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Identifying ‘Gifted’ English-Language Learners

When students don’t speak English well, it can be easy for their outstanding academic abilities to get overlooked. 

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In a recent NPR story for All Things Considered, Claudio Sanchez tells listeners about a program in Arizona’s Paradise Valley Unified School District that has figured out a way to identify the talents of gifted students  – even as they’re still learning the English language.

“Gifted” doesn’t just mean intelligent. Though states have varying definitions of the word as it relates to education, many use the term “superior” to describe gifted students’ levels of aptitude. In Sanchez’s story, the program’s founder, Dina Brulles, describes it this way: While most kids need to hear things repeated between six and 14 times before they “get it,” for gifted children, it only takes once – especially in math.

“The research also shows that gifted ELLs are not necessarily great test-takers, people-pleasers or hand-raisers,” Sanchez reports. “Often their parents are recent immigrants struggling to assimilate and so are their kids. In school, ELLs are more interested in blending in. They tend to be quiet and shy.”

But in Paradise Valley, teachers are being trained to spot the gifted students among this demographic. When students who might meet the criteria are identified, they’re tested, then the school district contacts the students’ parents about putting them in a program that’s more compatible with their abilities.

Research has shown that there might, in fact, be a lot of untapped potential among Latino children in U.S. schools. Gifted programs are overwhelmingly white and Asian – and it could be because schools are underestimating the potential of black and Hispanic children, Susan Dynarski writes for The New York Times. (My colleague Mikhail Zinshteyn recently wrote about a new study finding that black elementary students with the same test scores as their white peers are still less likely to be selected for gifted and talented academic programs.)

Dynarski tells of the Broward County School District in Florida that in 2005 aimed to reduce the disparities by implementing a universal screening program at the second-grade level. Students that scored well on a nonverbal test were then recommended for IQ testing, and the district — that had previously relied on teachers and parents to refer students — saw the share of Hispanic children identified as gifted triple. University of California, Berkeley and University of Miami researchers who studied the new process found that such a test “leveled the playing field,” she writes, because teachers and parents had been less likely to refer Hispanic and black students and English-language learners.

Due to budget cuts in 2010, the school district suspended the practice of universal screening. Now, under a modified version of the original program, it’s growing more diverse again, Brittany Shammas reports for the Sun Sentinel. Still, about 16 percent of students in gifted services are black and 29 percent are Hispanic — numbers that lag behind the proportion of minority students in the district.

Back in Arizona, Brulles has discovered another way to increase the number of English-language learners in gifted programs. She believes giftedness runs in the family and urges parents of one gifted student to have their other kids tested.