Ofelya Nikolova
Gifted Students and Foreign Language Education

No matter how highly democratic the ideals of a society might be, it is a widely recognized fact that a relatively small percentage of the population is naturally equipped for an exceptional success in different domains of their academic career. These students, usually labeled, "gifted and talented", "academically talented", "high-ability", or "high-intelligence", and more specifically their foreign language education, are in the focus of the present paper.

A lot of controversy surrounds the gifted and talented student population - their identification, their characteristics, their educational needs, the funding that should (or should not) be allocated to cater to their special requirements.

Some researchers (Chapman, 1988; Oakes, 1985; Slavin, 1990) believe that singling out a gifted and talented population is detrimental to the self-esteem and the needs of other students and goes against the democratic spirit of American educational values. Other scholars, however, support the idea of special attention to the high-ability students of the nation, claiming, with no less conviction, that every individual has a right to develop his/her potential to its fullest.
Foreign language education is another thorny branch of the American educational system. The political events of the last several years have proven that a more internationally oriented curriculum is sorely needed in American schools. Young Americans should be given the opportunity to learn more about the world and the cultures that surround them.

More than twenty years ago, Bartz (1982) called "our inability to communicate with other nations in their language [ ] shameful, uneconomical, scandalous, and downright dangerous" (p. 329). Things have not changed much since. Foreign language education, however, is one of the major components of internationalization of the curriculum and its strengthening can only lead to an overall improvement of the general curriculum and a much better global awareness of the student population.

Foreign language as a subject matter is traditionally regarded as challenging, but at the same time fairly "boring" (Swiatek & Lupkowski-Shoplik, 2000; Olszewski-Kubilius & Turner, 2002). Even though during the last several decades foreign language instructors have made an effort to emphasize on communication skills and cultural information, many traditional grammar-oriented approaches are still in use, which warrants the reputation of the subject matter. There are not that many teachers who take advantage of the incredible resources available on line. Money for foreign languages at the K-12 level is not readily available and the slightest tightening of the school budget usually affects the foreign language program.

The overall situation in foreign languages does not create a background conducive to offering special treatment to the gifted and talented students. Yet, they are the ones, who, according to many scholars (Brickman, 1988; Carlson, 1981; Van Tassel-Baska, 1988) are most likely to be called upon to lead the country in an ever more global political and economic context.
Perrone and Dow (1992) surveyed 1,724 gifted and talented (top 2%) students graduating from Wisconsin high-schools in 1988. The survey was conducted after the end of their freshman year in college. The students declared that they did not feel well prepared for college expectations in the following disciplines - math and sciences, foreign languages and literature. Even though a lot has been said about poor teaching of math and sciences in high schools, it turned out that the interviewees were even more concerned about their foreign language preparation - 60% of them expressed this concern.

As early as 1975 Juliana Gensley wrote: "Are we short-changing our gifted children? Are we too anxious to put them in situations where success is easy for them? Why shouldn't the gifted become fluent in several languages? Some of them are learning to communicate in more than one language, but we have neglected international communication for too long. Should our goal include making every gifted child bilingual? Teachers used to worry about the poor little bilingual child. Perhaps our real anxiety should be that so many gifted children are growing up monolingual" (p.188).

Even though efforts have been made by the individual states to put together state-mandated programs for gifted and talented students, this is just a beginning (Feldhusen, 1998; Gallagher, 1998; Horowitz & O'Brien, 1986; Sternberg, Ferrari, Clinkenbeard, & Grigorenko, 1996; Winner, 1997). Students identified as gifted and talented make up 3 to 5% of the entire student body, but the money earmarked for their needs is only a fraction of the money budgeted for the needs of other special populations (Feldhusen, 1998; Gallagher, 1998). Out of this trickle, a meager part is allotted to foreign language education for the gifted. No matter how adversarial the financial odds, some very interesting programs have been developed with a great success, showing that money invested in the foreign language education of the gifted and talented students is money well spent.


