George Lucas Educational Foundation
English-Language Learners

Identifying and Supporting Gifted ELLs

An inclusive framework for finding gifted and talented students can ensure that English language learners don’t slip through the cracks.

April 30, 2019
Diverse high school students studying together in class

English language learners (ELLs) have historically been underrepresented and underserved in U.S. gifted and talented (GT) programs. To move the needle in a more promising direction, we can begin by asking ourselves how we can increase the visibility of diverse learners in GT screening. What does equity look like in identifying language learners for gifted services? And how can we actively improve culturally responsive supports for exceptional ELLs in our classrooms?

Traditional concepts of giftedness cast a narrow net—narrow enough, in fact, to silo giftedness into nearly homogeneous compartments. Outside of far–East Asian subsets, most of those boxes are reserved for white, English-speaking students.

Gifted screening protocols can reinforce these perceptions. Conventional markers for giftedness are rooted in assessment data and previous high academic achievement. This can be especially inequitable for ELLs, whose language output and cultural orientation may mask exceptional promise.

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Reframing Conceptions of Giftedness to Support Inclusivity

To change this, we’ve got to be uncomfortably honest about what our collective picture of giftedness looks like. What are our perceptions and expectations of exceptional students? Do we—as teachers and as schools—lean in to certain student types, ethnicities, or socioeconomic groups, or to one gender? How are we influenced by a child’s parents or other educators?

At a minimum, a more inclusive framework should include three vital components:

  • A comprehensive definition of exceptional ability that encompasses a spectrum of cognitive, social and emotional, artistic, linguistic, and logical-reasoning capabilities,
  • Multiple avenues and entry points—such as student interviews, performance-based evaluations, or nonverbal instruments—that reach beyond standardized assessment data for GT identification, and
  • A system for mindfully growing the exceptional talents and gifts of all learners, including ELLs.

Now we can critically evaluate the degree to which our definition is also culturally responsive. Map a full learning day for a new-to-English student. Where can we find expressions of gifted characteristics? Language learners can—and do!—demonstrate exceptional content-specific talents. Additionally or alternatively, the promising gifted ELL may:

  • Acquire the new language at a faster than typical rate,
  • Demonstrate an ability to code switch or translate at an advanced level,
  • Show aptitude for negotiating between cultures,
  • Display inventive leadership and/or imaginative qualities,
  • Read significantly beyond grade level in the heritage language,
  • Effectively assume adult responsibilities at a young age,
  • Exhibit notable street smarts and/or rapid integration into American culture, or
  • Problem-solve in creative, nonconforming ways.

A Culturally Responsive Process of GT Identification

Even high-flying ELLs are not likely to be detected through traditional GT screening, as I mention above, because our screening protocols are not designed to detect them. Widening our net and moving toward a realistic representation of marginalized populations in gifted programming requires that we break with our dependence on convention.

One reasonable solution is to move beyond isolated quantitative data points and toward qualitative portfolios of potential. Inclusive GT portfolios of potential may include:

  • Nominations or referrals from parents and school staff,
  • Summative data, including English language evaluations and nonverbal GT assessments,
  • Formative data, such as student work samples and problem- or project-based portfolios, and
  • Anecdotal data, including behavior and acculturation scales, classroom observations, home visits, and interviews with parents, teachers, and peers.

We can drill down into equity even more by measuring potentially gifted ELLs against local, rather than national, norms.

Drawing Out ELLs’ Latent Talents

Ensure that curriculum is culturally responsive: Culturally responsive practice seeks to recognize, value, and authentically represent students’ heritage virtues in the school setting. Wondering how to connect this pedagogy to GT programming? Begin learning units with background knowledge surveys or embed multicultural connections and community engagement as a means of enrichment.

Provide opportunities for self-directed learning: Self-directed learning is an effective tool for student engagement that supports higher-level thinking. By introducing the element of choice, we draw out a learner’s natural curiosity through creative problem solving and experiential learning.

Start slowly as you navigate this territory. Begin with a maximum of three choices. Hold students accountable for rotating through stations, centers, or learning tasks, but place the onus of control on the student to choose the order in which the learning goals are completed.

Capitalize on student interest surveys, flexible seating, and kinesthetic learning. These are all low-prep, low-cost, high-yield means of promoting self-directed, student-invested learning.

And consider exploring multiple pathways of discovery. Try embedding social and emotional learning skills practice into a social studies lesson, or incorporate STEAM learning into a literature experience. These types of activities foster low-risk opportunities for expression and encourage students to demonstrate abilities in innovative ways.

Use assessments that allow for diverse expressions of understanding: Offer choice in how students demonstrate knowledge, skills and understanding. Project-based learning (PBL) works exceptionally well in this context. PBL “is a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge.” This type of open-ended learning allows ELLs to show what they know in ways that are less language dependent, such as tactile design, sketching, computer programming, or art.

Consistently work toward the elimination of educator bias: Teachers and parents play a critical role in the gifted identification process—they are most likely to nominate students for consideration and are directly involved in a child’s day-to-day endeavors. We can better prepare both groups to advocate for ELLs who demonstrate exceptional gifts and talents.

Parents are often the first to note a child’s gifted potential, even if it has not presented at school. This may be especially true of students who have not yet gained linguistic confidence or students from collectivist cultures, who typically avoid standing out in the classroom. Caretakers—especially those whose cultural experience with school involvement differs from Western norms—can be explicitly encouraged to recommend their child for GT screening and review. Educators, meanwhile, can benefit from training to reduce bias and spot latent talents in underrepresented populations.

Like all successful school programming, achieving effective and equitable GT services is a collaborative effort.

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Filed Under

  • English-Language Learners
  • Education Equity