About the Experts


Nancy Young, Ed.D.

Nancy Young, Ed.D., is a longtime proponent of differentiated instruction and creator of ‘The Ladder of Reading & Writing’ infographic. A Canadian educator, Nancy has taught children with a wide range of learning challenges and needs. She provides professional development across Canada and internationally, focusing on instructional needs for dyslexia, ADHD, and students advanced in reading (AIR).

Featured Products

Climbing The Ladder of Reading & Writing: Meeting the Needs of ALL Learners Professional Development Book

Climbing the Ladder of Reading & Writing provides a concise yet powerful overview of ways to address instructional challenges, leverage the science of reading, and improve outcomes for ALL students. Nancy Young and Jan Hasbrouck help you make sense of contemporary instruction with a guided tour of Nancy’s popular infographic: The Ladder of Reading & Writing.

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At the Reading Table with Striving Readers: Achieving Equity by Scaffolding Strengths Professional Development Book

When teachers are clear in their intentions during small-group instruction, all children can achieve. In this first of a three-book series addressing small-group instruction, Nancy Akhavan shares the precise instructional scaffolds striving readers need.

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Episode Transcript

Announcer: This podcast is produced by Benchmark Education.

Kevin Carlson: In this episode of Teacher's Talk Shop: Differentiating instruction for advanced readers.

I'm Kevin Carlson and this is Teacher's Talk Shop.

Dr. Nancy Young: You don't have to be tested as gifted to be advanced. You don't have to have a higher IQ to be advanced. What every advanced reader needs is learning in accordance with where they are in their learning.

Kevin Carlson: That is Dr. Nancy Young. She is an educational consultant and author and she developed The Ladder of Reading and Writing. It's an infographic that maps the continuum of ease in learning to read, which makes it a very helpful tool for teachers to focus instruction and support students.

Nancy is the coauthor, with Dr. Jan Hasbrouck, of a new book from Benchmark Education's PD Essentials line, called Climbing the Ladder of Reading and Writing: Meeting the Needs of All Learners. You'll learn more about that during this episode.

Recently, author and educator Patty McGee spoke with her about The Ladder of Reading and Writing, and Nancy also shared her perspective as an educator and as a parent about the unique needs and opportunities for gifted and advanced learners. Here is Patty with Dr. Nancy Young.

Patty McGee: Nancy, could we start off by talking about your own personal connection to advanced learners?

Dr. Nancy Young: My journey began over 30 years ago with my own children, and I'm now a grandmother. What I did as a mom was what many, many parents do—I read to my children. I was a young mom, pretty frazzled. I never did get them magnetic alphabet letters on the fridge. I kept meaning to buy them. I just kind of got through all day, but read to my children before nap time and so on. And I really didn't realize how advanced they were. I didn't know anything that I know now about the science of learning to read. I didn't know about Gifted Ed—again, I was just a young mom trying to do her best every day. And the only evidence I really have is this video of our son when he was four years old reading a book. And it's basically a chapter book with a picture every few pages. And he's sitting on his dad's lap, and whenever he couldn't get a word, his dad just told him what the word was. We didn't teach “sound it out” or anything. So when he went to school, he had a kindergarten teacher who really embraced his advanced learning and gave him all sorts of opportunities to extend his learning and enrich his learning. He was in French Immersion, but she also taught him some Chinese and just lots of opportunities.

And then when he reached Grade 1, we had a teacher who did not embrace his advanced abilities and he did not like school. He wanted to drop out of school at the end of Grade 1. And we were really concerned, thinking, “What's going on? Our son is so advanced and hates school.” So I started to read up on advanced learners way back then and then ultimately I took courses on Gifted Ed. And then when I did my Bachelor of Education, I had already been studying Gifted Ed and taking university courses on Gifted Ed, which is kind of not the norm—most people become a specialist after their B.Ed. But yeah, where really I got started was my own children. And our daughter was also advanced but it was our son who—like a lot of families, the older child is the one that causes families to do certain things and the younger one benefits. So yes, my learning adventures started many years ago, and I do want people to know that that I didn't know what I know now, but I was so intrigued by everything that my learning adventure started and I'm continuing to learn every day.

Patty McGee: Well, let's dig into some of that learning of yours, then. Can we just start off with some basics? We hear the words “advanced learners,” “gifted learners”—are they synonymous? Are they not? Do they have slightly different definitions? How do we use those words as educators?