In order to create special conditions for gifted and talented students one has to be in the clear as to what are the relevant criteria for identification of the gifted and talented. One of the main topics of research concerning gifted and talented students is the nature of giftedness (Gardner, 1983; Renzulli, 1977; Sternberg, 1988; Sternberg & Clinkenbeard, 1995). Scholars are far from having reached a consensus in identifying gifted students. The central controversy stems from two opposing views - one of intelligence understood in a traditional way, e.g., as measured by IQ (Hollingworth, 1942; Terman, 1925) and one of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983), which allows for a more flexible approach to selection of gifted students and the inclusion of a more diverse population into this stratum. Researchers have tried to expand and refine their definitions of giftedness in order to arrive at a more accurate identification of the gifted population (Gardner, 1983; Renzulli, 1977; Rogers, 1986; Sternberg, 1988, 1997).

Renzulli (1977) believes that giftedness is an amalgam of three basic qualities: high ability, task commitment, and creativity. Not only are gifted students able to perform at a higher level of intelligence, but they also show a greater creativity in their performance and a greater persistence in their work on a particular task.

Sternberg's (1988; 1994; 1997) triarchic theory also points out three components of giftedness - analytic, synthetic, and practical, emphasizing the role of insight for solving intellectual problems.

Gardner's (1983) multiple intelligences theory includes "non-traditional" domains such as spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, musical, kinesthetic, and naturalist in addition to the more traditional linguistic and logical-mathematical. A person may be gifted in any of these domains or in combinations thereof. Gardner considers creativity as the highest level of functioning in any of these categories.

Rogers (1986) looks at gifted children as superior in higher-order thinking processes, encoding, transferring skills to new problems, and solving insight problems. Their pertinent characteristics are independent thinking, an active approach to problem solving, and persistence at tasks.

Winner (1997) finds profoundly gifted children to be qualitatively different in their thinking than average children because of their ability to intuit solutions for challenging problems, based on outstanding memories for complex information in their domain, and because of their passion for this domain, particularly in its most challenging aspects. In addition, she points out some of the signs of giftedness, which may appear quite early in an individual's life: long attention span, good recognition memory, excitement at novelty and sensations, early onset of language, intense curiosity, drive, obsessive interests, and metacognitive awareness of problem-solving strategies.
A legal definition for giftedness has been provided by the 97th Congress of the United States in an attempt to supply guidelines for educators struggling with the wide variety of descriptions of extraordinary talent. According to Public Law 97-35 Education Consolidation and Improvement Act , 1981, Section 582, gifted and talented students should be considered the ones " - who give evidence of high performance capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, leadership capacity or specific academic fields and who require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to develop such capabilities."

Besides identification, another central topic in the debates surrounding this special student population is the issue of differentiation or equal treatment of gifted and non-gifted students (Chapman, 1988; Oakes, 1985). There are different reasons behind the movement leaning towards dismissing the gifted and talented programs altogether. According to Ellen Winner a powerful one is: "people's deep-seated ambivalence about intellectual giftedness, arising perhaps from an anti-intellectual strain in American culture (de Tocqueville, 1945) as well as from America's democratic anti-elitist tradition, which leads to fear of hierarchies as a threat to the egalitarian American dream (Hofstadter 1963)" (1997, p.1070). However, many researchers believe that gifted students deserve special attention and specialized programs or at least activities tailored to their specific needs (Feldhusen, 1998; Gallagher, 1998; Gallagher,Harradine, & Coleman, 1997; Horowitz & O'Brien, 1986; Kerry & Kerry, 1999; Rimm, 1997; Winner, 1997). As Winner goes on to point out, an equal treatment of all may be one way of interpretation of the democratic values of the American people, but another way, not less appealing, is the understanding that each person should be helped to fulfill his or her potential.

