Who are our gifted and talented students? What makes a student gifted? How are gifted and talented students identified?

These questions are important in education as we attempt to best meet the needs of each of our students. When it comes to meeting the needs of English learners, these questions can seem more complicated.

Approximately 3 million students in the U.S. are identified as gifted, yet English learners only account for a small fraction of gifted students. Why does this underidentification of gifted English learners exists in schools? What are some ways that we can better identify gifted and talented English learners?

While there are no simple solutions that will work in every context, there are some strategies and tools that may be helpful.

Defining gifted and talented instruction

Gifted and talented students are described in differing ways depending on the state or education system. In general, gifted and talented students can be described as students who are capable of high performance and who possess outstanding ability.

These students need appropriate instruction and services beyond those provided by the regular school program in order to excel. These may be students who are already achieving or who have potential ability.

How should teachers get started with determining whether their English learner students are gifted? It starts with a belief that every student has gifts and talents that they bring to the table. While all teachers may believe this, they may not be looking carefully at those gifts to see if the student may be ready for more rigorous or advanced coursework, especially if the student is not proficient in English.

Begin by being open to any of your students potentially being identified as gifted and talented, as in the majority of schools, the teacher's recommendation for testing or deeper analysis is what triggers the process. Additionally, keep in communication with parents and families.

Parents are often the first to realize that their children may be able to handle more advanced coursework. Children may report being bored at school to their parents, and wanting more challenge.

Parents of English learners may or may not report this to teachers. But, if teachers have built trust and strong communication with parents and families, they are more likely to discuss topics such as these openly.

The primary barrier to identifying English learners, of course, is language. Gifted and talented students are often identified by topics such as their demonstration of knowledge, as well as the speed at which they learn new and complex topics. It may be more challenging to determine this if students do not have the English vocabulary or complex language structures to demonstrate their understanding of complex topics.

It is not uncommon for students who are gifted to exhibit boredom in class. Without the challenge these students need, behavior problems may also arise. English learners who are not gifted may also exhibit what appears to be boredom, and this may be due to a lack of comprehensible instruction, clear instructions and appropriate scaffolding.

We must therefore look for a variety of ways to identify English learners as potentially qualifying for gifted and talented services.

Ways to identify gifted and talented English learners

There are some characteristics that may help us to identify students who are gifted. These characteristics and abilities may not be just related to academic achievement. A variety of attributes, including motivation, communication skills, problem solving, creativity, expansive memory, inquisitiveness, insight and logic may also demonstrate giftedness in students.

For example, some gifted students will obsessively read about and research topics they are interested in. Look for students who are deeply focused on specific topics, and continue to look for information related to that specific topic. Gifted students may, for example, find a specific book of interest and read all of the books in the series.

Teachers may also look more closely at students' native language abilities. If students are reading at two or more grade levels above their current grade, for example, or are demonstrating accelerated language learning abilities well above their peers, they may be gifted.

Look also for leadership abilities, the ability to code switch or switch between language easily, or the ability and willingness to translate for others.

Strategies to serve gifted and talented EL

Even before English learners, or any other students, have been identified as gifted and talented, there are many strategies we can employ as educators to challenge students and even make learning more interesting and engaging.

The following strategies are not unique to this particular group of students. Consider beginning to employ the strategies to benefit all students, including those students who happen to be English learners and gifted and talented.

Differentiation and scaffolding of language with challenging content — English learners are capable of learning challenging material, especially if the materials and accompanying language have been scaffolded depending on their proficiency level. Focus on domain-specific as well as general academic vocabulary, and make instruction as comprehensible and concrete as possible, while keeping the rigor of the content being studies.

Choices with various modalities — Giving students choices is beneficial for a variety of reasons, including allowing students to shine based on their strengths. Consider a variety of activities that students can utilize to demonstrate their understanding, including visual activities; musical activities such as creating beats, songs and rhymes; writing; developing art projects and more.

Open-ended and/or independent assignments or projects Allow students to explore topics that interest them, and give them assignments that are not fixed in terms of the outcomes. This allows students to develop their own assignments, or take the assignments or questions given to as deep a level as they are interested in. Rubrics can be useful tools in helping to assess these types of projects.

Collaborative environments with other students — Teach students to work collaboratively with one another. For English learners, teaching them appropriate communication skills such as linguistic turn-taking, collaborative language and roles within a group may be helpful tools as students work with each other to complete a task.

Higher level "centers" where students can pursue additional knowledge — Centers are an excellent way to differentiate instruction for all students. One of the centers you provide can help launch gifted students to the next level of learning through advanced practice and deeper content learning. Centers can also provide materials where students can investigate topics of interest.

Project-based learning Having students investigate real-life problems and design potential solutions can be engaging and exciting for gifted students. As with any activity, English learners may need additional instruction in the academic language needed to define and understand the topic and design and share potential solutions.

When teachers start with an open mind about the gifts and abilities students bring to school, they may begin to be able to identify additional students that are talented and gifted. However, even if students are not identified as gifted and talented, a variety of instructional strategies to keep them focused and engaged in learning rigorous content will always be of benefit to them.