Reading Instruction

Deep End Reading

Gifted and advanced students can encounter rigorous, meaningful instruction in mixed level ELA classes: Proven strategies for developing student initiative, metacognition, and critical thinking. 


Why Differentiate Reading Instruction?

1. Students are in school to learn.

As educators, it is our responsibility to actually teach every student. Obvious, right? But there is a common misperception that advanced learners do not need to be taught if they are already performing at or above grade level. Perhaps you have heard something like this:

"Those high kids will be just fine."

"You can just let them go!"

Or even, "I take no responsibility for teaching your child," said with a smile.

Grade level skills are NOT an end-point. Our responsibility to teach students does not go away once they have mastered grade level skills. It is our duty as educators to take our students to their next level,  whatever that level might be.

The National Association for Gifted Children  has declared the Gifted Children's Bill of Rights, written by Del Siegle, NAGC President, 2007-2009:

You have a right to...

  • know about your giftedness.
  • learn something new everyday.
  • be passionate about your talent area without apologies.
  • have an identity beyond your talent area.
  • feel good about your accomplishments.
  • make mistakes.
  • seek guidance in the development of your talent.
  • have multiple peer groups and a variety of friends.
  • choose which of your talent areas you wish to pursue.
  • not to be gifted at everything.

All children, including gifted children, have the right to learn something new everyday, and we have the responsibility to teach them. So when we have students with different levels of skill and ability, we must differentiate to make sure that every student's educational needs are met.

We do not have the moral right to hold one child back to make another child feel better.
— Stephanie Tolan, Author of "Guiding the Gifted Child: A Practical Source for Parents and Teachers"

2. Growth Mindset: Students must learn to strive.

Carol Dweck's work on mindset shows the importance of connecting success with effort:

  • If students continually "succeed" without expending true effort, they discount the result because it didn't cost them anything.
  • Only when students are challenged can they develop the skills of persistence and effort.
  • Teaching children how to strive gives them the skills to work through the frustration of genuine challenge when they are older.

Elementary grades are NOT too early to learn to strive! Not only that, but waiting until middle or upper grades may leave students with a "fixed mindset."

Students with a fixed mindset often give up more easily in the face of challenge, and they may accept failure as a reflection of self-worth or ability instead of connecting it to effort. A student with a fixed mindset might think, "I'm so bad at writing; I'm dumb," and stop trying in English class because they feel doomed to failure due to their (perceived) innate incompetence, while a student with a growth mindset might think, "I didn't do so well on this essay, but if I did more pre-writing organization, I could do better next time," which sets the student up for future success.

For more information on Carol Dweck's work, visit her website, MindSet.

Gifted children are at an especially high risk for developing a fixed mindset when they don't have to "try" in the elementary grades, so differentiation in the classroom is necessary to teach them to strive and to help them develop a growth mindset.

3. Behavior issues are minimized when kids are engaged.

Learning is the opposite of boredom, and learning is the antidote to boredom. Engaged, interested kids are more likely to be focused on their work and less likely to tune out, goof off, or distract other students. So how do we keep kids interested and engaged?

Students learn best in the Zone of Proximal Development, where they are presented with an appropriate level of challenge that piques their interest and encourages them to use what they know to expand their skills. An article worth reading is "Boredom and Its Opposite," from ASCD.

While high-achieving kids are often characterized as "good students" because they perform highly in their academics, it is not uncommon for these students to start pushing limits and acting out when they get bored, bringing about confusion: why are the "good students" suddenly developing behavior problems?

Differentiation in the classroom is key to keeping these students engaged at an appropriate level of challenge to prevent boredom and behavioral issues.

Identifying Students Ready to Move Forward 

Susanna Richards   Igniting, Delighting & Cultivating Literary Thinkers   @SussingOutBooks                 @EasternCTStateU

Susanna Richards

Igniting, Delighting & Cultivating Literary Thinkers

@SussingOutBooks               @EasternCTStateU


How do you know who is ready for alternatives? Look out for these signals:

  • Evidence of higher level thinking
  • Thinking outside the box
  • Challenging/questioning ("Why do we learn grammar?")
  • Different ways of looking at things (that maybe you hadn't even thought of!)
  • Always done first (and correct)
  • Always done last because so much thought has gone in to it
  • Unexpected answers that need further probing
  • Have they already met your grade level objectives? Be honest with yourself.

Susannah Richards, a children's lit expert, recommends collecting evidence during the early weeks of school: three instances of evidence indicates that the child can move on to more appropriate challenges without concern for missed "regular" work.


Big Picture Ideas


How does this differ from traditional grade level instruction? Dramatic expansion of conceptual emphases evoke higher order thinking as routine.

