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Helping All Learners: Extending

Why is extending an effective instructional practice for some learners?

Extending instruction is the mirror image of scaffolding: It allows students who learn quickly and/or who have well-developed background knowledge to move through the instruction in a way that respects their advancement.

It is an unfortunate truth that advanced learners are often overlooked in classroom instruction. Overwhelmed by the practical challenges of their work, teachers rejoice in the presence of students who soak up knowledge, get right answers, and earn “100’s” and “A’s,” but may not have a developed sense of how to challenge these learners. As a result, advanced students are not served well when they are consistently isolated from their peers to work on other materials, relied upon as tutors for other students, asked to “do more of the same stuff, faster,” or simply left alone.

Don't handicap your children by making their lives easy. Robert A. Heinlein

Advanced learners are labeled in many ways in schools: “gifted,” “talented,” “accelerated,” or “highly ready.” No matter what the label, though, it is important to think of advanced learners in the same respectful way that we think of students who need more support: not as “high” or “low,” “better” or “worse,” but simply as “students who have specific academic needs.” These needs are different from those of other students in one sense, as we’ve discussed. But in another, they are exactly the same: All students require and deserve a rich, relevant, challenging learning environment that supports their whole growth.

Learning Targets

  • I can explain the components of an extended lesson. 
  • I can describe the benefits of extending lessons for some learners.

Consider: Who Should Receive Extended Instruction?

If students exhibit the following behaviors, they may be prime for extending their instruction:

  • Consistently finish tasks quickly.
  • Finish reading assignments first.
  • Appear bored during instruction time.
  • May be off-task or misbehaving consistently because they have finished their work or have not found the work challenging.
  • Bring in outside reading material.
  • Create own puzzles, games, or diversions in class.
  • Consistently daydream.
  • Have consistently high performance in one or more academic areas.
  • Have depressed scores or school performance, but are highly creative, informed, or focused in other areas. 
  • Test scores are consistently excellent.
  • Ask questions that indicate advanced familiarity with materials sought after by other students for assistance.
  • Use vocabulary and verbal expression above their grade level.
  • Express interest in pursuing advanced topics.

Watch: On Being Gifted

This video showcases student voices about the challenges and success of being gifted. Perhaps students in your classroom, school, or district are not identified as such. However, the chance that some of your students exhibit some of these attributes during some of your lessons is extremely likely. As you view this short clip, think about strategies you currently use, or that are used by teachers you supervise, to meet the needs of learners at all points on the continuum of readiness.

Sherry Frachey (2010, January 29.) On Being Gifted. Retrieved October 23, 2015 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVQBXr2l8Zs

Read: What It Means to Teach Gifted Learners Well

Read the following article by Carol Ann Tomlinson, “What It Means to Teach Gifted Learners Well,” which provides the key components of extending instruction for gifted learners. 
Use the following questions to guide your independent thinking or a discussion with colleagues:

  1. The reading identifies four practices that provide the foundation for extending instruction for gifted learners. Summarize each practice for yourself in one or two sentences.  
  2. The reading also identifies six characteristics of instruction that are not appropriate for gifted students. Summarize each practice for yourself in one or two sentences. 
  3. Which of each of these sets of practices occur in your classroom, your district or your school? Which do not? Why?

Synthesis for Teachers: Engaging the High Achievers

Watch this video from the Teaching Channel that profiles a multi-grade-level gifted and talented elementary classroom in California. Although this is a classroom that specializes in gifted and talented education (versus differentiation), here we still see several strong examples of Tomlinson’s recommendations for gifted students in action that can be transferred to other classroom settings. Consider the following questions as you watch:

  • How does Mrs. Ehrke adhere to the principles of good instruction for gifted learners (Tomlinson Practice #1)? 
  • How does Mrs. Ehrke accelerate and deepen the instruction for her learners (Tomlinson Practice #2)?
  • How is the learning in Mrs. Ehrke’s classroom structured with a “higher degree of difficulty”: more independent, less teacher-structured (Tomlinson Practice #3)?
  • How does Mrs. Ehrke “spot” her students, encouraging risk but offering support (Tomlinson Practice #4)?

Synthesis for School Leaders: Identifying the High Achievers

Below, a video from Mesa County School District 51 in Colorado describes the process this district takes to identify gifted and talented learners in its schools. Consider the following questions as you watch:

  1. How does this process mirror other identification processes for students with special needs?
  2. How do the four areas of aptitude, achievement, behavior/characteristics, and performance inform the ways in which a teacher might consider extending a lesson for her advanced learners?
  3. How might a ”body of evidence” indicating advanced learning be shared and examined fruitfully by teachers? 

Mesa County School District 51 (2013, January 14). Identification of Gifted and Talented. Retrieved October 23, 2015 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ckD_9AltxY#

Dig Deeper


Unraveling the Paradox: When Creative and Gifted Students Underachieve: Why gifted students often do poorly in school, and the necessity of classrooms that support their unique gifts from Psychology Today.

Myths about Gifted Students: Myths about gifted children debunked by the National Association for Gifted Children.


For Teachers:

  • What needs to be in place for extending to be successful in a classroom?
  • What is a thought, conviction, or belief about advanced learners that has changed for you while working through this page? 
  • Research shows that less ready students benefit from academic discourse with more ready students. How will you ensure that there are opportunities for these types of discussions to occur in your classroom, while still challenging your high achievers?

For School Leaders:

  • How can you support teachers with time and materials needed to construct extended activities in class?
  • How will you ensure that teachers are appropriately identifying students who would benefit from extending activities?