Gifted English Language Learners


Who are Gifted English Language Learners and are we fulfilling their educational needs? There is often a stereotypical definition of gifted students, but does this view include gifted learners at risk; gifted students of poverty; bilingual and immigrant gifted learners? 

It is critical to the success of these students that we properly identify them and meet their needs without the bias of culture, limited English proficiency and socioeconomic background.

Who is an English Language Learner? The short answer, according to the U.S. Department of Education, is that any student whose home language is not English and whose English language proficiency is considered limited. The Bilingual Education Act defines an English Language Learner or Limited English Proficient student as fitting any of the following criteria: Not born in the United States and whose heritage language is not English; of American Indian or Alaskan heritage and who comes from an environment where the dominant language is not English; a migratory person whose heritage language is not English; or a person who has difficulty speaking, reading, writing, or understanding English, which denies him/ her the opportunity to learn effectively in classes where instruction is in English.

Gifted Students at Risk

Every year, over 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States alone. That’s a student every 26 seconds — or 7,000 a day (Miller, Tony, 2015). About 25 percent of high school freshmen fail to graduate from high school on time. (Silver, David, Marisa Saunders, and Estela Zarate, 2015). Almost 2,000 high schools across the U.S. graduate less than 60 percent of their students (Balfanz, Robert, and Nettie Legters, 2004). In the U.S., high school dropouts commit about 75 percent of crimes (Smiley, Travis, 2013). E. Robertson’s 1991 article in Equity and Excellence on “Neglected Dropouts: The Gifted and Talented” said 18 to 25 percent of gifted and talented students drop out. This number is questionable at best, yet it is not surprising that gifted students are indeed a part of the dropout rate in the United States.

Why? Studies have shown evidence of recurring frustration, irritability, anxiety, tedium and social isolation, particularly with students whose IQ’s are greater than 160. They have difficulty making friends, experience de-motivation, low self-esteem and an emotional awareness beyond their ability to control. This may lead to loneliness, phobias, interpersonal problems and the fear of failure and perfectionism. This can ultimately lead to our educators’ fear of gifted students’ intentional underachievement for social acceptance. Gifted English language learners have joined the procession of the population of students dropping out of school.

Insights into Gifted and Talented English Language Learners

Many schools lack the ability to identify gifted English language learners adequately. Instruments tend to follow a middle-class mainstream basis of measurement leading to systematic-bias. Our teachers and appraisers may lack cultural awareness due to inadequate training, and in many cases, rely on the administration of a single test. We find our minority language learners left out of the identification process. An initial screening of a standardized measure may not reflect the cultural and linguistic characteristics of diverse populations. Self- assessment can be biased by what students’ peers, teachers and parents think of them.

Strategies of an Identification Process

Nationally, 32 states, including Arizona, mandate gifted education, according to the National Association for Gifted Children. Only four fully fund gifted programs, (2014-15 State of the States in Gifted Education, Policy and Practice Data). Few, if any, require that English language learners be tested. The identification process varies nationally because policies and procedures emerge from state and local levels. The common thread remains in the standardized tests. Authentic assessment information is critical to identification. These may include:

  • Collecting background data and work samples
  • Portfolio evaluations
  • Determining the language proficiency
  • Documenting the cultural and socioeconomic background
  • Home environment and parents’ educational level
  • Parent school involvement
  • Work samples from home and school to assess creativity
  • Observation of the student’s language and social behaviors
  • Use of the gifted and talented English language behavioral profile\
  • Examination of cultural and linguistic behaviors
  • The prevalence of cultural canons
  • Looking for inconsistencies among the standardized testing instruments.

Information gleaned through school, culture and language-based domains is a highly recommended addition to the information needed for identification.