For any given literature, consider the Big Picture ideas:

  • What abstract concepts can be introduced or developed?
  • What Universal Themes are present?
  • What general rules or principles can be drawn from those? This enables transfer of learning.
  • Can generalizations be constructed that may be true across all contexts? How can these theories be evaluated, tested, and revised?

Such critical thinking processes lead to concrete exploration of additional material which may then expand the learner's understanding or call forth new ways of thinking.

The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented (NRC/GT)
The Multiple Menu Model: A Practical Guide for Developing Differentiated Curriculum
The Parallel Curriculum: A Design to Develop High Potential and Challenge High-Ability Students. 

Dr. Jann Leppien - Whitworth University
Dr. Sandra Kaplan - University of Southern California, Rossier School of Education

The following are some specific angles of approach to introduce young readers to how to read literature from a mature perspective.


Zoom Out Your Thinking: So What? Now What?


"So What?" is about inductive reasoning. Here we seek to transfer from the specific piece of literature to the broad understanding.

  • Why is this piece of literature important?
  • Why did this make the very short list of pieces selected for class reading?
  • What is the Big Picture message?
  • What conclusion(s) can we draw from this reading?

"Now What?" is about deductive reasoning. From our broad synthesis of learning, where do we go next?

  • What are we going to do with this understanding?
  • Are there questions to follow with additional inquiry?
  • Is there action inspired?
  • What comes next?

Two examples of good books to introduce this type of thinking are A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park and Wonder by R. J. Palacio.

So What? Now What? is from Christopher Tienken, Ed.D.'s Defying Standardization: Creating Curriculum for an Uncertain Future.


Universal Themes and Generalizations

Excerpted from the GATE Teacher Handbook of the Rosedale Union School District


Universal Themes and Generalizations help students see and make connections between, within, and across make meaning out of what might initially seem disconnected information. These are the “big ideas” that connect and make sense of all learning.

Universal Themes are also used to increase the complexity of content within an area of study. When used within a specific discipline, the use of a theme will allow students to examine the interrelationships between and among facts, details, rules and concepts. When used across disciplines, a theme will allow students to study the inter-relatedness of areas of study.

The theme is not a curricular topic but a universal idea such as those listed below. (The Westward Movement or Ancient Egypt are NOT considered themes, but topics.) This themes approach requires students to define a set of generalizations: statements that are universally true about the theme.

Patterns are found everywhere in nature is an example of a typical generalization. These generalizations help increase the depth and complexity of the classroom instruction and the work students do. All subjects converge on the theme. Some universal themes are:

  • Change
  • Conflict
  • Exploration
  • Force or Influence
  • Order
  • Pattern
  • Power
  • Structure
  • System
  • Relationships

Pages 19-21 in the GATE Handbook linked above provide excellent guidance on expanding Universal Themes into Generalizations.

Universal Themes and Generalizations are from S. Kaplan and J. Curry, 1985


From Maslow to Leadership: Human Development

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell

Using text passages to support every phase of the pyramid

... whole class, analyze development of the tribe as a whole

... individuals, trace Karana's development as she lives alone

Key Lessons:

  • Tribe of One: Karana establishes her own ways
  • Building her home/close reading: 3-D model construction
  • Devilfish: her quest prior to initiation at:
  • The Black Cave: turning her back on her ancestors

Maslow - Basic Social Science

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Castaway directed by Robert Zemeckis (PG-13)

Life of Pi  by Ang Lee (PG)

Survivalists, off-the-grid, etc.

Weslandia  by Paul Fleischman

Music of Dolphins by Karen Hesse:

  • Autonomy vs. assimilation
  • Processes of brain development
  • Animal intelligence and communication

MyLandia: Design of an ideal civilization 

Leadership and social change: Excerpts from The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, paired with Patriot biographies

What factors cause social change to occur?

What profiles of leadership are influential and in what different ways?

Law of the Few: the 80-20 Principle

Change as viral

Maven, Connector, Salesperson

Analysis of American patriots as leader profiles: close reading, text support

Connecting American Founding Fathers with contemporary social commentary

Leadership in  Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Parks(see below)

Leadership in times of crisis: Long Walk to Water, the true story of Salva Dut by Linda Sue Parks

Maslow's Hierarchy in contemporary crisis

Qualities of leadership

  • Ample preparation for culture shock
  • Lost Boys of Sudan 1983 - 2005 (PBS)
  • Daily life for the girls who carry water
  • How did this boy transform into a leader?
  • What models or experiences shaped him?
  • Crossing crocodile river/initiation


The Good Lie directed by Philippe Falardeau (PG-13)

