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Strategies for gifted second language learners.


Gifted second language learners deserve an optimal learning environment in which to develop talent. Direct grammar instruction capitalizes on the strengths of high-ability students allowing them to form their understanding of the structure of the language and progress rapidly toward communicative competence. Direct instruction of communication strategies can provide the tools that will enable them to develop an effective interlanguage. Gifted and talented students arrive at the classroom with prior skills that must be utilized to enhance their learning experience in meaningful ways.


The ongoing debate over the most appropriate and effective method of instruction for second language students has torn the field in opposing directions for decades. The influence of first language studies on second language instruction is clearly visible in immersion programs and acquisition-based methods. As more research emerges demonstrating the differences between first and second language acquisition as distinct processes, curriculum developers are learning to take advantage of students' prior knowledge and experience in an effort to maximize learning potential in the second language classroom. The highly sensitive topic of direct grammar instruction, while taboo for an extended period of time, has resurfaced as a strategy designed to capitalize on the pre-existing structural understanding of one's first language, allowing students to make connections, hypothesize, and utilize higher order thinking skills in the construction of their interlanguage in the process of second language learning.

Gifted and talented students in particular are in a position to apply their superior abilities to the learning of a second language. Advanced verbal and higher order thinking skills inherent in those with a high aptitude for learning can serve as catalysts for linguistic comparisons and rapid competence development if provided instruction on the linguistic structures necessary for those connections to take place. In order to encourage multilingualism among the most capable students in a classroom, direct grammar instruction can be supplemented with the explicit instruction of communication strategies in order to prolong communicative opportunities and strengthen self-confidence. Accepting that certain learners arrive at the classroom with prior knowledge that can prove beneficial to communicative development can help promote motivation and self-efficacy in the second language classroom while maximizing the potential of the learners. Direct grammar instruction coupled with an understanding of communication strategies can enhance language learning in the gifted and talented population furthering the global intelligence and capabilities of the future leaders of society.

Acquisition vs. Learning

Arguably the most controversial perspective regarding second language learning was introduced by the work of Stephen Krashen in the 1980s. The "Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis" claims that adult second language learners internalize language both consciously and subconsciously (Brown, 1994, p. 279). In his pivotal study of 1959, Robert Lado had distinguished between these two distinct and independent ways to develop competence. He stated that 'acquisition' was a process similar, if not identical, to the way children develop their first language, while 'learning' referred to conscious knowledge of a second language, knowing the rules, being aware of them, and being able to talk about them (Lado, 1964). Douglas describes 'acquisition' as a subconscious and intuitive process used by children to "pick up a language," and 'learning' as a conscious process in which learners attend to form, figure out rules, and are generally aware of their own process (Brown, 1994, p. 279). Barry McLaughlin (1990) utilizes the terms "controlled and automatic processes" to describe the acquisition and learning processes. Along with this new terminology, McLaughlin believes that learning can become acquisition, i.e., that initially controlled processes can become automatized (Dekeyser, 1990, p. 239). While acquiring a second language can take place in immersion-like classroom settings, most second language programs today offer an environment of learning that strives for a formal understanding and manipulation of the target language along the journey toward communicative competence.

Direct Instruction of Grammar

Classroom teaching strategies tend to lean toward either a rule-oriented approach or one in which rule learning plays a minimal role in the classroom. The research consulted for this paper suggests that the studying of the structure of the target language tends to enhance the production and comprehension of the learners, especially in high-ability learners. In the 80's and 90's a number of studies by such second language researchers as Long (1983, 1988), Ellis (1990), Doughty (1991), and Buczowska and Weist (1991) have shown the certain value of conscious rule learning in second language learning (Brown, 1994, 281). More recently, in a study of Russian language acquisition, Benjamin Rifkin (2005) finds that "the development of grammatical competence is correlated with the development of proficiency in the four skill areas," and consequently, he recommends that "the teaching of grammar and syntax should be integrated into the foreign language curriculum at all levels" (p. 13). Grammatical manipulation and linguistic comparisons readily call on the skills of analysis and synthesis. Providing the structure of the target language through explicit instruction exploits these skills. Grammar can serve as a pragmatic tool for those capable of utilizing it systematically to draw connections between languages and, consequently, enhance target language production. The natural consequence of a sound foundation in grammar is an increase in accuracy. As a result, sociological acceptance among the native speaking culture, as well as the formation of self-confidence in the second language student are welcome by-products.