Consider the answers to the following questions: Does the student:

  • Have the ability to read in his/her native language two grade levels above their current grade level?
  • Show high proficiency in mathematics?
  • Demonstrate advance levels of creativity in the areas of originality, fluency, flexibility and elaboration?
  • Show leadership in diverse settings, such as school, home, clubs and community?
  • Balance behavior anticipated in both heritage and new culture?
  • Demonstrate a respect for cultural differences and have a sense of a global community?
  • Show willingness to share his/her heritage culture?
  • Take honor in his/her culture and ethnicity?
  • Demonstrate proficiency levels higher than non-gifted students who are also English language learners?
  • Utilize code switching?
  • Want to teach classmates words from his/her heritage culture?
  • Demonstrate a willingness to translate for others?
  • Learn several languages at an advanced rate?
  • Have an understanding of humor related to cultural differences?

In many cases English language learners are now in an environment dissimilar to most of their experiences. There remains a disconnection between their home and their newfound life outside the home. The school curriculum is seemingly irrelevant to their lifestyle, leading to a sense of alienation. They often feel inept due to the language barrier.

What can your district/school do?

Primarily, be united in your commitment to an ongoing revamping of gifted education that includes and embraces the needs of English language learners. Establish a strong collaborative effort across programs that invite and support different points of view. Broaden your view of giftedness and focus on an identification process that includes, but is not limited to, standardized and authentic assessment, teacher recommendations, and the consideration of socioeconomic background, language and culture. Put together an action plan with flexibility and realistic timelines that includes a clear and logical plan of inclusive gifted education. Maintain a strong parent program with consistent involvement and understand that your gifted English language learners may come from poverty backgrounds. Be willing to build a carefully manicured program with strength, positive results and longevity.

Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners

Provide students with an array of visual, auditory and tactile learning. This will assist them to become empowered in the learning process. Materials can be designed to meet the students’ learning styles, while complementing their cultural experiences. The content should be rich and engaging and relevant to their life experiences.

“Most people, approximately 65 percent, are visual learners who have something like a little camera that captures information and shines it up on a mental screen” (Kranzler, 1999). “Ninety percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual” (Gubern (2010). Many gifted English language learners are strong visual spatial learners. They have hypersensitive nervous systems that absorb an abundance of sensory stimulation. “To varying degrees, these children experience extreme sensitivity to physical stimuli, particularly sound, light and touch (Blackburn & Erickson, 1986). “Our eyes can register 36,000 visual messages per hour” (Jensen, 1996). Emphasizing visual literacy — the ability to encode, or create a visual language, and the ability to decode, or understand the visual language — can be done using graphic organizers, charts, graphs and figures.

 When using DVD/video, be sure closed captioning is on and that the student has the remote, enabling them to pause and discuss. With group projects and cooperative learning, consider partnering English learners with strong English speakers. Encourage participation and use the Think/Pair/Share method. As the student develops the language, use language-based games, such as Bingo and Pictionary. Picture glossaries can translate into a word wall, such as posting new vocabulary words on a wall organized in a group fashion.


Although the years have provided us with leaps and bounds of experience, we remain deep in the exploratory process of identifying and meeting the needs of gifted English languages learners. The one issue we can all agree on is that there is no cookie-cutter process. As new research becomes available, we root our strategies in place often finding they must be altered the following year. Administrators, teachers, parents and advocacy groups are all a vital component of forward momentum.

There are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. According to the Global Languages Initiative at Northwestern University research on who is proficient in at least two languages: Europeans 56 percent, Canadians 35 percent, 66 percent of the world’s population, and only 17 percent of Americans. Multilingualism should never be an obstacle in education. It is an asset to learning that opens many doors in the lifelong learning process. I conclude with the words of Psycholinguist Frank Smith, “One language sets you in a corridor for life, two languages open every door along the way.”

Timothy Gangwer is the CEO and Professional Development Director of the Visual Teaching Alliance for the Gifted and Talented ( A former teacher and University Supervisor at the University of Texas, Austin, he is the author of Visual Impact, Visual Teaching: Using Images to Strengthen Learning, along with 9 other books. He is the Former Visual Literacy Consultant to the

Ministry of Education, Paris, France, Ministry of Education, Toranomon, Japan, Mediterranean Association of International Schools, Casablanca, Morocco and the Association of International Schools in Africa, Abidjan, Ivory Coast.


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