Gifted and Dyslexic:
How the Talent-centered Model Works

This article was adapted from an article that appeared in Inspire: The Gifted Education Magazine for Educators,The Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education, www.hkage.org.hk.

By Susan Baum, Ph.D.

November, 2013

Feeling alone, rejected, and depressed, nine-year-old Debra had terrible difficulty making and keeping friends. She was knowledgeable about a wide variety of topics and beyond her years in understanding the injustices of society. World hunger, child abuse, and war occupied her thoughts and discussions, especially with adults. Her dramatic flair and high conceptual level of understanding made these conversations compelling. So no one, especially her peers, could understand why Debra was unable to read or write.

Debra’s self-esteem was precariously low (at the third percentile on a widely used measure). Her teacher described her as defiant, distrustful, and easily hurt. The child lacked confidence, concentration, and independence in approaching school tasks. Despite her full-scale IQ score measuring in the superior range of intelligence on the Wechsler Scale of Intelligence (WISC-IV), her low subtest scores in the Working Memory and Processing Speed indexes pointed to a learning disability. Further testing showed that Debra was dyslexic.

The Two Sides of Dyslexia

The cause of dyslexia, in part, is an inefficient phonological processing system, which is responsible for sorting out, analyzing, and sequencing sounds heard in spoken language. Children with dyslexia are referred to as learning disabled; in fact, dyslexia accounts for approximately 80 percent of all diagnosed learning disabilities. Dyslexics have difficulties in learning to read and spell; plus they may also have dysgraphia, an inability to write, or dyscalculia, an inability to understand mathematics. Additional difficulties that dyslexics may have can include:

  • Recalling specific words and word sequences (days of the week, months of the year, etc.)
  • Organizing thoughts
  • Memorizing information
  • Understanding intended (rather than literal) meaning
  • Reversing letters and numbers.

On the other hand, there are some interesting strengths associated with dyslexia such as:

  • Superior reasoning and problem solving skills
  • Spatial abilities
  • Talents in the fine arts, performing arts, athletics, engineering, and science (West, 1997).

Indeed, Debra’s ability to reason, her empathy for world problems, and her demonstrated talent in drama exemplify this strange mix of gifts and challenges.

Despite their superior potential, many gifted dyslexic students like Debra also have unique social and emotional problems stemming from the discrepancy between what they can and cannot do. Chief among them is a low sense of academic self-efficacy (the belief in one’s own ability to successfully organize and carry out particular tasks). These children often feel like failures and have low self-esteem.

It’s common for gifted dyslexics to use their creative thinking abilities to avoid tasks and compensate for deficit areas. For instance, these students can be very fluent in generating excuses for why they cannot do their homework; and they have no difficulty inventing original ways to do an assignment, especially when they have lost the directions. We have also found that gifted students with learning disabilities are anxious and depressed, and often lose hope of ever succeeding. (Baum, Schader, & Hébert, 2013). Moreover, when typical remedial approaches don’t help them to catch up quickly, these youngsters often stop trying (Baum & Owen, 2004).

In short, gifted students with dyslexia are bright and talented, on the one hand, but at the same time are often anxious and depressed. Their heads are filled with complex ideas. Their curiosity about the ways of the world feeds their desire to learn. However, limited skills in reading, spelling, and writing continuously prevent and impede them from achieving at a level commensurate with their potential. Early on, gifted dyslexic students may become discouraged, and some lose belief in their abilities altogether. As a result, school becomes a hostile environment for them. They may try to hide their feelings of inadequacy by becoming behavior problems and underachievers in the classroom. Traditional behavioral approaches often fail. What these bright but underachieving students ultimately need is an approach that focuses on their unique gifts and talents in addition to offering appropriate skill development and compensation strategies.