Dr. Nancy Young: Well, different people define those terms in different ways, and that is one of the problems. And even not just in the world of Gifted Education, I’ll refer to that, but even in districts and states and provinces. I'm from Canada, so I refer to provinces, as well. So there are different definitions. In terms of gifted, traditionally the IQ test has been the measurement and sometimes the cutoff is 120 IQ, sometimes 130 IQ, but in most places that IQ measurement is still part of getting gifted services. In terms of the research, IQ measurement is still very supported. In terms of reading, what we know is that you don't have to have a higher IQ to be able to read early. There can be different reasons for reading early. So we have kind of giftedness and we have advanced readers. Some of the experts in terms of gifted field are promoting separating giftedness into advanced learning of academics, which reading could come with that, and then giftedness in terms of maybe they're musically gifted or creatively gifted. So I really lean to the advanced academics and advanced readers, advanced in reading, and the acronym that I have coined as AIR, Advanced in Reading. They come under the advanced academics. And what I say is you don't have to be tested as gifted to be advanced. You don't have to have a higher IQ to be advanced. What every advanced reader needs is learning in accordance with where they are in their learning.

And just one more thing I want to say that's really in the news a lot these days is the issue of children coming from poverty. Yes, we know the research suggests there are risk factors for children who've grown up in poverty, but you could have an advanced reader in your class who is from an environment that you would never wish upon anybody. So it's really important to understand that advanced readers could be from any background, any culture. What we need to do is find these students, and then some students from poverty may come in with fewer skills, but they may advance really quickly and they could be gifted and we need to really offer them the opportunity to move forward as quickly as we can when they're from impoverished environments.

Kevin Carlson: After the break: The unique needs of AIR students. Stay with us.

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Patty McGee: Speaking of both impoverished environments and any other setting where students may come from, what are their unique needs? Advanced learners. Advanced in reading.

Dr. Nancy Young: They learn more quickly and they can handle more complexity. So again, if you have a child—let's go back. At the beginning of kindergarten, let's say you have three children. One is really advanced and really intelligent, and they are going to be able to handle much more complexity. We don't want to be giving them what children need who are at their foundational stages, because they've already mastered the foundational stages. They need to move forward more quickly. If you have the second, perhaps advanced reader at the beginning of kindergarten, maybe they've had more instruction at home. Maybe their parents are familiar with phonics and started them really early. And so you're going to monitor because you don't want to overwhelm them at the same time as you're going to move them forward as quickly as you can, understanding that they might not go in as rapid a pace as other children who are advanced. And then you have, let's say, child number three, who comes in, who does not seem advanced, but you can tell intellectually they are so ready to roar. And so you want to offer them the opportunity for complexity and intellectual engagement at the same time as furthering their skills. And sometimes with children from poverty, increasing their background knowledge, increasing their vocabulary and so you can expand that.

So really, it's all about needs-based instruction. That's what it really boils down to. There's no set way. It's about recognizing where they are in their learning and offering them the opportunity to move forward in their learning at a pace that's appropriate. But the pace that's appropriate is often faster than educators believe, because they don't have any background in advanced abilities.

Patty McGee: I understand. So, many people would argue that, well, if they're advanced, they're going to do just fine then in school. So why is it really that necessary? I'm asking this not necessarily believing that statement, but I know that a lot of listeners might be thinking that, too. And we have a belief system that's out there. So what would you say to that?

Dr. Nancy Young: Well, thank you, Patty, for asking that and bringing up that myth. You're aware it's a myth. It is a myth that they will be fine. And it's interesting because in the world of reading instruction, there's a lot of focus on getting rid of myths. But there are myths that people very informed about reading have actually grown to believe. And one of the beliefs is that these children will be fine. And that's not supported by the research and the research on children who are advanced getting bored, losing motivation, at risk for dropping out. It's hard to believe, but I learned this many years ago, when our son was in Grade 1, I thought, “Wow, children who are very advanced are at risk for dropping out.” They're not all going to drop out, of course, but people think they'll be fine and they're on their way to university. And no, that isn't the case. And boredom and underachievement, they get frustrated, can lead to dropping out.

The other myth, if I could bring it up while we're talking, is the myth about acceleration, that acceleration is disadvantageous. A lot of educators have probably, through their university training, which was not research-based, believe that it's disadvantageous to accelerate children, to move them forward more quickly, and that it can be very disadvantageous in terms of social emotional health. And that actually is a myth. And of course, you always have exceptions. You're always going to monitor carefully and you're not going to move forward a child who's not ready to move forward. You're not going to have them skip a grade if you know they're very socially immature and it'll be disadvantageous. But many advanced learners, the research supports that acceleration, grade skipping, early entrance to kindergarten, or moving forward in one subject area and maybe being with another grade, is advantageous. Bright children, many of them really enjoy being around older people. That's one of the reasons that they often do fine with older people as their friends—their best friends are older and they gravitate to older people because of the cognitive engagement.

Kevin Carlson: After the break: Some practical steps to support advanced learners. Stay with us.

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Patty McGee: Thinking of this now, anyone who's listening is hearing just how important it is that we are supporting our advanced learners, our advanced and reading learners. What are some practical steps that an educator can begin to take? Maybe just a few now that they have this food for thought. What are some things that schools and classrooms can put into place?

