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Fall Blog Series - Part 4

Fall Blog Series!

Week Four

By Kimberley Hackman

fall foliage

As we head further into the fall season and beyond the “back to school” phase, this is the perfect time to replenish our gifted educational resource base! The fall months are often when we are finishing gifted assessments, introducing parents to the world of gifted, and even assisting teachers with gifted differentiation. Each post in this Fall Blog Series will touch on an important topic that is hopefully relevant to your environment, and can be implemented right away!

Topic: Vertical Differentiation: If Bloom and Tomlinson had a baby!

To Ponder: “Differentiation is not simply a response to addressing a student’s need, but a means to develop talent and nurture strengths by providing advanced curricular experiences” (Mofield, 2022).


What is differentiation?

The three components that are most often associated with successful differentiation are:

  1. Curriculum or content--what is being taught

  2. Instruction or process—how it is being taught

  3. Student product—visible results produced based on students' interests and abilities.


Joseph Renzulli (2018) expanded these components in the “Five Dimensions of Differentiation” to explain five ways to integrate differentiation into teaching practices. More information can be found here.

Why is differentiation so meaningful for gifted students?

True differentiation challenges our academically and intellectually gifted students in critical and creative thinking. Gifted students are typically ready for this level of rigor years before their peers, and thus, differentiation is the means to nurture their strengths. Motivation and engagement increase when students analyze, evaluate, synthesize information, develop solutions and conclusions, construct arguments, justify their thinking, and transfer learning to multiple contexts.

What is Vertical Differentiation?

book title

In her book, Vertical Differentiation for Gifted, Advanced, and High-Potential Students, Sarah Mofield (2022) discusses a term she calls vertical differentiation. She describes it as:

“Adjusting ‘up’ what students know, understand, and do by providing challenges for students grappling with cognitively complex tasks that prepare them to create, practice, and think as experts. Vertically up can be thought of as climbing the pyramid of Bloom's taxonomy… When we intentionally plan complex tasks that elicit deep understanding and abstract thinking, students engage in the heavy lifting of learning and grow.”

Bloom’s Taxonomy


+ Carol Ann Tomlinson “Students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn. In other words, a differentiated classroom provides different avenues to acquiring content, to processing or making sense of ideas, and to developing products (Tomlinson, 2012)." How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms

The ABC’s for Vertical Differentiation

AAdvance of the Content

Cognitive demands increase when higher-level processes are paired with content above grade level. Materials should be in their zone of proximal development. Content can be at an accelerated pace, include advanced resources, or expose students to experts within a particular field.

B - Build the Buy-In.

Simply advancing the content for students will not necessarily ignite motivation! Student interests, strengths, funds of knowledge, and motivation must be considered when providing choices for tasks that demand sustainable effort. Students must “buy in” to their own learning.

C - Challenge

Mofield suggests 25 strategies to elevate the rigor and scaffold critical thinking for students. She organizes them into 7 categories:

(1) Analysis

(2) Problem Solving: Understand the Problem

(3) Problem-Solving: Creating and Evaluating Solutions

(4) Creative Thinking: Making Connections

(5) Constructing Arguments

(6) Metacognition

(7) Deep Learning and Differentiation


Vertical Differentiation in Practice: An Example Lesson

Below I share one way to put these ideas into practice. This example comes from my 4th grade ELA unit.

1st Step Up

Students begin the year in a poetry unit learning how to analyze text and identify various literary devices. By selecting advanced poems, a teacher can raise the cognitive demands for gifted learners.

2nd Step Up

Students read Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. Students spend a full class period analyzing the first two paragraphs of the novel. This is because Ms. Babbitt's words need time to digest and conversation to unravel the deeper meaning, similar to poetry. Students take the skills practiced in the poetry unit and transfer their understanding to identify and analyze Babbitt’s rich text.

3rd Step Up

One theme from Tuck Everlasting is conflict. Taking an example from Mofield’s book, a teacher can create an essential question: Does conflict lead to opportunity or chaos? Students can explore and justify their reasoning through civil discourse in a Socratic seminar.

4th Step Up

Allowing for Buy-in, gifted students can evaluate the rigor by justifying and defending their argument on this essential question by using at least three fairy tales of their choosing as evidence. Students will be looking for how conflict contributed to the development of the character.

5th Step Up

Students can use the SCAMPER strategy to re-create a fable or fairy tale modifying the conflict to show how it changed later outcomes and opportunities for the character.

Want to learn more about Vertical Differentiation? Here is a link to Emily Mofield’s book: Vertical Differentiation for Gifted, Advanced, and High-Potential Students.

To Extend:

What are your “go-to” questions to elevate the thinking of your students? Please share one idea from your classroom where gifted students were challenged. How do you plan to use something you read above in your classroom? What questions or thoughts do you have about vertical differentiation? We love hearing from our readers! Please join the conversation and comment below. :)

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