Meeting Their Needs: A Talent-centered Model

The Talent-centered Model for Twice-exceptional Students (Baum, 2008) was purposefully designed to meet the complex needs of gifted students with learning and attention issues. Understanding the traits of gifted students with learning disabilities, especially dyslexia, gives credence to the idea that an appropriate model for these students would build on their strengths rather than simply remediate weaknesses through appropriate reading and writing programs. In this approach, curriculum and instruction would be strength-based, reflecting the strengths, interests, and talents of the students. Additionally, the program would be talent-centered, providing opportunities for these students to develop their special gifts in their own right.

Programs designed to support gifted students with learning disabilities must be multifaceted if we are to meet all their needs. The Talent-centered Model offers talent development opportunities purposefully designed to allow students to explore and nurture their gifts and interests. These components comprise the model:

  • Intellectually challenging curriculum
  • Differentiated instruction
  • Social and emotional support
  • Appropriate physical environment and resources
  • Targeted remediation.

Some might suggest that with gifted dyslexic students the top priority should be remediating weaknesses, not developing strengths. However, if we neglect talent development, we may actually be doing harm. The challenge we face is that most attention is paid to what the student cannot do, frequently leaving talent development unattended. However, deficit-driven models are proving to be ineffective. As Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) argue, “Treatment is not just fixing what is broken; it is nurturing what is best” (p. 7). In fact, positive psychology suggests focusing on deficits does harm and recommends instead a strength-based, talent-focused approach (Eide & Eide, 2011).

It is through talent development that gifted learning-disabled students thrive and develop a positive sense of self. It is by feeling smart and accomplished that they can find the stamina to overcome their challenges. A visual representation of the Talent-centered Model for Twice-exceptional Students is shown here.

Talent-centered Model for Twice-exceptional Students

Let’s see the Talent-centered Model at work in the classroom. The following description shows how the elements in the model were used to provide a comprehensive program for one dyslexic youngster, Debra.

More About Debra

Ever since first grade, Debra received remedial support in school. Although her basic skills improved somewhat, her emotional well-being in school withered away each year as more reading and writing were required. Because of her poor grades, Debra did not qualify for the gifted program. Neither was she exposed to advanced levels of learning, the result of having reading scores considerably below grade level.

Luckily, Debra’s special education teacher nominated her to participate in a special enrichment program designed for gifted students with reading and writing difficulties. In this program students explored their strengths, interests, and talents, and never had to read or write (Baum & Owen, 2004).

Intellectually Challenging Curriculum

Debra had a strong interest in historical research. On a class field trip to the Noah Webster house in her town, she became intrigued when learning that Noah Webster had a younger sister, Jerusha. She asked the curator numerous questions. Seeing her excitement, the curator asked Debra if she would like to create an exhibit at the Noah Webster House that would allow others to know more about Jerusha. Without hesitation, Debra agreed. Her efforts proved a success. The results of her historical research project were on display at the Noah Webster house for years.

This opportunity proved to be a turning point for Debra. “I never thought I’d be able to create my own program. I can’t believe that it is really going to be shown at the museum!” she exclaimed. Her eyes sparkled as she recounted her role as a director, writer, and actress in her historical research study entitled “A Day in the Life of Jerusha Webster.”

Through the course of this 10-week-long project, Debra learned how to manage complex tasks, how to find resources and information, how to organize and sequence information, and how to create a multimedia project where her talents could shine. She also began to recognize the kind of learning environment she needed to be able to work and how to rely on herself instead of always asking adults to help. This talent-development opportunity got Debra started on the road to becoming a self-regulated learner.

Debra’s success in the enrichment program showed her teachers the kind of curriculum in which Debra could excel. They used this information to design a program for her incorporating the features of the talent-centered model, shown earlier. The professionals working with Debra saw that she tried harder when the content was commensurate with her high conceptual ability. They acknowledged her need for advanced-level content that piqued her curiosity and fulfilled her desire for conceptually rich ideas.

