Unwrap the gift

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
An element of surprise can bring the able alive, writes Valerie Coultas

Good teachers always look for the potential in their pupils. Having taught in many inner-city comprehensives, I am constantly excited by pupils'

imagination and ability to succeed academically, despite the social disadvantages they face.

But some children stand out. Sometimes in a piece of writing a pupil uses language, or illustrates their work inventively. Or, in an oral assignment, a pupil delivers a contribution that shows assurance and perceptiveness, or just entertains the class in a stunning way. Sometimes a question is asked or answered with unusual precision. Sometimes the teacher is corrected - and the pupil is right. Then there's the mature pupil who can lead and organise the group successfully.

My subject is English, but, as the gifted and talented co-ordinator, I know from discussions with colleagues that equally distinctive features mark out the more able in subjects less rooted in the written word.

But how do you engage these more able students (defined as being among the top 10 per cent in the school)? This depends on the pupil's character, interests and learning style. Don't assume that the pupil will be well behaved. Conformity is not an intrinsic feature of intelligence. If you plan lessons that interest all the pupils, you'll address the needs of the more able. The following tips should help: Plan your questions Make sure you have open and closed questions. Ask howwhy questions to engage the more able and eitheror questions to involve everyone. Encourage pupil discussion in lessons: at the beginning to brainstorm, in the middle to work in pairs or groups, at the end to question each other. This gives them more control over their learning.

Build in opportunities for pupil presentations to the whole class. Always try to spark creative thinking, for example by asking "what if"?

Encourage independence through research and extended writing projects Small, focused research projects allow pupils to discover things and create exercises for teaching them to others. They can be linked to extended writing, such as creating an anthology of poems, a series of diary entries for a character, the production of a magazine, play or novel writing, and media or language topics.

Allow pupils to evaluate their learning If the school has a system of self-assessment, use it. If the gifted and talented co-ordinator has a booklet for self-evaluation, ensure your members fill it in regularly. If nothing exists, invent your own. I regularly use an oral evaluation record to allow pupils to reflect on pair or group discussions, talks, games, readings, role play and drama. This encourages them to value the sessions and understand how they are linked to learning. More able students will enjoy the opportunity to reflect on their learning and express opinions.

Able students need clear structures and routines, but they also need to be surprised. Use a variety of techniques, and plan lessons in which the pupils work collaboratively at some point. Then they will surprise you.

Valerie Coultas is the gifted and talented co-ordinator at a secondary school in London

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