In a comparative study of young second language learners to adult second language learners, Dr. Carl ZhonggangGao proposed that adult learners are better candidates for direct grammar instruction as they can more readily draw comparisons to their first language and capitalize on their verbal ability and higher order thinking abilities. He advocates direct grammar instruction for adult foreign language learners because "they are ready to apply the rules they have learned, and the rules of language will provide them with some perspective on the basic patterns of that language. With analysis of grammar rules and practice, they can induce or deduce meaningful hints out of these rules" (ZhonggangGao, 2001, p. 332). The same rationale used by ZhonggangGao to justify direct grammar instruction for adult language learners can be applied to gifted and talented students. Advanced higher order thinking skills and verbal talents are not predicated on age alone, but also on intellectual development and ability. Gifted students naturally possess abilities and skills that, if tapped, can greatly influence their linguistic development. Higher order thinking skills, like analysis and synthesis, are essential to the proper conscious manipulation of grammatical structures placing gifted and talented students in a position to excel linguistically. Knowledge of grammar enables high-ability students to use the skills and knowledge that they already possess to form their interlanguage and improve competence.

Gifted and Talented Students Possess Prior Skills

In the case of gifted learners, above-average verbal ability would suggest the potential for advanced linguistic understanding. According to a study conducted by Hayes, et al. (1998), "There is a strong connection between language ability and learning ability." By implementing an acquisition approach rather than one of direct grammar instruction, the elevated linguistic talent of gifted learners would be limited to that which the learner could gather and deduce on his own. High ability learners are likely to learn controlled processes and memorize paradigms and vocabulary quickly allotting them the opportunity to use the structures in communicative practice more readily. According to Van Tassel-Baska (1998) on language arts curriculum development, "gifted students need an understanding of syntactic structure, vocabulary development, analogies and etymology, and an appreciation of semantics, linguistics, and language history" (Thompson, 2002, p. 60). The step from language arts to second language is a small one. Van Tassel-Baska also calls for the inclusion of foreign languages in the gifted and talented curriculum in order to maximize the linguistic understanding that is commensurate with their abilities. Whether in the native language or a second language, high-ability students possess the skills to soar linguistically if properly taught the structure and patterns of languages. Teaching to the strengths of the students will peak both their self-efficacy and their motivation to excel in the target language. Intentionally analyzing the structure of the target language and comparing it to other languages allows high-ability students to use their verbal gifts and test their hypotheses as they form their interlanguage and progress toward automaticity. In an empirical study of the bilingual language development of a gifted child, Pan-San Hoh concluded that "driven by a strong desire to communicate mental meanings to others, the gifted child often seems to be able to operate outside of the linguistic and cognitive constraints restricting the general population" (Hoh, 2005, p. 184). The greater linguistic sophistication typically observed in gifted students must be honored and encouraged as a prior ability that can significantly enhance language development.

Direct Instruction of Communication Strategies

Selinker introduced the use of strategies of communication by second language learners in 1972. Applied linguists, Faerch and Kasper, define communication strategies as, "potentially conscious plans for solving what to an individual presents itself as a problem in reaching a particular communicative goal" (Brown, 1994, p. 118). These strategies differ from "learner strategies" in that communication is associated with output while learning refers to input. In Melinda Reichelt's exemplary review of foreign language writing research, she cites Aziz (1995) and Klohs (1994) among those that have found promising results in investigating the relationship between training in strategy use and gains made in proficiency (Reichelt, 1990, p. 586). Most recent research has been conducted within the ESL classroom. In her cleverly titled article, "It's Like Chicken but Bigger: Effects of Communication Strategy in the ESL Classroom," Rossiter (2003) finds that the range of communication strategies available to L2 learners may be enhanced by explicit instruction. The development of curriculum for gifted second language learners must consider the students' elevated capacity for higher order thinking via the direct instruction of the purposes, limitations, and nuances of the use of communication strategies in their production of the target language.

Communication strategies can be classified into one or both of two categories: avoidance or reduction/simplification. Avoidance behavior is among the most difficult to recognize and document, but it may be the most prevalent for all levels of language learners. Hulstijn and Marchena, authors of "Avoidance: Grammatical or Semantic Causes?," clarify that avoidance strategies cannot be explained by ignorance (Hulstijn & Marchena, 1989). As a strategy, avoidance techniques imply that a choice is made by the learner not to use a particular element of the target language system. In their study in avoidance, Laufer and Eliasson claim that "it presumes an awareness, however faint, of a given target language feature, and it always involves a quasi-intentional or intentional choice to replace the feature by something else" (Laufer & Eliasson, 1993, p. 36). Learners sometimes choose to use those target language structures with which they are the most comfortable, thereby playing it safe. This avoidance strategy can allow students with a tendency toward perfectionism, as is the case in many gifted learners, a way out of a communicative situation perceived to be headed toward frustration.

