ERIC Identifier: ED474306
Publication Date: 2003-01-00
Author: Van Tassel-Baska, Joyce
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Disabilities and Gifted Education Arlington VA.
Differentiating the Language Arts for High Ability Learners,
K-8. ERIC Digest.
Gifted children often achieve language competency at an earlier age than
their chronological age-mates. High-ability learners may excel in many language
arts areas from reading and literary analysis to creative writing, poetry, and
prose. Typically, teaching in the language arts has emphasized reading skills
and low-level questions over active learning and inquiry (Lockwood, 1992). Such
a low- level emphasis fails to challenge high-ability learners who have mastered
the fundamental reading skills and are ready for high-level applications of
those skills in critical reading, expository writing, oral communication,
linguistic and vocabulary development, and foreign language (VanTassel-Baska,
1996). Thus there exists a real need to differentiate language arts experiences
for verbally talented learners at all stages of development.
Differentiation approaches so
critical to consider when adapting language arts curriculum include
acceleration, depth, complexity, challenge, and creativity. Typically,
curriculum is organized according to grade levels, with each subsequent grade
level expectation being more demanding than the preceding. When we differentiate
curriculum for gifted students, we must move to a higher level of expectation in
respect to content, process, and concept demands. One way of accommodating
higher expectations effectively is to make more advanced curriculum or content
available to students at a younger age, ensuring that all levels of the
standards are traversed in the process. When students are provided with advanced
content or accelerated through curriculum, teachers need to adjust their
expectations to match the students' advanced level. The level of curriculum for
gifted learners must be adapted to their needs for advancement, depth, and
complexity. For example, after a discussion on major themes in novels and other
works, a student might be asked to choose a novel and write an essay about the
first chapter in which major themes of the work are explored (VanTassel-Baska,
Another aspect of differentiation that needs clarification is in the choice
of instructional strategies employed. In many respects, there are no strategies
that are differentiated only for students who are gifted or have high ability in
language arts. Rather, strategy use is inextricably tied to the nature and level
of curriculum being addressed. A diagnostic-prescriptive approach to instruction
allows students to move at a fast pace and not be subject to instruction in
skills already learned. Such an approach is powerful because it allows for an
assessment process by which each student's language arts ability can be
discerned and adapted for that student.
Some instructional strategies are highly effective when combined with
advanced curriculum. For example, questioning can be a powerful tool for
demonstrating or encouraging high level discussions in gifted clusters if the
stimulus reading or viewing was also challenging. Use of open-ended activities
can also prove effective if they are of requisite difficulty. Problem-based
learning by the sheer demands of working on ill-structured problems poses a
particularly appropriate instructional approach for gifted program use. Thus
strategy differentiation involves a set of techniques that need to be matched to
advanced curriculum in order to be effective for advancing the learning of
A fourth element of differentiation relates to challenge, which can best be
provided through careful selection of materials for use in classrooms. Most
basal materials are well below the challenge level for gifted students. Evidence
suggests the need for careful selection of materials that meet basic
specifications for exemplary curriculum in the language arts and other subject
areas, as well as appropriate curriculum based on differentiation features
(Johnson, Boyce, & VanTassel-Baska, 1995). While the selection of nationally
available materials meeting these specifications may be small, such materials do
exist and should be used to guide the differentiation process for curriculum.
Examples include Junior Great Books, Great Explorations in Math and Science
(GEMS) (http://www.lhs.berkeley.edu/GEMS/GEMS.html), and A Language Arts
Curriculum for Grades 2-11 published by Kendall-Hunt.
Finally, it is important to carefully differentiate project work to meet the
criterion of creativity. As more emphasis is placed on collaborative project
work at all levels of schooling, it is critical that educators use a set of
standards to judge whether or not such work is sufficiently challenging for
gifted learners and whether or not the contextual settings in which the work is
carried out will promote sufficient growth for them. Differentiation of project
work may be judged based on the medium in which the project is done and the
variables and skills addressed by the demands of the work. Providing
alternatives for student products also enhances the creativity dimension of the
language arts curriculum. For example, students could write a poetry book, using
their choice of poetic forms.
High ability learners need language arts curriculum differentiation in the
five following areas:
Literature should provide many experiences for students to read quality
texts. College-bound book lists that include poetry, plays, essays, biography,
and autobiography are available at most libraries, as are the books noted by
Thompson (1998) and Baskin and Harris (1988). Students should read broadly
across subject matters and develop a familiarity with favorite authors and their
lives. Emphasis on critical reading and the development of analysis and
interpretation skills should be a focal point.
A writing program for high ability learners should emphasize the development
of skills in expository and persuasive writing, focusing the writing process on
draft development, revision, and editing, and developing ideas and arguments on
current issues. Gifted students also need experience in writing in other forms
such as narrative and informative, using appropriate models for development. For
older students, copying the style of favorite authors would be a useful exercise
to gain control over written forms.