Differentiation of Instruction

Differentiating how material is taught and how it is assessed offers more possibilities to meet the needs of gifted students with reading and writing difficulties. The knowledge we have of students’ strengths should inform lesson design and choices for all students. One type of differentiation to consider using is product differentiation, inviting students to choose how they will represent what they have learned.

It is important to keep in mind that writing is only one way to tell a story, to explain a scientific principle, or to describe historical events. In Debra’s case, the teacher decided to use drama to teach concepts and assess understanding in a variety of content areas. Instead of having the class write sentences for their vocabulary list, for instance, Debra’s teacher gave students a choice. Debra and some others chose to perform a skit that incorporated all of the vocabulary. Other students depicted the meanings of the words through drawing; while still others used a free online service called Voki, which helped them design characters and develop a script (www.voki.com).

An interest center (described here) is a good way to offer students product choices. In the interest center students could find multiple task cards like those shown here. The tasks described on these cards would all relate to the various strengths of the students in the class and to the learning outcomes of the current unit. The teacher might ask students to go through the cards and each choose three to complete over the course of the unit.

Finally, we must allow students who have difficulty with memory, writing, and organization to use technology at all times. Many of the problems gifted dyslexic students face can be diminished by using voice-recognition and text-to-speech programs, word processing software, recorded books, and other forms of assistive technology.

When we differentiate curriculum and instruction in ways that align with all students’ strengths, we allow them to learn and create with no social stigmas. On those occasions, when all students are given the opportunity to choose how they want to learn and communicate understanding, students like Debra can find success. For Debra, those opportunities for all to see her at her personal best made her feel valued and smart. With her anxiety and depression decreasing, Debra became more available for learning.

Social and Emotional Support

Because of the discrepancy between what gifted dyslexic students can and cannot do, they often experience higher levels of sensitivity and anxiety than their classmates. For these students, counseling often helps them accept who they are. Also, meeting together with others who share the same issues lets these students know that they are not alone in their struggle. Group study of a film or book focusing on gifted individuals who are dyslexic is a helpful strategy. [See the sidebar at the end of this article for some book recommendations.]

For Debra, the special enrichment program designed for gifted students with reading and writing difficulties provided a safe haven. Through her participation, Debra became aware that others shared her unique mix of gifts and disabilities. It was the perfect setting for group members to discover and accept who they are.

Physical Environment and Resources

For gifted students with dyslexia, the physical environment of the classroom can affect learning. The physical environment involves more than just the furniture and the seating arrangement. It also includes factors such as the lighting and the sound level. Some things to consider about lighting are:

  • Glare. Sometimes the glare from fluorescent lights detracts from a student's ability to read. Lamplight often provides the best type of illumination.
  • Color of the page and print in reading materials. One young man could only read when the page background was white and the letters black.

Consulting a vision therapist for help with these types of issues can be beneficial.

The sound level in the classroom was an issue for Debra. Because she could not concentrate when the room was too noisy, her teacher gave Debra sound-blocking headphones to use. Sometimes, teachers provide offices or quiet zones in their classrooms where a screen blocks noise and distractions. Then, whenever any student feels the need for being in the quiet zone, he or she can sign up for a time slot, making it more appealing for students who don’t want to be different from their non-dyslexic peers.

Targeted Remediation

In addition to talent development and accommodations, gifted students with dyslexia need special instruction to help them master reading and writing skills. They require specialists in the field of dyslexia who have the knowledge and skills needed to teach these youngsters to read and write. Here are some structured language/reading programs that have enjoyed success:

  • The Orton-Gillingham approach
  • WILSON Reading System®
  • Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes.

[See the sidebar at the end of this article for a brief description of these programs.]

In Debra’s case, the special education teacher worked with her daily, using the Orton-Gillingham approach to help Debra improve her reading and writing. A lack of progress made Debra’s teacher ready to discard the approach when some changes took place. Debra entered the enrichment program, her teacher began to use a differentiated approach in the classroom, and Debra’s attitude underwent a change. Her special education teacher saw that instead of giving up when she didn’t recognize a word, Debra actually began to apply the word-attack strategies she’d been learning. By the end of fourth grade, Debra was nearly reading at grade level.