The case for gifted education is supported by research evidence and expert opinion. In a study on construct validation of Sternberg's Triarchic Model in gifted education, Sternberg, Ferrari, Clinkenbeard, and Grigorenko (1996) brought evidence that instruction which varies analytically, creatively, and practically to meet student needs, leads to better student performances. Gallagher (1998) remarked that even though a challenging education, aiming towards improving higher-order thinking skills is most desirable for all students, some complex activities may be overwhelmingly difficult for average and low-ability students and could require a much longer time to be performed by these populations. Kulik (1992) pointed out that when academically gifted students are grouped together and provided appropriate instruction, their academic achievements increase.
Disregarding the needs of the gifted is detrimental to the potential of society. Moreover, it is detrimental for the students themselves from a purely human point of view. A fairly widespread, but naive argument claims that gifted and talented students will identify themselves and will take care of themselves, therefore, they do not need any special attention. They will be able to overcome all obstacles because of their talents. Unfortunately, this is often times not the case. Many gifted and talented children prefer to "blend in the crowd" and do not develop their talents, just because at an age when peer pressure is the most important factor in one's life, they do not want to be considered different. If not geared toward an appropriate outlet, gifted students' intrinsic drive for mastery and fulfillment may end up in disappointment because of the lack of challenge in education. This disappointment easily translates into boredom and destroys motivation. It is not rare that highly intelligent young people underachieve simply because they cannot find anything in the instructional process that can challenge sufficiently their active minds (Gallagher, Harradine, & Coleman, 1997; Horowitz & O'Brien, 1986; Rimm, 1997; Winner, 1997).

Despite certain tendencies toward inclusiveness (Oakes, 1985; Slavin, 1990), a wide variety of specialized programs exist attempting to address the needs of high-ability students. However, many of these programs are severely criticized for not achieving their goals (cf. the pullout programs, Feldhusen, 1998). More and more voices are heard for the differentiation of tasks in mixed-abilities classes (Allen, 1992; Bartz, 1982; Carlson, 1981; Garfinkel & Prentice, 1985; Kerry, 1987; Kerry & Kerry, 1999; Van Tassel-Baska, 1987). This differentiation calls for more challenging tasks requiring higher-order thinking skills, independence, and creativity for the able students. Differentiation is not always easy to apply, mainly because little advice and guidance are given to the teachers. Activities, particularly designed for the needs of the gifted, are hard to find and even harder to implement without a significant investment of teacher time (Kerry & Kerry, 1999).


The fact that American foreign language instruction is facing serious problems is not a secret. Its shortcomings are all the more inexcusable in the case of gifted and talented students whose academic achievements are very likely to bring them to leading positions in various domains of the social, political, and business life of the nation (Bartz, 1982; Carlson, 1981; Van Tassel-Baska, 1988; Wielkoszewski, 1992). Most researchers agree that foreign language education for the gifted and talented students is needed and long overdue (Allen, 1992; Brickman, 1988; Garfinkel, Allen, Neuhart-Prtichett, 1993). In the framework of this issue, they consider problems such as identification of the linguistically talented students and types of programs and activities that match the characteristics of this population.

Who can be considered linguistically talented? Are these the same students who are identified as "gifted and talented" in their respective schools? Is there more to linguistic talent than a generally high academic ability? These are only part of the questions asked when considering identification of linguistically gifted students. The answers are not unambiguous and straightforward. Selection of linguistically gifted students seems to be as controversial as selection of students with high academic ability in general. Actually, for many scholars linguistic giftedness is to a great extent made up of numerous characteristics pertaining to general academic giftedness. The "differential cognitive characteristics of the gifted", mentioned by Clark (1983), can be summarized in the following quote: "They can deal with extraordinary quantities of information and have unusual retentiveness; they are capable of advanced comprehension; they have unusually varied interests and curiosity; they have high levels of language development and verbal ability; they process information unusually well; their thought processes are flexible and rapid; they are capable of comprehensive synthesis; they can delay closure at early ages; they see unusual and diverse relationships more vividly than others; they think in alternative and abstract terms thus demonstrating early differential patterns for thought processing; they generate original ideas and solutions; they use and form conceptual frameworks; they maintain an evaluative approach to themselves and others; and finally, their behavior is persistently goal-oriented" (Garfinkel & Prentice, 1985, p. 3).

