Differentiating for High Ability Students

Challenge high-ability learners with these differentiated lesson plans.

By Jennifer Sinsel


Differentiating for High Ability Students

Differentiation is an essential teaching strategy for students of all ability levels. Regular education teachers are often overburdened with crowded classes, high numbers of disadvantaged learners, and vast ranges in ability. Oftentimes, differentiation for the highest-ability student is placed at the end of a long list of “To Do’s”, simply because these children stereotypically “get it” on their own. However, differentiating for your highest learners so they might be appropriately challenged doesn’t have to involve unprecedented time and energy—it simply requires some advance planning!

Modify, Modify, Modify!

Differentiation for any student involves modifying the content, process, or product in a specific unit. If a student demonstrates mastery (i.e. 85% on a pre-assessment) of a concept before starting a given unit, consider providing accelerated content. For example, a child who has already mastered fractions might be allowed to move on to converting fractions to decimals. You can also differentiate content by designing activities that cover different areas of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Those who have little knowledge of the subject can complete tasks at the knowledge, comprehension, and application levels, while those who have mastered much of the basic content can focus on tasks at the analysis, synthesis, and evaluation levels.

The Layered Curriculum

Differentiating by process refers to how pupils come to understand the content being taught. Many teachers have successfully used layered curriculum in order to allow everyone a choice of assignments while still learning the required content. Children who master assignments in the lower “layers” are allowed to move on to layers that require higher-level thinking skills. Teachers can design each layer based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, Multiple Intelligences, and level of difficulty.

Demonstrating Mastery of Content

Modifying the product involves differentiating what someone produces at the end of a unit to demonstrate mastery of content. For example, a class studying historical fiction might be required to read a story and answer comprehension questions to show understanding. A student with high ability in language arts might instead be asked to write an essay comparing and contrasting two historical fiction stories. What follows are great lesson plans for high-ability learners in the regular classroom.

Lesson Plans with Differentiated Curriculum:

Sample Layered Curriculum 

In these lessons, teachers can find suggestions for layering curriculum relating to a variety of academic subjects. There are lessons for many subjects and grade levels.

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

In this lesson, pupils do research on the Internet to find different examples of graphs. They use these graphs to compile data on various subjects. They select a topic and design their own graph using data they have compiled.

Creativity and Butterflies

This lesson provides a way for children to learn about insects, and interject some creativity into assignments. It also provides for suggestions to meet the needs of high-ability children.

Comparing the Revolutionary War with the Civil War

Give your class a chance to take their learning a step further by comparing and contrasting the Revolutionary War with the Civil War. This enables them to do research and some critical thinking.

Elementary Science Guide

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Jennifer Sinsel