Recognizing the Gift: Identifying Gifted English Learners

by Marcy Voss

Recognizing the Gift

“Juan is a newcomer from Honduras. I do not speak his language.  How can I tell if he is gifted?” the teacher asked, almost in exasperation.  

Sometimes it is hard to tell whether a student is gifted, even if he or she speaks the native language. Identifying a non-native speaker as gifted can be even harder, but it’s not impossible. Teachers just need to do two things:  

  1. Observe students with the behaviors of gifted English learners in mind
  2. Create the classroom environment where these behaviors can be displayed

To carry this out effectively, teachers need to begin to think like detectives. A detective uncovers evidence and searches for clues to make determinations and discoveries.

Search for Clues
A teacher must uncover evidence and search for clues to identify gifted English learners. The best type of clues that teachers can look for to help make this determination are student characteristics. In general, gifted students learn quickly and easily, have a good memory, are inquisitive, and have complex thinking and problem-solving abilities, a heightened sense of justice, a wide variety of often intense interests, and a keen sense of humor. Research suggests that gifted English learners have similar characteristics but may display them differently within the cultural context of learning a second-language.

Characteristics Related to Language:

  • Above-average growth in English language proficiency  
    • Gifted English learners rapidly acquire English language skills once exposed to the language and given an opportunity to use it expressively.
  • Ability to code switch easily
    • Gifted English learners can think easily in both languages and switch back and forth for emphasis. Researchers argue that translanguaging should be considered as a potential intellectual advantage.
  • High level of accuracy in interpreting and translating for peers and adults
    • Gifted English learners may take on the role of translator for other students in the classroom and for their families at home.

Characteristics Related to Learning:

  • Advanced reading ability
    • Gifted English learners have the ability to read above grade level, either in English or their native language, depending upon age and experience.
  • Creativity and problem-solving ability
    • A gifted English learner can use stores of knowledge to solve problems and generalize learning to other areas to show relationships among apparently unrelated ideas. Their creativity may extend to the arts or be exhibited primarily in group collaboration, since precociousness and individualism can be seen as disrespectful in some cultures.
  • At or above grade level in math
    • Since math is highly symbolic, even gifted English learners who are at the beginning levels of English proficiency can sometimes significantly outperform their peers in math.

Characteristics Related to Culture and Social Behavior:

  • Navigates appropriate behaviors successfully within both cultures
    • A gifted English learner understands behaviors expected in both the heritage and the new culture and navigates appropriate behaviors successfully within both cultures.
  • Social maturity
    • A gifted English learner demonstrates a global sense of community and respect for cultural differences.
  • Strong sense of pride of his/her own culture
    • Gifted English learners respect traditional cultural and linguistic patterns and value oral tradition and history of the native culture.

Set the Stage for Observation
Once the teacher knows what characteristics to look for, he or she needs to create the classroom environment that allows students to exhibit these behaviors. This requires that curriculum and instruction focus on the higher levels of thinking.  If students are only expected to remember and understand information, teachers will never see the creative thinking or problem-solving ability of English learners. This also means that teachers will need to maximize an English learner’s ability to express knowledge of content while minimizing their need to rely on English to express it. Linguistic accommodations and scaffolding, such as sentence stems, word walls, glossaries, native language support, graphic organizers, adapted text, etc., will need to be a regular part of instruction.

Students must also be given opportunities to speak and interact.  If students are not expected to talk to one another, it is hard to observe students translating for others or translanguaging.  Teachers will need to incorporate opportunities for structured conversations and employ strategies such as QSSSA, Turn and Talk, and Think, Pair, Share, on a regular basis.

If culture is never addressed in the lesson, teachers cannot observe pride in culture. Teachers should make sure students know that different cultures are appreciated and valued. This can be done by making culture a part of classroom discussion. Using multicultural literature by authors of a variety of backgrounds is another way to introduce culture into the curriculum.  

Wrapping Up the Case
After the teacher has observed students exhibiting these characteristics consistently over time, the next step is to refer them for formal gifted and talented identification to “wrap up the case.”  However, when this happens, a teacher’s job is not finished. Teachers must continue to offer instruction that addresses the needs of the gifted English learner by maintaining the classroom environment that was established to observe the gifted behaviors. When gifted English learners are supported in this way, they will be able to reach their potential and become the gift realized.


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