Advanced Curriculum by Vanderbilt University

Challenging Thematic and Crosscurricular ELA Lessons for Gifted and Advanced Learners

The advanced curriculum units designed by Vanderbilt University's Programs for Talented Youth support students' acquisition of textual and media analysis skills, higher level thinking abilities, and understanding of English language arts and other disciplines in grades 2–8. Students are tasked with comprehending primary source documents, poetry, prose, nonfiction texts, videos, and other media; evaluating arguments; utilizing thinking and communication skills; and connecting conceptual generalizations from crosscurricular themes.

Unit Features

The content of each unit is connected by an overarching theme and a set of concept generalizations to engage students' critical thinking and help them see the relationships between different texts, media, and perspectives as they relate to key generalizations. Each unit features lessons that include:

  • comprehensive teacher's instructions,

  • possible topic-based discussion questions and sample answers,

  • reproducible student handouts,

  • accelerated content,

  • engaging activities, and

  • differentiated task and assessment options.

Each unit also includes a pre- and postassessment, task rubrics, and analysis models to help students analyze a variety of media and develop their expertise. Guides for the analysis models (e.g., Literary Analysis Wheel, Visual Analysis Wheel, etc.) are included at the end of each unit. The guides feature teacher instructions, handouts, and example lessons/activities for each analysis model.

Each lesson includes a list of needed materials. Some of the listed materials are included in the unit or are optional, and many of the selected texts, visuals, or videos are readily available online. Several units feature selected novel studies that may require class sets of books.

View a sample lesson here.

Watch a webinar about the units here.

Research Base and Standards Connections

The Integrated Curriculum Model (ICM; VanTassel-Baska, 1986) is the conceptual framework used for the units' design. Components of the framework are embedded in each lesson: accelerated content, advanced processes of the discipline (e.g., literary analysis), and conceptual understandings. For example, the accelerated content includes English language arts (ELA) standards, aligned to the Common Core State Standards. The CCSS selected for each unit are above the grade level(s) for which the unit was intended. The accelerated content is necessary so that gifted students have the opportunity to gain new ELA content knowledge at a pace and level that are appropriate for their learning needs.

Besides the use of an evidence-supported conceptual framework (ICM), the models used in the unit are vetted by content experts and designed to develop expertise in ELA. The units have been piloted in real-life classrooms and yielded significant pre-/post-results.

How to Use the Units

The units are ideal for gifted classrooms, gifted pull-out groups, or pre-AP and honors courses. Experienced teachers of general classrooms may use the units with their gifted and high-achieving students as part of a deliberate differentiated approach that includes in-class flexible groupings based on student needs. Depending on students' ability levels, differentiated tasks also make these units accessible in general classrooms at or above the grade level(s) for which they were intended.

Generally, each unit includes 12 lessons. Most lessons can be taught within 90–120 minutes, though some lessons may take longer. The length of the lesson also depends upon how many models and activities are employed, how interested students are in a particular issue or text, and how many times a text needs to be read or analyzed for students to gain understanding. Each unit can generally be taught within approximately 40 hours of instruction time.

About the Units

Grades 2–4

Interactions in Ecology and Literature (grades 2–3) integrates ecology with the concept of interactions and the reading of fictional and informational texts. Students will research questions such as "Should animals be kept in zoos?" and "Should humans intervene to control overpopulation of species?" They will examine relationships among living things and the environment as well as relationships between literary elements in texts.
View the standards alignment chart for this unit here.
Transformations in Stories and Arguments (grades 2–4) explores essential questions, such as "How does the development of a character build the reader's understanding? How do the actions of others change the world? How do words and images impact our thinking?" Through the lens of transformation, students will examine narrative and persuasive elements essential to the analysis of short stories, advertisements, visual art, scientific argumentation, and their own writing. Students will discover transformations in themselves and their written work as they craft and revise narrative and persuasive pieces, realizing their own voice in the process.
View the standards alignment chart for this unit here.

Grades 4–6

Space, Structure, and Story (grades 4–6) integrates Earth and space science with science fiction and nonfiction texts, poetry, and art. Students explore advanced science and ELA content through the lens of structure—its parts, purpose, and function. Mobius strips, the hero's journey, dystopian fiction, black holes, Einstein's relativity, stars, and moons are just a few of the captivating in-depth topics explored.
View the standards alignment chart for this unit here.
Encounters With Archetypes (grades 4–5) integrates the study of archetypes with the concept of encounters. Through the lens of encounter, students will examine the patterns, symbols, and motifs associated with common archetypes by analyzing fictional and informational texts, speeches, and visual media. Students will follow various archetype encounters with conflicts and challenges to explore questions such as “How do archetypes reflect the human experience?” and “How do archetypes reveal human strengths and weaknesses?"
View the standards alignment chart for this unit here.

Grades 6–8

Finding Freedom (grades 6–8) invites students to follow America's journey toward finding freedom by examining multiple perspectives, conflicts, ideas, and challenges through seminal historical texts. The unit features close readings of some of the most famous American political speeches from notable Americans, presidents, and minority voices. To sharpen historical thinking, students analyze arguments for freedom, examine dissenting perspectives, and reason through multiple viewpoints of historical issues through debates and interactive activities. To develop advanced literacy skills, students evaluate effective rhetorical appeals, claims, supporting evidence, and techniques that advance arguments.
View the standards alignment chart for this unit here.
Perspectives of Power (grades 6–8) explores the nature of power in literature, historical documents, poetry, and art. Texts illuminate content extensions that interest many high-ability students including bystander effect, social class structure, game theory, the use and abuse of technology, cultural conflict, the butterfly effect, women's suffrage, and surrealism as each relates to power.
View the standards alignment chart for this unit here.
In I, Me, You, We: Individuality Versus Conformity (grades 6–8), students explore essential questions such as “How does our environment shape our identity? What are the consequences of conforming to a group? When does social conformity go too far?” The unit guides students to examine the fine line of individuality versus conformity through the related concepts of belongingness, community, civil disobedience, questioning the status quo, and self-reliance by engaging in creative activities, Socratic seminars, literary analyses, and debates.
View the standards alignment chart for this unit here.
In the Mind's Eye: Truth Versus Perception (grades 6–8) invites students on a philosophical exploration of the themes of truth and perception. The unit applies concepts from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to guide students to discover how reality is presented and interpreted in fiction, nonfiction, art, and media. Students engage in activities such as Socratic seminars, literary analyses, skits, and art projects, and creative writing to understand differing perceptions of reality.
View the standards alignment chart for this unit here.