Depth and Complexity Icons: Where Book Clubs Meet Advanced Learning

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Good teaching is good teaching.

-unknown source

Early on in my career, I had a principal that really inspired me to be the best teacher I could be. When we used to chat about educational philosophies and teaching practices, she would always end the conversation by saying, “Good teaching is simply good teaching.” What she meant by this was that although there are various strategies specifically designed for certain populations, most if not all of those strategies are beneficial to ALL students. The most important step to take as an educator is to differentiate your instruction using all of these various models and modalities to best meet the needs of your students.

That brings me to this blog post…although depth and complexity icons were created to target advanced learners, I wholeheartedly believe they benefit all students. This month, I am focusing on advanced learning, but just as my first principal used to say, “Good teaching is good teaching.”

Therefore, today we are going to chat about a teaching strategy that is generally used for gifted learners but can actually benefit all students. That strategy is using Depth and Complexity Icons, specifically, using those icons to help with Book Club discussions. In this post, we will cover…

  • General Information About the Icons
  • Ways to Incorporate the Icons in Student-Run Book Clubs

About the Icons

Depth and Complexity Icons are meant to help students organize their thinking while encouraging them to critically think about the topic at hand. Originally, there were 11 icons. Let’s go over the basics of these first 11 icons:

Big Idea

Use this icon for daily objectives, writing prompts, the main idea of a text, and unit questions. This can be used for any subject area and “big picture” concepts.


Use this icon to help support the main idea of a text. This can be used for supporting details and evidence. It is ideal for paragraph writing but can be used for almost any subject. I especially like to use it for language arts, social studies, and science.

Language of the Discipline

Use this icon to help introduce vocabulary in any subject. It can also be used in vocabulary lessons that target specific skills, such as context clues.

Unanswered Questions

Use this icon for research and reading. I always teach my students that strong readers ask questions. This is an icon we use very regularly during read-alouds and Reading Workshop. It can also be used as a way to check for understanding after a lesson in any subject. Perhaps students can ask a question on their exit ticket in math should any questions arise after the lesson.

Multiple Perspectives

Use this icon to help look at different points of view in literature or social studies. I feel this icon is best suited for the humanities, however, it can also be used to help teach social skills. If students get into an argument on the playground, for instance, use this icon to help teach them how to see the other child’s point of view. I have seen teachers use depth and complexity icons as a way for students to reflect on their behavior. This icon in particular would be very useful for that.


Use this icon to look at repeating ideas or concepts. I use this icon most often in math and social studies. In math, we look at examples of a new skill or math term and look for patterns in order to define that term or practice that new skill. In social studies, we look for patterns within societies, amongst historical figures, in different time periods, and so on. This icon can also be used in literature, especially when comparing texts by the same author or in the same genre.

Change Over Time

Use this icon to evaluate how people and places change over time. This icon is ideal for literature, social studies, and science. You could evaluate how a character developed in a book, how a country changed over time, or how animals adapted to their environments. The possibilities are endless.


Use this icon when judging the morality of a person’s decisions or actions. It is ideal for the humanities, specifically literature and social sciences. This can also be used to support SEL or student behavior reflections.


Use this icon for virtually any subject. It can be helpful when learning grammar, new math skills, or when studying any society whether fictional or from a time period in history. It is used to categorize rules and laws.


Use this icon when looking at patterns over a longer period of time, such as when studying time periods in history or when analyzing scientific data. This could also be used in math, especially in when learning about statistics.

Across the Disciplines

Use this icon when referencing multiple subject areas. This is perfect for when you are reading a nonfiction text that is related to either science or social studies. It can also be used when acquiring background knowledge before reading a book. Perhaps the class is learning about a specific time period in history before reading a historical fiction novel. This icon would be perfect! It is also ideal for project-based learning activities (PBL). If you are unfamiliar with PBL, make sure to check out my next blog post. I will post in a couple of weeks.