Simplification is a strategy employed by language learners due to an impoverished interlanguage. Because the approximative system of a learner is incomplete, communication is reduced to the body of knowledge possessed. While avoidance refers to the language patterns intentionally not used by the learner, simplification is concerned with the utterances that are produced, but somehow reduced. Avoidance behavior and simplification occasionally go hand in hand. As a learner avoids a word or message, rather than abandon the thought, he may simplify the utterance with a related word, concept or syntactic structure. If gifted students have been geared toward a sound grammatical understanding of the language and provided a vast vocabulary bank from which to choose, this strategy can be utilized regularly to improve communication. Providing students with a strategy to prevent communication from ceasing will prolong discourse allowing the intended message to be articulated.

There are several ways in which a learner can maneuver his production around difficult target language structures. The most common replacement strategies are approximation, synonymity, and circumlocution or paraphrase. Approximation is the substitution of familiar vocabulary for unknown structures. As the name implies, synonymity utilizes certain semantic structures understood to have the same meaning as others. In the substitution of true synonyms the result is only that of repetition, which, although not native-like, is still considered appropriate. As long as the agreed upon objective is communicating a message, the interlanguage should not be expected to be identical to the target language as spoken by native-speakers. Giving high-ability students the tools with which to expand their language structure and vocabulary, and subsequently giving them the permission to manipulate it in a way that communicates an idea effectively can be liberating for these students. Developing strategic competence in addition to grammatical competence is essential for communication to develop and mature in gifted individuals.

Simplification/avoidance strategies that are common to language learners and native speakers alike are circumlocution and paraphrase. Native speakers make use of such strategies when they find themselves unable to come up with the exact words for which they are searching. Second language learners may frequently have no alternative but to attempt to come as close as possible to intended meaning through circumlocution. Learners may present a semantic structure in terms of its opposite, such as "not hard" replacing the unknown word "soft," or they may substitute a description of a word or concept in place of a word or phrase that is not yet part of the student's knowledge base, like a student saying, "where you rest your head while you sleep" in place of "pillow." At times intended meaning in the production of second language learners may be modified or adjusted in order to bring the structure within the sphere of his linguistic capabilities. While caution needs to be exercised when employing the strategies of circumlocution or paraphrase, they can be the most effective weapons in a student's arsenal of strategies in order to effectively pursue productive competence. Explicitly teaching these strategies through the instruction of synonyms and antonyms in vocabulary lessons and encouraging the use of a variety of ways to communicate a message can greatly expand the potential for speech, and consequently, self-confidence in talented learners.

The potentially debilitating trait of perfectionism associated with some high-ability students poses a problem for language teachers as those students, while intellectually curious and capable, will tend to be hesitant to take the risks inherent in interlanguage production. These students must be conditioned to accept that the ultimate goal of language production is communicating a desired message rather than grammatical perfection. To that end, teaching communication strategies to assist in their ability to successfully communicate ideas can dramatically improve self-efficacy and lessen the debilitations of perfectionist tendencies.

Additional Ways to Develop Talent in Gifted Learners

Because the level of "comprehensible output' serves as an indicator of the rate at which competence occurs, foreign language usage in and out of the classroom must be the highest priority in curriculum development. Classroom activities that are perceived as less than meaningful or authentic can stunt student motivation to produce the language. According to Rebecca Adams (2003), "it is highly unlikely if not impossible for learners to acquire second language communicative competence without engaging in meaningful interaction" (p. 348). In order for students to invest time and effort to the study of a second language, they must be convinced that what they are doing is "real." Gifted students in particular can see through a transparent artificial lesson lacking a foundation in authentic real-life situations. Second language teaching is a discipline that can be applied to real-life scenarios one hundred percent of the time. Teachers that settle for non-contextualized practice scenarios once structures are introduced and rehearsed are suggesting that their students believe that language production is a less than authentic skill. Language teachers are in the fortunate position to be able to draw from all disciplines for lesson design and activity development. As a practical example, content-based foreign language instruction has become increasingly popular in the elementary classroom. Science, Math, and Social Studies lessons can be replicated easily and naturally in the target language after the concepts have been delivered by their classroom teachers in their native language. As a result, teachers can rest assured that the students have already mastered the concepts of the lesson so that meaningful language production can be expected. Encouraging a high level of meaningful language production in and out of the classroom can inspire students to progress at a faster rate than those limited to practice exercises and artificial non-contextualized learning scenarios.

