Who Are Gifted Multilingual Learners and How Do We Support Them?

by Marcy Voss

I noticed that Diego was the first student in the eighth-grade math class to finish the assignment. He was a quiet and respectful student who did not volunteer to speak in class because he had difficulty pronouncing academic math terms like “slope” and “y-intercept.” However, Diego willingly helped the student paired with him to correct mistakes and complete the math problems. As he was one of “my students” in my job as an English Learner Coach, I was to support Diego during class instruction to help him gain language proficiency and achieve academic success. Diego was in his first full year in US schools, having arrived at the end of the previous school year. I was told he was educated in his home country and had aspirations of becoming an engineer. This alerted me to the fact that he was motivated to learn. 

As I worked with Diego over the semester, it became clear that the assigned math work was beneath his ability, and he was capable of much more. He had been placed in a remedial math class instead of one of the more advanced classes because of his lack of English. However, the teacher recognized that he was “good in math.” After I talked with his teacher and advocated for him, she willingly provided individualized instruction to help him catch up so that he could take a more advanced math class the next year. Even with the more advanced math material, Diego had an intuitive understanding of mathematical functions and processes, could see relationships in concepts, and could grasp new concepts quickly—all characteristics of a student who is gifted in math. Yet no one had recognized this previously.

As I spent time in the classrooms, I noticed that gifted education was not on the radar of the teachers working with the language learners. They were great teachers and did a wonderful job of helping these students learn skills and academic language. Still, they were so focused on helping remediate and teach what was needed that they didn’t observe these students for gifted behaviors or teach in a way that would help them demonstrate their thinking talents. 

With a background in gifted education, I knew the importance of making sure that Diego’s gifted needs were met, so I talked to the school counselor about screening him for the gifted program. When I spoke with her, she told me about another young lady who had accelerated quickly in language learning and outperformed others on benchmark tests. However, I am not sure this girl would have been referred for the gifted program either had I not brought Diego to the counselor’s attention. That’s when I became passionate about helping teachers learn how to recognize and teach gifted multilingual students.

There is no one agreed-upon definition of a multilingual learner. However, we can combine the definitions of “Gifted Students” and ”English Learners” from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind, 2001) to provide a working definition of a gifted multilingual student:

[Note: The description of an English Learner is in bold; the description of a gifted student is in italics]. 

A gifted multilingual student is a student who is “age 3-21 and not born in the US or whose native language is a language other than English”, “who gives evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields”, and who need both:

  1. services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those high achievement capabilities”, and
  2. services to develop the language skills necessary to meet the challenging State academic standards, achieve in classrooms where the language of instruction is English, and participate fully in society.” 

Research suggests that gifted multilingual learners essentially display characteristics similar to those of English-speaking G/T students. They learn quickly, have the ability to see relationships and make connections, are inquisitive, can reason and solve problems, have good memories, are creative, and are motivated to learn (though not always what is taught in the classroom). What is different for these students is the emphasis on their gifts within the cultural context of learning a second language.

The Iowa Department of Education (2008) categorized Project GOTCHA’s (Galaxies of Thinking and Creative Heights of Achievement) characteristics of gifted multilingual learners according to learning (school), language, and culture:

School Based: 

  1. Is able to read in their native language two grade levels above their current grade 
  2. Shows high ability in mathematics 
  3. Is advanced in creative domains (fluency, elaboration, originality, and flexibility) 
  4. Is a leader in multiple settings (playground, home, clubs, etc.) 

Language Based:

  1. Demonstrates language proficiency levels that are above nongifted students who are also English Language Learners 
  2. Learns multiple languages at an accelerated pace 
  3. Shows the ability to code switch 
  4. Wants to teach other words from their heritage language 
  5. Is willing to translate for others 
  6. Has superior knowledge of phrases and heritage dialects along with the ability to translate meanings in English 
  7. Has a grasp on jokes related to cultural differences 

Culture Based: 

  1. Balances behaviors expected in both the heritage and the new culture 
  2. Is willing to share his/her heritage culture 
  3. Shows pride in his/her culture and ethnic background 
  4. Demonstrates a global sense of community and respect for cultural differences.

Having this list handy in the classroom to review occasionally will help teachers keep these characteristics at the forefront of their minds. So, as they notice students who learn the content quickly, acquire English rapidly, and understand the hidden rules of order of social behavior, they can make a note of this and refer these students for gifted screening.

Another way teachers can help support gifted multilingual students is by addressing their learning needs in the classroom. As the definition indicates, gifted multilingual students have two sets of needs. One need is to develop English language proficiency that enables them to participate successfully in the classroom and in society. This is where teachers of language learners excel. They have been trained to help with language acquisition and are good at it. 

However, gifted multilingual learners also need to develop their high-achievement capabilities. Teachers of language learners often lack this training or only have a cursory knowledge of it. So, one thing that teachers can do is to take the G/T trainings that their districts offer. Districts are typically very willing to include all who are interested in their gifted training. In fact, many will be really excited to have teachers of language learners attend, because those working in the field of gifted education are still learning how best to identify these students and need the help of those working in bilingual and ESL education to do this. 

Teachers can also seek the assistance of gifted specialists in the district to help them integrate the gifted strategies that they learn into classroom instruction. Research supports the idea of combining strategies that support language with strategies that support advanced learning. Teemant et al. (2016) found that when teachers used activities that promoted higher order thinking, their students made significant gains in both language arts achievement and English proficiency. They suggest that the implications of this study point to the value of increasing the level of cognitive challenge when teaching culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse students. 

Incorporating higher order thinking is not as tricky as it may seem. Sheltered instruction, by its very design of helping students learn to think about the content while developing languge, can easily be combined with gifted strategies that promote in-depth, complex thinking. For example:

  • Students can look at patterns in grammar within a mentor text.
  • The teacher might provide a graphic that shows butterfly migration and ask students to look for trends. 
  • A student can complete a Turn and Talk activity in math using a sentence stem such as “The rule used when multiplying integers with different signs is _______.” 
  • If reading Esperanza Rising, for example, students could be asked to look at how Esperanza changes over time, or they could be asked to identify the themes in the story.

The ideas presented in this blog are just a starting place for this important discussion. When teachers intentionally look to identify gifted multilingual students and provide the type of instruction that attends to their language and learning needs, then students like Diego will truly have their needs met and be able to realize their potential. Our world needs solutions. When we identify and serve gifted multilingual students, they will have the opportunity to become the leaders who create solutions to the problems we face.


Iowa Department of Education and The Connie Belin and Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development (2008). Identifying Gifted & Talented English Language Learners (Grades K-12). Iowa State Board of Education.

Teemant, A., Hausman, C.S., & Kigamwa, J.C. (2016). The effects of higher order thinking on student achievement and English proficiency. INTESOL Journal, 13(1), pp. 1-22.

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