Author - Timothy Gangwer, M.A.
CEO & Professional Development Specialist,
Visual Teaching Alliance
April 14, 2016
Gifted English Language Learners
Who are 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 can 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% 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% of their students
(Balfanz, Robert, and Nettie Legters, 2004).
In the U.S., high school dropouts commit about 75% of crimes (Smiley, Travis, 2013).
E. Robertson's 1991 article in Equity and Excellence on "Neglected Dropouts: The Gifted
and Talented" said 18-25% of GT 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 educator’s 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.
I was riding in a cab in Dallas when the driver asked me my profession. After further
conversation, he informed me that he was considered gifted in his homeland
of Mexico. He and his family relocated in Texas when he was in middle school. By the
time he reached high school, he was frustrated by his lack of progress and lack
of placement into an appropriate program. He felt he would be better off by joining the
informal learning strategies of society and became a part of our dropout statistics.
Granted, there are many missing variables and unanswered questions in his story. Still, as
I watched him drive away I wondered what could have made the difference in his
academia. I knew there was no “one” specific answer, but I felt that with enough poking
and prodding I might be able to uncover enough information to challenge my fellow
educators and myself to continue the important ongoing quest for change.
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.
There is a variety of nonverbal tests available, including: Naglieri Nonverbal
Abilities Test (NNAT); Comprehensive Test of Nonverbal Intelligence (CTONI);
Universal Nonverbal Intelligence Test (UNIT); Test of Nonverbal Intelligence,
Third Edition (TONI-3); Leiter R (Roid & Miller, 1997) and; The nonverbal
subtest of the CogAT.
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 and; 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
• balance behavior anticipated in both heritage and new culture?
• demonstrate a respect for cultural differences and have a sense of a global
• 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
“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). “90% 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 a 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.
Dual Language Programs
Dual language programs, which provide instruction in both English and a second
language, are beneficial for both English language learners and those fluent in
English. In 2000, United States Secretary of Education Richard Riley, called on
our nation to recognize the need for dual language programs, “In an international
economy, knowledge, and knowledge of language, is power.”
In 2007, English was not the first language for more than 731,000 children
attending Texas public schools (Scharrer, 2007). The Texas Education Agency
states that about a sixth of the almost 5 million students in public and charter
schools are classified as “limited English learners” (Solis, 2012). Of course these
programs can only be as effective as the number of educators available to teach
them. The common thread weaving through our English language learners, Gifted
English language learners and the dual language programs is its primary goal of
high academic achievement.
Although the years have provided us with leaps and bounds, 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 cookiecutter
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 - 56% of Europeans, 35% of Canadians, 66%
of the world’s population, and only 17% 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.”
Balfanz, R. & Legters, N., (2004). Locating the Dropout Crisis. Center for Social
Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University's School of Education.
Blackburn, A. C. & Erickson, D. B. (1986). Predictable Crises of the Gifted Student.
Journal of Counseling and Development, V9, pp552-5
Gubern, R. (2010). Metamorfosis de la lectura. Published by Editorial Anagrama.
Jensen, E., (1996). Brain-Based Learning. Turning Point Publishing, Del Mar,
Kranzler, J., (1999). Interview by M. Snell. http://www.readingrevolution.com/
Miller, T., (2015). Partnering for Education Reform. U.S. Department of Education.
Scharrer, G., (2007). Dual-language classes in Texas stir debate. Houston
Chronicle, Houston, TX.
Silver, D., Saunders, M., and Zarate, E. (2015). What Factors Predict High School
Graduation in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Attendance Counts. Los Angeles,
Smiley, T., (2013). Fact Sheet: Is the Dropout Problem Real? Tavis Smiley Reports, The
Smiley Group, Inc., PBS, Los Angeles, CA.
Solis, D., (2012). Dual Language Programs Growing in Dallas-area Schools, Across
State. The Dallas Morning News, Dallas, TX.