The formal study of English grammar and vocabulary should be a major
component of language study. Thus major language emphasis should involve
understanding the syntactic structure of English and its concomitant uses,
promoting vocabulary development, fostering an understanding of word
relationships (analogies) and origins (etymology), and developing an
appreciation for semantics, linguistics, and the history of language. An
integrated language study approach across these areas is highly desirable.
Gifted students can profit from a balanced exposure to oral communication
both through listening and speaking. Major emphases should include developing
the following skills: (1) evaluative listening; (2) debate, especially for use
in formal argument; and (3) discussion, particularly question-asking, probing,
and building on ideas stated. An emphasis on oral interpretation and drama
productions provide one of many venues for creative talented learners to develop
higher level skills.
Students advanced in verbal ability can benefit greatly from early foreign
language study, accelerating through four years in one language and at least two
years in a second language by the time they graduate from high school. The
choice of a second language should be one of the languages spoken in the
student's geographic area so that follow-up opportunities would be available.
Good choices for second and third language study include Spanish, French,
German, Japanese, and Latin (VanTassel-Baska, Johnson, & Boyce, 1996).
INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES AMONG VERBALLY TALENTED STUDENTS
implications of adapting a language arts curriculum for students of the same age
but different levels of functioning in the language arts presents a real
challenge, even for experienced educators. Yet such individual differences
prevail. The following two vignettes portray the vast differences that exist in
gifted learners who are the same age and exhibit aptitude in verbal areas. Based
on the in-school and out of school opportunities as well as a personal level of
functioning, these students require very different language arts experiences if
they are to be sufficiently challenged. Each is 13 years of age and entering the
eighth grade. Each has been identified as gifted on multiple measures, including
ability and achievement measures, teacher recommendation, and prior performance
in class work as evidenced in portfolios, grades, and performance-based tasks.
Abel demonstrates adult level reading comprehension and mastery of literary
elements such as plot, character, and setting, but tends to read easy texts,
enjoying reading the same author's works. The Harry Potter books are personal
favorites. He exhibits highly capable use of language in the basic forms of
narrative and informative writing. Abel, however, does less well with advanced
forms of writing such as expository. His research skills are limited and his
independent work unexceptional. Abel comes from a single parent family and is an
only child, living with his mother. He is currently enrolled to take Year 1 of
Spanish at his middle school. He has participated regularly in Saturday/Summer
programs at the local college. He loves drama, having been cast in two plays
during middle school. He has placed in spelling bees at the regional level,
representing his school.
Adrienne is bilingual in English and French and is currently enrolled in Year
2 of Latin. She has traveled extensively, including Italy and England where she
visited authors' homes and worksites. She won multiple writing awards for her
essays and has a five-year history of theater credits for her acting. Adrienne's
parents are both professionals; she is the older of two children. Last year she
designed and implemented a literary study on a period, author, and subject/theme
of 6000-7000 words that was published by a literary journal. She reads widely
and deeply, enjoying multiple genres, especially poetry. She has a strong
command of language in all forms.
While Abel has the need for stronger emphasis on advanced reading and writing
activities in his language arts program as well as continued opportunities in
drama, he is progressing very well in his work in verbal areas. A session with
his mother might help her see the value of his varied undertakings. She should
be encouraged to help him continue his interest in theater, his desire to attend
outside classes, and his incipient involvement in foreign language.
Adrienne, however, will require more individualized work to keep her
interested. She might be best placed into high school English classes, perhaps
at sophomore level and be considered a strong candidate for Advanced Placement
English next year. A mentorship or special class at the university would also be
an important option to explore with her. Her parents should be apprised of how
advanced she is and encourage her to accelerate her learning in English,
commensurate with her foreign language accomplishments.
Educators responsible for planning language arts
programs for high ability learners need to consider multiple variables in the
areas of differentiation approach, content, and individual differences among
gifted learners. Moreover, language arts programs should be as comprehensive as
possible and articulated across the K-12 years of schooling. Only then will
verbally gifted students be well served.
Center for Gifted Education. (1998). Language arts series (K-12). Dubuque,
IA: Kendall Hunt.
Johnson, D. T. , Boyce, L. N., & VanTassel-Baska, J. (1995). Science
curriculum review: Evaluating materials for high-ability learners. Gifted Child
Lockwood, A. (1992). The defacto curriculum? Focus in change, 6, 3-7.
Thompson, M. C. (1995). Classics in the classroom. Unionville, NY: Royal
VanTassel-Baska, J. (2002). Assessment of gifted student learning in the
language arts. Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 13(2), 67-72.
VanTassel-Baska, J., Johnson, D., & Boyce, L.N. (Eds.) (1996). Developing
verbal talent. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 365 pp.
VanTassel-Baska, J., & Little, C. (Eds.). (in press). Content-based
curriculum for gifted learners. Austin, TX: Prufrock.
VanTassel-Baska, J., Zuo, L., Avery, L. D., & Little, C. A. (2002). A
curriculum study of gifted student learning in the language arts. Gifted Child
Quarterly, 46(1), 30-44.