Gifted students are often voracious readers, and the asynchronous development of their verbal talents can present challenges when it comes to curating reading material that is in sync with both their academic needs and their social-emotional ones.
A limited definition of “academic needs” complicates this problem. Students, their parents, and some teachers place undue emphasis on the quantitative evaluation of text complexity (e.g. a Lexile score) and rush to find texts with increasingly complex vocabulary and syntax. Although the talented 5th grade readers in your class may very well be capable of comprehending the words and sentences on the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird or Crime and Punishment, such reading doesn’t necessarily meet their social-emotional needs. And it doesn’t fully meet their academic needs either.
C.S. Lewis, who knew a little something about literature, said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of 50 and beyond.” Works of children’s literature – whether classics like O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and Lewis’s Narnia books or a more contemporary novel like Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society – “are worth reading at the age of ten” and “at the age of 50 and beyond” because they are full of captivating characters, significant settings, pivotal plot points, timeless (and timely) themes, and yes, even vivid vocabulary. Utilizing such books in our curriculum not only exposes young gifted students to engaging, well-written stories they might otherwise miss, but also provides an opportunity for them to develop and practice the type of analytical thinking they’ll use in honors and AP English courses later in their academic careers. In the process we can help our students (and their parents) appreciate that these books are “worth reading.”
What’s your philosophy about teaching gifted students reading? How do you select literature to teach?
A Novel Approach
Ten years ago Duke TIP began an online book club for students in the 4th-6th Grade Talent Search. We want to foster talented young readers’ love of reading and to develop their critical and creative thinking and active reading skills through activities that challenge them to
- analyze the literary elements of the book while they are reading;
- reflect on themes and other overarching elements of the book after they have finished reading;
- explore topics in academic areas outside of language arts that highlight real-world connections to the book;
- produce creative projects that connect aspects of the book with their own interests; and
- share their ideas and reflections on the book with other gifted students around the country and the world.
Reading journal prompts, discussion questions, and a downloadable Character Grid encourage students to reflect on how and why dynamic characters change. Curated videos and links to Web-based activities allow students to explore topics like the chemistry of cooking, the technology behind holograms, genetic engineering in agriculture, and the history and economics of currency systems. Project prompts inspire readers to personalize their learning from and connection to each book – creating a board game, launching their own currency, preparing a disaster kit, and eating like a locavore – at least for one meal – and to share that learning with friends and family in concrete ways.
I always told my AP English Literature students that the best books have the power to change the way we see ourselves and the world, and I passionately believe that’s true. A book’s power isn’t a function of its lexical complexity alone – think of the famous short story, often attributed to Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” To unleash that power of literature – yes, even children’s literature – in our gifted students’ lives, we owe it to them to think more broadly about their academic and social-emotional needs. Doing so will require some adapting and coaching on our part. We’ll have to give up (and help our students give up) some of the competition-as-motivation that is inherent in some reading programs. We’ll need to combat students’ (and their parents’) beliefs that children’s literature is…well, childish. We’ll need to help our students view works of fiction as windows through which they can see the bigger, broader world, full of complex, interconnected ideas of science and history and philosophy and mathematics, and we’ll relish the thought that an approach like this can bring more reluctant readers to the bookshelf. Any book that can do that is worth reading, no matter how old you are.
Try it Out!
Interested in trying this approach with your students? Visit Lesson Blueprints or the Book Club tag for downloadable activities for selections from Duke TIP’s 4th-6th Grade Online Book Club, which you can re-purpose for your classroom.