Jacob’s Ladder is a reading comprehension program for gifted students. Students progress through an inquiry process based on targeted reading passages from varied sources and different places around the world that emphasise the progressive, ongoing development of higher-order thinking skills that are relevant across the curriculum. This field-tested method of moving from basic understanding to critical analysis of text was developed by the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary.
Tasks are organised into skill ladders with each ladder focused on a different skill. Students “climb” each ladder by answering lower-level questions before moving to higher-level questions (or rungs) at the top of each ladder. Each ladder stands alone and focuses on a separate critical thinking component in reading.
Each book in the standard Jacob’s Ladder Gifted Reading Comprehension Program comprehensively engages with the Language, Literature and Literacy strands of the Australian Curriculum: English, as well as touching upon aspects of Humanities and Social Sciences, Mathematics and Science instruction in nonfiction passages across the series.
The three books in the new Nonfiction series feature varied reading selections from around the world, across the subjects of Maths, Science, Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Arts. Reading selections include historical speeches, essays, persuasive articles and many other forms.
Through completing the activities in Jacob’s Ladder students will learn to comprehend and analyse any reading passage, and demonstrate improvement in reading comprehension and critical thinking skills, as well as an increased interest in reading.
The Australian Curriculum provides an understandable and coherent framework for educating all Australian children. It provides guidelines about what students throughout the country are expected to know and be able to do as a result of their schooling. The major advantage of such standards is that they are consistent for all students no matter where they live. In an age of globalisation, and when some students are highly mobile and move from one state to another, guidelines such as these are essential.
Each subject area in the Australian Curriculum includes year-level specific achievement standards, which indicate what knowledge, understanding and skills a student should possess by a specific point in their education. These achievement standards not only provide a reference point for assessment and reporting for that learning area, but also help demonstrate whether or not a student is ready to move onto the next level of their schooling. By observing these achievement standards across Foundation to Year 10, teachers are shown a framework of the student’s growth and development in the specific learning areas.
The Australian Curriculum (ACARA, 2015) states that,
“The English curriculum is built around the three interrelated strands of Language, Literature and Literacy. Teaching and learning programs should balance and integrate all three strands. Together the three strands focus on developing students’ knowledge, understanding and skills in listening, reading, viewing, speaking, writing and creating.”
The Jacob’s Ladder Gifted Reading Comprehension Program is a supplemental reading program for gifted and advanced students that implements targeted readings from short stories, poetry, nonfiction and other sources to engage students in an inquiry process that moves from lower-order to higher-order thinking skills, all the while reinforcing elements of the Language, Literature and Literacy strands of the Australian Curriculum: English.
Because Jacob’s Ladder is a reading comprehension program aimed at gifted and advanced students, this means that in many cases instruction goes beyond the year levels stipulated on each book and touches broadly upon standards and content descriptions that may only be introduced in later years. In practice this may mean that a student undertaking Jacob’s Ladder instruction will be, in some specific instances, a year or two ahead in certain specific elements covered in the Australian Curriculum. Jacob’s Ladder exemplifies a model curriculum that addresses English standards and curricular goals through several approaches including advanced readings, the use of higher-level skills and product demands that address the emphases for argument and persuasion directly, and a focus on concept/theme development.
Designed to enhance reading comprehension and critical thinking, tasks are organised into six skill ladders (A–F) in the Early Primary and Secondary levels, and four (A–D) in the Primary levels of the program. The “rungs” on the first four ladders remain the same throughout the program, while the Early Primary and Secondary ladders share the same rungs with the exception of Ladder F. Each ladder focuses on a different skill. Students “climb” each ladder by answering lower-level questions before moving to higher-level questions or rungs at the top of each ladder. Each ladder stands alone and focuses on a separate critical thinking component in reading.
These critical thinking components are instrumental to development as a reader and thus recur across different curricula, including the Australian Curriculum: English. Additionally, Jacob’s Ladder involves students applying what the Curriculum defines as receptive modes (reading, listening and viewing) to expressing their answers throughout the program in productive modes (speaking, writing and creating). Responses are more than simple yes/no or multiple-choice answers, but rather more fleshed-out responses demonstrating higher-order thinking and detailed analysis.
Jacob’s Ladder provides pathways to advance the learning of gifted learners. Some curricula, including the Australian Curriculum, do address higher-level skills and concepts that should receive focus throughout the years of schooling such as a major emphasis on the skills of argument in English. However, there are also more discrete skills that may be clustered across year levels and compressed around higher-level skills and concepts for more efficient mastery by the gifted. The Jacob’s Ladder series moves students from lower-order comprehension skills in reading to higher-order critical reading and thinking skills within the same set of activities, thus advancing their higher-level learning in verbal areas.
Standards, such as the English strand in the Australian Curriculum, lend themselves to differentiated interpretation by demonstrating what a typical learner might be able to do at a given stage of development versus what a gifted learner might be able to do. The differentiated examples in Jacob’s Ladder show greater complexity and creativity, using a more advanced base. In English, typical learners might learn the literary elements and practise their application across years F–9, while gifted learners show mastery of the relationship of the parts of literary elements through the carefully constructed ladders that explore these elements in an integrated way at all levels with increasingly complex and creative questions and activities.
Because English standards can be grouped together in application, much of the project work in Jacob’s Ladder connects to curricula and shows how multiple standards can be addressed across content areas. For example, research projects are designed to address research in English by delineating a product demand for research on an issue, beginning by asking researchable questions and using multiple sources to answer them and then representing the findings in tables, graphs and other visual displays that are explained in the text and presented to an audience with implications for a plan of action. This approach to interdisciplinary work across maths, science and English is a central part of the Jacob’s Ladder program at the Early Primary and Primary levels, with developmentally appropriate connections. Regular connections to humanities and social sciences, and the arts, are embedded at all levels of the program as appropriate to selected readings.