Education Opinion

Advanced Readers

By Tamara Fisher — August 13, 2008 7 min read
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Greetings from a knoll in Iowa! I’ve been out of town for a bit, hence my absence from this place where we all gather together. The last week of July saw me in Boise, Idaho, for the 12th annual Edufest conference, “the Northwest’s premier summer conference on gifted and talented education.” It was my 7th summer of Edufest and I’m already looking forward to going back again next summer. Being able to get together with others in the field who do what I do and who love to discuss and debate issues in gifted education is such a blast. Being a Gifted Education Specialist is a rather solitary position to hold. Yes, my District has a great track record of supporting me and my students, for which I’m wholeheartedly grateful, but I’m still “alone” there in some sense in what I do. It is at places like Edufest where I can connect with others who do the same, swap ideas, and give and receive reinforcement about the importance of what we are doing for these kids who learn so differently. A special “hello” to everyone that I saw and met at Edufest this year!

All gifted ed conferences are exciting and informative, but a unique feature to Edufest (one borrowed from Confratute), is the intense and in-depth structure to the week’s schedule. Four of the six days feature three “strands,” which are essentially mini-classes. Monday through Thursday, for an hour and a half each day, you attend a presentation by the same presenter(s) on the same topic. You end up with six hours of time per strand, over the course of the week, to learn from that presenter and to delve more deeply into that topic. The days include three strands, special topics, plus a keynote at night. The other two days consist of keynotes only, one Sunday night and another Friday morning. They sure pack it all in!

This year’s Friday morning keynote was given by Sally Reis of the University of Connecticut and the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. She spoke about SEM-R, or the Reading research connected with the Schoolwide Enrichment Model. (I encourage you to learn more details about SEM-R here. You can see a PowerPoint of Sally’s full presentation here.) For a quick summary, SEM-R is essentially a process whereby each student progresses in reading by being given (or self-selecting) interest-based reading material within his or her zone of proximal development.

Think about it: are the advanced readers in your classroom reading books that are challenging their reading skills, or are they mostly reading books that are at or even below grade level?

Talented readers read two or more years above grade level. Many of them (although not all) begin reading early and some are more or less self-taught readers. Think of that little second grader in your classroom who is reading at a sixth grade level and figured out how to read on her own at the age of four – is she being taught to read with second grade materials or are you reaching her in her challenge zone, with reading material that is at and just beyond her ability level?

[One concern that often arises regarding young advanced readers is that the content of much of the reading material that is at their ability level isn’t age-appropriate. Do you want your 8-year-old reading the content that most 14-year-olds are reading? Not yet. But there are many great reading options available for advanced young readers. Check out Some of My Best Friends are Books for suggestions, as well as this link.]

Unfortunately, research shows that the vast majority of the time, including in reading instruction, these advanced learners are not receiving any curricular differentiation that meets or challenges their abilities. (See slides 30 and 31 here.) On the whole, we tend to think “they’re already where they need to be” because they’ve met or (more typically) exceeded the benchmarks and standards for their “grade level.” If only we would educate them by reaching them where they are and stretching them to new levels, we would discover these kids are capable of so much more than we realize.

That’s just what the teachers who were a part of the SEM-R study discovered. Check out these quotations from them as they reflected upon the process of reaching these advanced readers at an appropriately challenging level. (I’ve added the italics to highlight key phrases.)

“My average to above average readers really surprised me. They went really beyond what I ever thought they could do with advanced thinking skills and questioning skills. These readers were able to go well beyond what I had thought they could do and connect with their experiences and the challenge level really inspired them. They could read much more advanced material than I had previously assigned.” (5th grade teacher)

“In the beginning my kids looked at me as if I had two heads when I took the books away from them and told them that they were reading a book that was too easy for them.” (4th grade teacher)

“I did not realize how much middle of the road reading instruction I did and how few of my kids I really challenged.” (4th grade teacher)

When we actually make the effort to TEACH these students (i.e. reach them where they are and move them on from there), we discover that they are capable of so much more than we had realized!

But we don’t put as much effort into teaching the advanced learners as we do into teaching the struggling learners. Check out slide two here. The spring WCPM (words correct per minute) fluency rates of kids at the 10th percentile show consistent growth from grades one through seven, then stagnate at grade eight. For kids at the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentiles, you can see consistent growth through all grades until middle school, where they stagnate. For kids at the 90th percentile, there is consistent WCPM growth until middle school, where they don’t stagnate, they actually regress. Our most talented readers and they’re regressing‽‽‽

This is educational neglect, folks.

We have a nation-wide lack of adequate, ability-appropriate educational growth for a sizeable number of capable students and it seems no one is screaming about it!

Helen Schinske points out the absurdity in this quotation: “Closing the achievement gap by pushing down the top is like fostering fitness by outlawing marathons.”

Little Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird experienced an outlawing of her marathon. She knew how to read before entering school. One day she is reprimanded when caught reading the newspaper in class (after breezing through the reading assignment the teacher had given everyone) and is told to stop reading at home and to stop reading the newspaper in class. Scout says, “I mumbled that I was sorry and retired, meditating upon my crime.”

Her “crime” was already knowing how to read and “flaunting” that ability by - *gasp* - reading in school!

“Expecting all children the same age to learn from the same materials is like expecting all children the same age to wear the same size clothing.” (Madeline Hunter)

They differ. We need to find ways to help some educators understand and accept that fact. If we don’t, they will continue to be okay with not putting effort into reaching, teaching, and stretching the advanced learners in their classrooms. One of the teachers in the SEM-R study had the guts to come clean with the researchers and admit he wasn’t putting much effort into teaching his advanced students:

“I try to get to them (the talented readers) at least once a week, but I am not always able to do that. You see, so many of my other students read below grade level that it is hard to justify not working with them. Many of these lower readers will be retained in this grade if they do not improve. The top group already reads at grade level, so I rarely have any instructional time to give to them.”

Now, that’s understandable on some level (teachers are super busy people), but this is what that kind of thinking really boils down to:

If we don’t have time to reach every child where he or she is and move them on from there – if we don’t have time to challenge every kid at his or her learning readiness level – if we only focus on the kids who “need to get there,” – then we are deciding that some kids will not get an education that year. We are deciding that some kids will get to learn, thanks to our efforts, and others will be denied their potential degree of educational growth, thanks to our lack of effort. We’re deciding this based on proficiency of “grade level,” not based on what is actually appropriate academic growth for a given learner. Individual student growth – actual LEARNING – is an irrelevant factor apparently. All that matters, it would seem, is that they reach the bar. And if they’re already at (or beyond!) the bar, then it’s okay to not put any effort into teaching them.

Yes, I am actually saying that when we say we don’t have time to work with the advanced learners in our classes, we are in essence saying that we are choosing to not give those kids an education.

As one of my students said recently, “If learning isn’t happening, then school isn’t really a school.”

Which students will get to learn to their capacity in your classroom this year?

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.