex and abstract learning tasks. Compacting can be done one lesson at a time, one week at a time, or one unit at a time, depending on student readiness levels and teacher skill and comfort level. To compact instruction: identify the learning objectives, offer a pretest opportunity, eliminate rote drill, practice, and review activities for those who show proficiency on unit content standards, and have extension activities available that connect to the current unit of study and allow for greater depth and complexity of learning tasks.

Differentiating instruction places the emphasis and focus on the learner and ways to adapt teaching strategies to meet student needs. To differentiate instruction: provide students with multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn.[3] Extension menus (choice boards) and independent study options are useful tools when compacting the curriculum and also provide an opportunity to differentiate instruction and elevate student choice and voice by accounting for differing interests, learning modalities, and choice of product to demonstrate advanced proficiency on content standards.

Differentiation in Academically Diverse Classrooms
When a differentiated learning environment provides a consistently challenging curriculum to meet the needs of its gifted learners, other students benefit as well. Differentiated tasks should always be offered to all students. This practice demonstrates high expectations for all students and provides respectful and equitable tasks that appropriately challenge and interest each student, while maximizing their capacity as learners.[4] One highly effective method of challenging all learners while attending to the learning needs of the academically gifted is teaching up. This strategy responds to the premise that ALL students should have access to the richest curriculum a school can offer. Teachers plan instruction to meet the needs of their most advanced learners and plan scaffolded support for a broad range of students who need additional assistance to access the complexity of the concepts and skills. Academically gifted students may not be accustomed to learning experiences that are truly challenging and may also need scaffolded support to meet the challenge and continue to grow.

Differentiation is not a single strategy, but an approach to instruction that incorporates a variety of strategies that adjust instruction to meet the unique needs of diverse learners. These strategies are tools that can be tailored for use across all subject areas. In addition to compacting, extension menus, independent study, and teaching up, these tools include tiering (including cubing, think dots, and menus), choice boards (including tic tac toe, tri-mind, and profiler), learning centers/stations, and RAFT writing. See the resource linked below for explanations and examples of these tools.[5]

As you create respectful tasks that honor each student's God-given learning profile, readiness level, and interests, may you experience the joy and fulfillment of truly meeting the exceptional learning needs of ALL your students, but especially the often forgotten gifted and talented.

Diane Peneycad
Diane is a middle school educator, instructional leader, and educational consultant in the United States. She has taught grades 5 - 12 throughout her career in education and holds an MA in curriculum and instruction and an Ed.S in educational leadership. Diane has served on TeachBeyond’s Canada/US Board and Global Committee and assists with projects supporting our global and national entities. She enjoys mentoring teachers and supporting leaders.



[1] Winebrenner, S., & Brulles, D. (2012). Teaching gifted kids in today’s classroom: Strategies and techniques every teacher can use. Free Spirit Publishing.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Tomlinson, C. (2018, September 6-7). Differentiating instruction: What, why, & how. Principals Academy Inc. https://pai.sg/files/DI%20ASIA%202018/Carol%20Ann%20keynotes.pdf

[4] Tomlinson, C. (2017). How to differentiate instruction in academically diverse classrooms. ASCD.

[5] Peneycad, D. (2022). Differentiation tips and tricks. Weebly. https://differentiationideas.weebly.com/student-choice.html

Photo Credits
Young Reader. Nathan H. Cropped & resized. Used with permission.
Teacher Helping Students. Shutterstock. Cropped & resized.
Choice Board. Visionary Teaching. Cropped & resized.

14 Nov 22
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