Many of these characteristics enter in the specific sets of traits defining giftedness in the area of acquisition of foreign languages. According to Allen (1992) linguistically gifted and talented students are proven to be exceptional in four different areas: language traits, conceptualization traits, socialization traits, and productivity traits. Each set of characteristics imposes a particular approach to the foreign language curriculum requiring types of activities that may or may not be available for other students.

Language characteristics, for example, include high verbal ability and rich vocabulary. Linguistically talented students read above their grade level in their native language. They can handle much more complex reading material than their average or low-ability peers. One way to insure their progress in the foreign language is to provide them with authentic reading materials corresponding to their level and age. In the set of language characteristics enters also the ability to use language creatively. Even though this ability can be hampered by a relatively low competence at the beginner stages, its development should be encouraged by assignment of independent and creative projects to gifted students. These projects may include creative writing, independent research, usage of online resources for research, which goes beyond the topics studied in class, extending to a variety of cultural and language subjects.

Conceptualization characteristics include an extraordinary gift for observation, rapid mastery and recall of facts and concepts, natural inquisitiveness. These characteristics warrant less time spent on rote exercises and much more on creative, open-ended projects.

Socialization traits refer to friendliness and extroversion, a talent for communication in the foreign language, which comes with ease and in a natural way. This characteristic calls for opportunities for the gifted to meet native speakers of the target language, if possible of different backgrounds, which will allow them to further develop their talents for communication and will help them learn more about other people and themselves.

Finally, productivity traits include long attention span, motivation, assiduity, and goal-oriented behavior, which should be accommodated by individual projects of a greater magnitude. These projects will allow linguistically gifted students to create final products, that can help them develop their skills in the areas of research and creative expression in the target language in a variety of ways.

Another set of specific characteristics for students particularly talented in the acquisition of a foreign language have been proposed by Bartz, (1982). They include field independence, ambiguity tolerance, balanced generalization, extroversion, metacognitive awareness, risk-taking, good guessing strategies, active approach toward the foreign language, attention to both form and meaning, easy and early adjustment to a new language, and empathy. In this case again all adjustments to the curriculum mentioned previously would be valid.
Carlson (1981) based her definition of linguistic giftedness on a survey of the opinion of experienced foreign language teachers who reported yet another set of characteristics and behaviors specific for gifted and talented foreign language learners. The researcher distributed questionnaires containing possible characteristics of gifted and talented foreign language learners to 251 foreign language teachers. The characteristics were compiled on the basis of an in-depth review of relevant literature. Carlson asked her interviewees to endorse or reject these characteristics based on their own experience as foreign language instructors. Important characteristics and behaviors endorsed by the teachers participating in the study included a greater attention to the context as a possible source of helpful information for comprehension. Linguistically gifted students read foreign language texts for ideas rather than words, they made use of guessing strategies to deduce vocabulary meaning from context. Another cluster of relevant characteristics comprised quick grasp of new concepts and material, picking up of expressions left unnoticed by the other students, and ease in discrimination of similar phonemes when listening to the target language. In addition, linguistically talented students made a wise usage of previously learned material, they dealt in a creative way with the target language in new and unexpected situations.
An important part in the identification of linguistic giftedness play also teacher nomination, peer nomination, and account of motivation of the learner (Carlson, 1981; Garfinkel, et al., 1993).


Over the past several decades different commissions, appointed by several Presidents, have looked at the problem of foreign language education and proposed different solutions. One of the most notorious documents is the report "Strength through Wisdom" written by the President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies, appointed by President Carter in 1979. In 1994 the Clinton administration proposed reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) established as part of Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" program (Department of Education, 1999). The "Improving America's Schools Act" built upon basic principles of the ESEA together with goals and objectives from the "Goals 2000: Educate America Act" became the basis for creating the proposal for "Educational Excellence for All Children Act", proposed in 1999. Among the XI titles of this piece of legislation, Title X is dedicated to Programs of National Significance. It covers among others the Fund for the Improvement of Education, gifted and talented students, international education, and elementary school foreign language assistance. It is not by chance that funding of gifted and talented students and assistance for foreign language education go hand in hand in this Title under the heading of Programs of National Significance. Both areas are of vital interest for the optimal distribution of the resources of the nation, as well as for its improved integration in a more and more global world.