Dr. Nancy Young: The tools that are being developed to measure reading skills that are being widely more and more used these days were developed to find struggling readers. And so we won't use the same tools necessarily for our advanced readers. And we're going to use different tools. We're going to use the equivalent of an achievement test. And talking to parents, talking to caregivers, finding out if these children are reading books at home with no pictures, then, you know, we don't need to go back to the foundations, we need to find out where they are and move them forward. And then once we find out where they are—and you're going to know that very quickly, you might gauge that the minute they walk into school with a book in their hand, like our son did—you need to be ready to differentiate your instruction. I hope you're already doing it. But if you are not doing it, you need to be grouping your instruction. And I really recommend that teachers look at collaborating with other teachers in the same grade and, even better, across the grades. Because for advanced readers, you want to move them forward based on their skill, not their grade and age. And for every student, actually, we should be looking at that and we should be grouping to give them the skills they need and not trying to get everybody in one classroom to be learning the same way every day.

My Ladder of Reading and Writing that I developed, the first version was 2012. I created it so that people would be aware of the continuum of ease in learning to read, rewiring the brain, to be able to do this reading and writing which we’re not born to do—we’re born to draw, but we’re not born to spell. So we have to recognize that this continuum exists. We can't say, “Oh, let's just treat everybody the same way,” because if we do that, somebody is going to lose out—the children at risk because of dyslexia. The children who are AIR, they're already advanced, so we really need to differentiate our instruction to be meeting children's needs where they are and then moving them around. So if you differentiate for reading, I say we must differentiate for math, we must differentiate for science. And that way our children are in the same groups all the time. And if we offered “Change the world, Nancy, restructuring!”—but really, if we did that with every subject area, then our children would have their needs addressed where they are, and then be flexible and there wouldn't be this boxing in that sometimes again— that's another myth that people worry about.

Differentiation is key. And then you're going to offer your children the opportunity to move forward. So, let's say you have your advanced readers. Within that advanced group, there might be some who need more support with writing. One of the issues with young advanced readers is something called asynchronous development, and so their fine motor skills may be less developed and they need more work on print formation, or they need move to keyboarding, they may have ADHD, be an advanced reader, and really have a problem with those fine motor skills. So we need to differentiate within our grouping. So we're going to be grouping all over the place and then supporting people as necessary. That's my wish.

I know I'm talking about advanced readers, but it's the structure that we set up that supports that to happen, and teaching children the routine and helping them learn how to regulate their behavior to be part of a differentiated setting. And that, again, is something that deters teachers. We just need to start it at the beginning of school and have everybody doing it consistently the same way. And then when they learn it in kindergarten, they go to Grade 1, the same system, and it's feasible. And then we can really offer so much more for our advanced and for other learners.

Patty McGee: So just a final question for you, then: We make these shifts. What are the outcomes for all learners?

Dr. Nancy Young: I suggest that it would lead to our children moving forward with their skills more quickly and also more happily. Nobody wants to be failing and nobody wants to be held back if they're ready for more. So the social emotional is really a part of it. And then we would have children going to middle school and high school who—again, we’re going to differentiate—who are ready for more, and then they can really find their way and be supported in what they need. I think it's just a better approach. And then ultimately, when our children leave school, they are more prepared. In trying to teach everybody the same way, we're diluting, and I don't think it serves our children and it doesn't serve our teachers. But that's really hard, to have a big classroom with such a wide range of needs. I understand that. I suggest it's going to cause all sorts of wonderful things to happen.

Patty McGee: Talk about student-centered teaching. That's just the epitome. Well, thanks for joining us today.

Dr. Nancy Young: You're welcome. Nice to chat with you, Patty.

Kevin Carlson: Thank you, Dr. Nancy Young. Thank you, Patty McGee. And thank you for listening to Teachers Talk Shop.

As mentioned at the start of the show, Nancy has coauthored a new book with Jan Hasbrouck called Climbing the Ladder of Reading and Writing: Meeting the Needs of All Learners. Tens of thousands of teachers have already used the Ladder of Reading and Writing infographic as a tool for focusing instruction and addressing the needs of all readers and writers. This book is your guided tour. It will help you connect the Science of Reading to your teaching, increase your understanding of each student's needs, streamline planning and instruction, and differentiate instruction with confidence. The book will be available in January 2024 and you can preorder it right now. Visit Benchmark education dot com, select the Professional Learning tab in the upper right, and click on PD Essentials. When you scroll down, you'll see it: Climbing the Ladder of Reading and Writing by Nancy Young and Jan Hasbrouck.

Throughout this season, we talk with leading literacy experts to explore the current understandings and nuances of teaching and learning literacy. Our aim is to present a 360-degree view of literacy that positions us to address the needs of all students in today's classrooms.

Thanks for listening. For Benchmark Education, I'm Kevin Carlson.