Looking for Appropriate Services for Gifted English Language Learners
What should an effective gifted program look like? This question may be difficult for any parent to answer, and it can be especially difficult for parents who have moved to the U.S. as adults. This is not only because there may be a language barrier, but also because our schools often are very different from schools in other countries. Gifted programming varies so widely in the U.S. that the closest we come to a description are explanations of service delivery models. These may involve:
- Services provided in the regular classroom (differentiation by the classroom teacher, which often is ineffective for gifted learners, or co-teaching in which a gifted-trained teacher comes into the regular classroom to instruct a group of gifted learners);
- A pull-out or special classroom model in which gifted learners move to a different classroom for a set amount of time each week; or
- A special schools model, which may involve a school-within-a-school or a separate program such as a magnet school.
A relatively recent innovation that seems to be quite effective is whole-grade cluster grouping, in which students eligible to receive gifted services are grouped into one or two of the several classrooms at a given grade level; this type of grouping facilitates the use of co-teaching and differentiated instruction models. Any of these approaches can work well, but knowing the approach your child's school uses is not sufficient to tell whether a program will work well.
Parents and community members commonly believe that teachers of children learning English may need to speak the child's home language to be most effective; however, this turns out not to be necessary. Because English language learners in a single school may speak dozens of different home languages, it's rarely practical or even possible to find teachers who speak each of these languages. The exception to this generalization is when a single school serves a large population from a given culture, in which case the school may be able to recruit one or more staff members who are bilingual. Regardless, specific training and teacher attitudes are probably the two most important aspects to consider when looking for an effective gifted program. A third key factor, only slightly less important, is the attitude of the school administration toward academically gifted learners.
All teachers in a school should have specific training relevant to working with students learning English, such as (for example) the SIOP Model approach to sheltered instruction. School-wide initiatives such as dual-immersion programming, in which all students receive content instruction in both languages, can be quite effective in raising achievement for ELL students and native English speakers alike (Lindholm-Leary & Block, 2010). Unfortunately, although teachers working in dedicated ELL positions usually receive appropriate training, the same training is rarely provided to teachers of the gifted. If your state is one (like North Carolina) that requires teachers of the gifted to obtain additional certification (see the NAGC Gifted by State summaries), some of the gifted education coursework should be relevant in helping them to meet the instructional needs of gifted English language learners, but specific training about English language learners in the form of in-service education or university coursework is preferable. District offices or school web pages occasionally provide this sort of information, but asking the teacher or principal directly about specific training they have had may provide answers that are more up to date.
Content area expertise is necessary but not sufficient to effectively teach a gifted child; attitude is also vital. Teacher attitudes develop over time, and what a teacher believes this year may change next year as she or he gains knowledge and experience. We know from several research studies that teachers' attitudes toward academically gifted learners become more favorable with additional formal training, and the same likely is true of teacher attitudes toward children learning English in school. Because few if any states pay teachers extra for obtaining training related to gifted or ELL children, teachers mostly are left to their own initiative. Appropriate training makes it more likely that teachers will have a positive attitude toward gifted ELL children, but even teachers with little formal training about these learners may still bring a productive attitude to the classroom. One attitude that should be avoided is the teacher or principal who believes that a child must master English before learning subject area content; current best practices suggest that ELL children should be allowed to learn both English and subject area content at the same time, and this is even more true for academically gifted ELL children.
Administrators, like teachers, hold varying attitudes toward gifted learners, as well as toward balancing the school's needs (such as efficiency and perceived 'fairness' to all learners) against the needs of the individual student. The difference is that principals' desires carry much more weight than those of individual teachers, so a principal's attitude can set the entire school onto a more (or less) favorable path for meeting the needs of gifted English language learners. As the parent of a gifted child who also receives ELL services, you have some leverage with the school because your child's test scores likely bring up the average score for ELL students at the school; the laws require all groups (including ELL students, but not gifted ones) to make adequate yearly progress. If several parents were to pull out their high-ability ELL children and send them elsewhere, the school's performance likely would suffer.
Talking with other parents about the experiences their children have had with particular schools or teachers may be the best way for you to find out whether a given setting might be good for your child. It also can be important to build relationships over time with prospective teachers and other school staff, since at least one study (Huff, Houskamp, Watkins, Stanton, & Tavegia, 2005) found that parents were better able to identify appropriate services for their gifted children when they already had developed cooperative, advocacy-focused relationships with school staff.
—Michael S. Matthews
Michael S. Matthews is assistant professor of gifted education in the Department of Special Education and Child Development at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Dr. Matthews' research focuses on gifted education policies and procedures, with specific attention to learners traditionally under-represented in gifted education settings.
Huff, R. E., Houskamp, B. M., Watkins, A. V., Stanton, M., & Tavegia, B. (2005). The experiences of gifted African American children: A phenomenological study. Roeper Review, 27, 215-221.
Lindholm-Leary, K., & Block, N. (2010). Achievement in predominantly low SES/Hispanic dual language schools. International Journal of Bilingual Education & Bilingualism, 13, 43-60.
Rance-Roney, J. (2009). Best Practices for Adolescent ELLs. Educational Leadership, 66(7), 32-37.