By asking questions, forming theories, and taking risks, high-ability students acknowledge their participation in the process of second language learning and can, therefore, make it a more meaningful experience. The high level of intellectual curiosity typically observed in gifted students should be encouraged to serve as a catalyst to gain deeper understandings of the process of language learning and the general structure of languages.


While gifted students tend to excel in school, there are many ways in which educators can maximize their potential. Second language learning is no exception. While there is a significant body of research conducted on behalf of high-ability students related to those disciplines tested by state accountability systems, that which is related to the second language classroom is minimal at best. The majority of those identified as gifted and talented demonstrate exceptional verbal skills. The correlation that exists between verbal ability and excellence in second language learning is a relationship that should not be ignored in curriculum development. An explicit focus on linguistic structure and rule patterns can prove highly effective in motivating talented individuals by providing an intellectual understanding of the system. Gifted and talented curriculum developers must consider the differences inherent in that population compared to the regular student population. Gifted students are indeed different from regular learners. While direct grammar instruction can stunt the target language development of regular students by adding the steps of analysis and synthesis to language production, high-ability students possess the meta-cognitive skills necessary to process the target language through a grammatical lens. The grammatical structure of the target language can become automatized in gifted students while providing them with content that promotes comparisons and connections to their native language. Teaching communication strategies allows students to be successful despite their impoverished language systems. These strategies can provide gifted students with perfectionist tendencies with the skills necessary to circumvent their weaknesses and inhibitions. Gifted learners can be inspired to resist underachievement by participating in meaningful real-life learning activities. This population of language learners deserves every effort possible to develop their talents and maximize their gifts by considering that which they already bring to the classroom and focusing on how they learn best.


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Dekeyser, R. M. (1990). From Learning to Acquisition? Monitoring in the Classroom and Abroad [Electronic version]. Hispania, 73, March, 238-247.

Hayes, P., Norris, J., & Flaitz, J. (1998). Evidence of language problems in underachieving gifted adolescents: Implications for assessment. Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, Summer, Vol. 9, Issue 4, 179-194.

Hoh, Pau-San (2005). The Linguistic Advantage of the Intellectually Gifted Child: An Empirical Study of Spontaneous Speech. Roeper Review, Spring, Vol. 27, Issue 3, 178-185.

Hulstijn, J. H. & Marchena, E. (1989). Avoidance: Grammatical or Semantic Causes? Studies in Second Language Acquisition [Electronic version]. Vol. 11, No. 3, September, 241-255.

Lado, R. (1964). Language Teaching: A Scientific Approach, New York: McGraw Hill.

Laufer, B. & Eliasson, S. (1993). What Causes Avoidance in L2 Learning: L1-L2 difference, L1-L2 similarity, or L2 Complexity? [Electronic version]. Studies in Second Language Acquisition. Vol. 15, No. 1, March, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 35-48.

McLaughlin, B. (1990). 'Conscious' versus 'Unconscious' Learning [Electronic version]. TESOL Quarterly, 24, No. 4, Winter, 617-634.

Reichelt, M. (2001). A Critical Review of Foreign Language Writing Research on Pedagogical Approaches. Modern Language Journal, Winter, Vol. 85, Issue 4, 578-598.

Ritkin, B. (2005). A Ceiling Effect in Traditional Classroom Foreign Language Instruction: Data from Russian. The Modern Language Journal, 89, i, 3-18.

Rossiter, M. (2003). 'It's Like Chicken but Bigger': Effects of Communication Strategy in the ESL Classroom. The Canadian Modern Language Review/La Revue canadienne des langues vivantes, 60, 2 December, 105-122.

Thompson, M. (2002). Vocabulary and Grammar: Critical Content for Critical Thinking. The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, Vol. XIII, No. 2, Winter, 60-66.

Van Tassel-Baska, J. (1998). Excellence in educating gifted & talented learners (3rd ed.). Denver: Love.

ZhonggangGao, C. (2001). Second Language Learning and the Teaching of Grammar. Education, Winter, Vol. 122, Issue 2, 326-336.

Todd Deveau, University of Houston, TX

Todd Deveau, M.A., is Foreign Language Curriculum Coordinator at River Oaks Baptist School in Houston, TX and doctoral candidate at the University of Houston.
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Author:Deveau, Todd
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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