Current refugee crisis in Europe (2015-2016)

Iron Giraffe Challenge: student-initiated fundraising

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba


Identity and Social Justice in Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Identity: External vs. Internal

Blending In, Standing Out, Standing Up

In-Group/Out-Group Theory

"Scapegoat:" groundwork for Holocaust studies


  • Empathy
  • Integrity
  • Anti-Bullying

Rules by Cynthia Lord  
Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars
That Was Then, This Is Now by S.E. Hinton

Changing attitudes towards disabilities:

  • History of Social Welfare Reform
  • Hunchback of Notre Dame (various movie versions)
  • Elephant Man directed by David Lynch (PG)
  • Craniofacial abnormalities
  • Down's Syndrome

Social Justice and Human Rights

The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis

  • Racism/prejudice
  • Discrimination
  • Segregation/integration
  • Social rules, gender roles

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Afghan women

Black Lives Matter

1963 Birmingham church bombing


Social Institutions and Prejudice

Struggle against social institutions in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare


  • Upholding family honor
  • Conformity to social norms

West Side Story directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise (G)

Romeo + Juliet directed by Baz Luhrmann (PG-13)

That Was Then, This Is Now by S.E. Hinton

  • dramatization
  • dialect study
  • Shakespearian insults

Neuropsychology: Decision-making processes in teen brains

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Inside Out and Back Again by Thania Lai


Gender roles

Social codes vs. courage, compassion

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain


Mythology as Universal

Mythology reflects the commonality of human experience, giving us:

Universal Themes: in all times, in all places




The Hero's Journey by Joseph Campbell






(Jung, Bly, Fords, etc.)

  • Flood myths around the world
  • The wooden chest
  • The usurper


"Heroes are made when retreat is cut off." (Evslin)

  • Call to adventure
  • Road of trials
  • Initiation
  • Boon
  • The return


  • King/Tyrant
  • Warrior/Beast
  • Magician/Trickster
  • Lover/Stone Heart
  • Earth Mother
  • Dancing Maiden
  • Crone
  • Stone Teeth

The Adventures of Ulysses by Bernard Evslin

Children of Odin by Padraic Colum

Heroes with an African Face by Clyde Fords

Arthurian Legend

Star Wars directed by George Lucas

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas C. Foster

  • There are no WOWLs: wholly original works of literature.
  • Every quest is a quest for self-knowledge.
  • Mealtime affirms - or violates - community.
  • Rain is never about the weather.
  • Is it a metaphor? Yes.

Group Project: Create a Periodic Tables of Elements of Mythology

Group project:  groups select whatever elements are most appropriate to communicate what they see as essential universal themes

  • Introduce Periodic Table Resource files: Muppets, Game Controllers, Star Wars, Harry Potter
  • Class discussion generated rules of constructing a periodic table: appropriate number of elements to include, purposeful arrangement, grouping, means of showing connection to multiple categories
  • Some focused on geography and basic roles: weather/earth/etc. deities of various regions
  • Some groups focused on more abstract connections:  archetypes and motifs

Make it Happen

Where to Begin?

Try asking these 2 questions:

What novel is better than what you have been getting out of it?

Which kids are capable of more than you have been seeing from them?


Then think about the conceptual pyramid:

How can the work be moved UP so the facts begin to serve the construction of the principles?

How can the students be guided to extend these principles beyond that one context into other areas, to test them as generalizations?

Ask yourself:

So what? Why does this matter? How does this change the reader?

Now what? How does this inspire the reader to change the world?

Try using this graphic organizer. Click to enlarge.

Class Management

How can we meet all these different needs in one classroom?

Grouping, conferences:

  • How often? These may not all be the same in frequency or duration.
  • Keep the purpose in mind: meeting the needs of the students.
  • Consider reading all together but then breaking apart for different goals.

Or let student readiness determine the pacing:

  • Find ways to quick-check completion/understanding. Let go of comprehension tests - keep PURPOSE in mind.
  • Let go of chapter-by-chapter stop-and-discuss with kids that are ready to surge forward!
  • Instead, deliberately choose a limited number of checkpoints, perhaps aligned with major events or turning points (3-4 checkpoints per book)
    • Students must be prepared to discuss content up to that point.
    • If they choose to read beyond, NO SPOILERS.

Oral presentations to streamline writing grading; peer editing circles to develop editing and accountability. 

Streamline ELA series - Curriculum Compacting

  • Early in the year, keep anecdotal notes for grade level skills: once a skill is demonstrated three times, let go of tracking it for that particular child.
  • Visible accountability - etherpad work - each "voice" in a different color (see Reading Resources below).

Suggested Grade Progression

Click to enlarge.