Using the Icons in Student-Run Book Clubs

First, let me talk a little about book clubs. For those of you who know me, you know that I absolutely love Reading Workshop and book clubs! These strategies are designed to instill a love of reading. It is a great way to support reading instruction, provide differentiated activities, and build classroom community. By allowing students to choose their own books, you are giving them ownership over their own learning. You will notice that over time, students will actually recommend books to each other and encourage each other to read. I often hear kids discussing book recommendations as they go out to recess or lunch. It is truly incredible!

Although I will not be going over the basics of Reading Workshop or book clubs in this post, I have written several posts in the past. I have also recorded several podcast episodes about these topics, as well.

If you are new to Reading Workshop, check out these blog posts:
5 Goals of Reading Workshop: Is it Effective?
Launch Reading Workshop in 5 Easy Steps
An Introduction to Book Clubs for Elementary Students
Facilitating Book Club Discussions in 3 Easy Steps

I would recommend teaching each icon to the class as a whole before having book clubs use them in their own discussions. I would then go back and forth before whole group lessons and book club discussions. Let me explain…

I would start by introducing the Big Idea icon to the class. For upper grade students, I would probably introduce the Details icon at the same time. I would use a mentor text to model both of these icons, focusing on using the icons to help me write a paragraph response to a writing prompt. I would teach the students how to use a Thinking Map or similar graphic organizer to take notes while reading. In the next lesson, I would ask book clubs to practice using the same icons that I had previously modeled. As a group, they would read together and take notes using the same graphic organizer that we used in our whole group lesson. While they are working in groups, I would walk around, observing their discussions, posing questions, and offering support if needed.

During the next lesson, I would go back to teaching whole group. This time, I would either teach one or two new icons or re-teach the previous icons if needed. Use your observations to guide your instruction! If all but one group mastered the last two icons, perhaps you could just meet with that book club to re-teach. The choice is yours!

Eventually, once all of the icons have been taught and mastered, I would teach students how to write their own writing prompts. This would be a great time to sneak in a vocabulary lesson. I always teach students to use BOTH academic and content-specific vocabulary in their writing prompts. You could even have them write a question and then change it to add in more vocabulary. I would even have them highlight the different types of vocabulary in their revised questions. In the example below, I wrote the academic vocab in green and the content-specific vocab in pink.

In this example, the students came up with a question (left column) and then improved it by adding vocabulary (right column).

Change This…To That…
How has a character changed in the story?Analyze how a character has developed over the course of a dystopian text.

Developing questions while using vocabulary could be a completely separate blog post, so we cannot cover everything today. However, I did want to introduce you to this idea since it is perfect for book clubs once the Depth and Complexity Icons have been taught. Should you have questions about incorporating vocabulary instruction in book clubs or want to dive deeper into teaching students how to develop their own questions, feel free to email me at melody@learning-n-progress.com. I would be happy to help!

Although Depth and Complexity Icons are useful to all subjects, they can really be helpful when facilitating book club discussions. They help students organize their thinking and encourage them to critically think about a text.

To help you get started, I created a FREE resource that shares some possible book club questions that incorporate the Depth and Complexity Icons. They are listed in the order that I would teach them. Make sure to download your freebie!

Make sure to check out my next blog post. It will cover another teaching strategy that is perfect for advanced learners: PBL. Project-based learning is a great way to incorporate multiple subjects, apply skills to an engaging project, and encourage creativity. Remember…although these activities are great for your gifted students, good teaching is good teaching. These strategies are beneficial to ALL students!

Other Blog Posts that Specifically Target Your Advanced Learners

Th 5 Ws of Differentiated InstructionDive-into what differentiated instruction looks like in an elementary school classroom.
Upper-Grade Math Centers: To Rotate or Not to Rotate?Learn how to make small group learning manageable in your upper-grade math classroom. Your advanced kids will love you for it!
Flip It: How Can a Flipped Classroom Help Improve Student Engagement?Learn how to flip your classroom to help you meet the needs of your advanced learners while supporting the kids who need you the most.

Published by Learning N Progress

I am an elementary teacher who specializes in differentiated instruction and intervention. I have taught grades K-6, including intervention and gifted students. I am here to help other educators make differentiated instruction easy to manage and effective in reaching EVERY student in their classes.

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