Various programs have been put into place, which reflect the efforts made by the legislator. Some of them, like the Illinois Interntaional High School Initiative, are very recent and represent a state-wide effort for globalization of the education, of which foreign languages are only one component. Others, like the Arkansas-based "International Potpurri" (Powels, 1988) have been around since the 80s and are summer programs especially devised to benefit the gifted and talented student population. These are just but a drop in the bucket of a variety of successful programs, which, however, are still widely insufficient in order to cater effectively and to its full to the needs of gifted and talented students for foreign language instruction.

What are the basic principles on which programs for the gifted are or rather should be founded? Frequently repeated in the literature is the idea that foreign language instruction should start early for all student populations, particularly for high-ability students (Allen, 1992; Garfinkel & Prentice, 1985; Van Tassel-Baska, 1987). This does not come as a surprise. Second language acquisition literature has always recommended early start in the acquisition of a foreign language as a necessary condition for mastery (Long, 1990). In the case of students with high abilities this is even easier to advocate, because there is no fear that foreign language instruction will be overwhelmingly difficult or will interfere with other subject areas. For many experts, mastery of more than one foreign language is completely compatible with the potential of the gifted and talented population and is a characteristic feature of educational practices in many other countries (Brickman, 1988; Van Tassel-Baska, 1987). Many of the adjustments made to the foreign language curriculum for high-ability students stop at the level of quantitative changes - earlier start, faster pace, exposure to several languages (Bartz, 1982; Carlson, 1981; Garfinkel & Prentice, 1985; Van Tassel-Baska, 1987; Wielkoszewski, 1992). Few are the porgrams or activities which capitalize on the higher-order thinking skills and creative aptitudes of the gifted and talented (Nikolova & Taylor, forthcoming). As Van Tassel-Baska (1987) points out "Major differences between regular language arts programs and those for the gifted lie in methodologies and materials, open-endedness of activities, opportunities for student production, and the interrelating of several content areas to present relevant experiences" (p. 159). Popular challenging programs designed for high-abiity students in foreign languages include summer camps, encompassing a wide variety of open-ended cultural and linguistic activities; providing students with ample authentic listening materials and encouraging them to keep diaries and logs; selecting authentic reading materials, using computers to represent graphically the materials read; communication with native speakers, discussions on cultural topics pertinent to life in the country of the target language, etc.
Another way of providing challenging opportunities for gifted and talented students is through high-school - college partnerships. These partnerships have become quite popular over the last two decades reflecting the changes in the demographic make-up of American students. Some of the programs which can profit the high-ability language learners in these partnerships include, but are not limited to, concurrent enrollment models, enrichment and compensatory programs. The concurrent enrollment model provides an opportunity for high school students to sign-up for college-level courses receiving usually credit for both high school and college. It has become a fairly popular bridge from high-school to college for youths talented not only in foreign languages, but in various other areas of human endeavor.

Lamenting upon the sad state of affairs concerning the foreign language education in the U.S., famous polyglot, scholar, and essayist William W. Brickman (1988) proposes another solution to the foreign language problem in American schools. He urges gifted and talented children and youth to teach themselves at least one, and possibly more than one foreign languages. According to Brickman, the gifted and talented are particularly well-equipped for self-teaching because they operate on the basis of "self-motivation, self-propulsion, self-discipline, self-regulation, and self-management" (p. 249). Not only does Brickman find the autodidactic approach in line with contemporary and innovative theories of education, he also believes this to be an efficient compensatory strategy against a system which will not fund concerted efforts for introducing or requiring a solid FL instruction in public schools.