Final Word

Gifted students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities have great potential. Indeed, a list of creative producers across disciplines talk about their difficulties in school and their struggle to find themselves. But they all agree that the struggle made them stronger and helped them find their unique niche in the world. In fact, more and more researchers are claiming that dyslexics have unique sets of talents that make them great at what they do. Our role is to help these students develop their gifts and talents; assist them to discover strategies to compensate for or overcome problematic weaknesses; and finally support them to learn how to accept the duality of who they are — both gifted and dyslexic.

Dyslexia Resources from Sue Baum

Here are some useful resources for teaching 2e students with dyslexia.

Reading Programs

  • Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes. The founders of this program, Charles and Patricia Lindamood and Nanci Bell, are the authors of research-validated instructional programs that teach children and adults to read, spell, comprehend, think critically, and express language.
  • The Orton-Gillingham Approach. This structured language-based approach to reading is multisensory, sequential, cumulative, cognitive, and flexible. It teaches the basics of word formation before associating words’ whole meanings. Its strategies encompass these teaching/learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic; and it offers direct instruction of sorting, recognizing, and organizing concepts dealing with language development.
  • Wilson Reading System®. Based on Orton-Gillingham principles, WRS is a highly-structured remedial program that directly teaches the structure of the language to students and adults who have been unable to learn with other teaching strategies or who may require multisensory language instruction.

Books for Discussion

  • Personal journeys
    • Abeel, S, (2003). My thirteenth winter: A memoir. NY: Orchard Books.*
    • Mooney, J. and Cole, D. (2000). Learning outside the lines. NY: Simon and Schuster.*
    • Polacco, P. (2010). The junkyard wonders. NY: Philomel Books.
    • Polacco, P. (1998). Thank you, Mr. Falker. NY: Philomel Books.*
  • Fictional series about students with learning differences
    • The Adventures of Everyday Geniuses by Barbara Esham,*
      (http:// theadventuresofeverydaygeniuses.com/wordpress/about-us/)
      The author states about the series: “Our mission is to expose the broader definitions of learning, creativity, and intelligence in a child-friendly format. Our program goal is to educate and liberate all children. Each story introduces a learning style or learning difference, while offering realistic examples of triumph over difficulty.”
    • Hank Zipzer books, by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver*
      The actor Henry Winkler has collaborated with Lin Oliver on this series about a 4th-grade boy, Hank Zipzer, who is dyslexic. Winkler himself was diagnosed with the learning disability at the age of 31. Since 2003, he has published 17 books about his hero Zipzer, the “world’s greatest underachiever.”

    *Check the 2e Newsletter archives for reviews of these books and series.

References

Baum, S. (2008). Talent centered model for twice exceptional students. In J. Renzulli and J. Gubbins (Eds.), Systems and models in gifted education. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

Baum, S, & Owen, S. (2004). To be gifted and learning disabled: Strategies for helping bright students with LD, ADHD, and more. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

Baum, S., Schader, R., & Hébert, T. (2013, April). Influences of holistic learning model designed and implemented for twice-exceptional students. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Conference, San Francisco, CA.

Eide, B. & Eide, F. (2011). The dyslexic advantage. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Seligman, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.

West, T. (1997). In the mind’s eye: Visual thinkers, gifted people with dyslexia and other learning difficulties, computer images, and the ironies of creativity. Updated Edition. NY: Prometheus Books.

Susan Baum

Susan Baum, Ph.D., co-authored one of the seminal books in the 2e field, To Be Gifted and Learning Disabled. She consults internationally and is co-founder of AEGUS, the Association for the Education of Gifted Underachieving Students. She serves as the director of the 2e Center for Research and Professional Development at Bridges Academy, Studio City, California.

 

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