Drawing upon his own experience as autodidactic polyglot, Brickman advocates an early start in FL education. Parents, teachers, and community should be encouraged to lend a hand to the gifted child. The diverse American language and cultural heritage should be used to its maximum for the purposes of foreign language education. The goals proposed by Brickman for autodidactic students include more skills of language recognition (reading, above all) than skills of language production. Even though this may sound somewhat outdated in this day and age of communicative approach, a reading ability in several foreign languages may serve a wealth of purposes in a person's general knowledge and it can also be the basis for learning of even more foreign languages. The high-level of metalinguistic and metacognitive monitoring characteristic for the gifted and talented students allows for the usage of guessing strategies, cognates, etc. which makes the learning of foreign languages a lot easier and a lot more pleasurable.

Another topic concerning the FL instruction for gifted and talented is the way their progress is assessed. The 1990s have seen a particular rise in interest towards assessment in a variety of contexts - in-service training, industrial and company projects - but above all in the framework of schooling. Phrases like "alternative assessment", " authentic assessment", "self-assessment", and "portfolio assessment" are frequently used with regard to the foreign language classroom.
An appropriate way of evaluating the gifted and talented students and their achievements in the foreign language classroom is through open-ended tasks, via so-called "alternative methods" (Hancock, 1994). The particular aptitude of gifted students for open-ended tasks and their excellence in dealing with these tasks should be taken advantage of in all subject matters, including foreign languages. Assessment is defined by Hancock as an ongoing strategy through which student learning is not only monitored, but by which students are involved in making decisions about the degree to which their performance matches their ability.

Alternative assessment goes beyond the behaviorist framework on cognition and development, used in American education for many decades. It is based on the idea of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1993) and involves non-conventional methods of assessment of student progress. Gardner and other researchers believe in the exstence of mental modules - fast operating, reflex-like, information processing devices. Fodor (1983) adopts the idea that there are separate analytic devices involved in tasks like syntactic parsing, tonal recognition, and facial perception. The concept of creativity has been the center of research for many other scholars (Sternberg, 1988, Perkins, 1981, Gruber, 1985). Their studies have shown that creative individuals do not have unique mental modules, but they use what they have in more efficient and flexible ways. Such individuals are extremely reflective about their activities, their use of time, and the quality of their products (Gardner, 1993).

Based on these premises, the concept of alternative assessment is particularly suitable for creative tasks and, therefore, a very appropriate means of evaluating the work of gifted and talented students in the foreign language classroom. It acknowledges the role of context in foreign language performance and seeks to provide students with the most appropriate and natural context for communication in the target language.

Another important non-conventional form of assessment in the foreign language classroom is authentic assessment, in which, according to some scholars, (Wiggins, 1994) self-assessment plays an important role. Despite claims of subjectivity as possible confounding variable, self-assessment has proven to be particularly successful and accurate and has the unique advantage of putting the control over learning in the exact place where learning is occurring, namely in the brain of the learner. Since gifted and talented students are much more metacognitively oriented, self-assessment is an excellent assessment tool to be used with this particular population.
Finally, portfolio assessment is another appropriate tool for assessing the on-going progress of high-ability language learners because of their aptitude of long-term concentration on a particular project and their creative inclination, which enables them to work on substantial projects in the target language. Portfolio assessment is excellent for written tasks and allows for a more in depth reflection upon the task and its completion on the part of the student as well as on the part of the teacher.

In conclusion, the present paper made an attempt to summarize some issues related to foreign language education for the gifted and talented students. This has been for a long time the murky intersection between two somewhat neglected domains - foreign language education in general and the special needs of gifted and talented students. The events of the past several years have shown that this neglect can cost a lot and that further neglecting these areas will probably come at an even higher price in the future. Wheels have been put in motion for creating challenging programs catering to the needs of high-ability students for foreign language instruction. It is the hope of this author that these programs will be expanded and nurtured in the future.

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