Twice-exceptional students are both intellectually gifted and learning disabled, but giftedness masks dyslexia, and dyslexia masks giftedness – so how should educators support them?
Your student is bright, curious, and could charm the birds out of the trees with his oral persuasive skills. You would think his grades would be at the top of his class, yet he’s only performing at an average level. Average is good, right?
Of course average is good – for the traditional student. But this kid… you know he’s capable of more. He’s just “not trying”. He makes careless spelling mistakes in his written work. He skips over lines of text or misreads/substitutes another similar sounding or meaning word. Why?
Could he be a twice-exceptional student?
What does “Twice Exceptional” or “2E” Mean?
According to the International Dyslexia Association, a twice-exceptional student (2E) is defined as a student who “is both intellectually gifted (as determined by an accepted standardized assessment) and learning disabled, which includes students with dyslexia”.
The National Association for Gifted Children recognizes three categories of students who could be identified as twice exceptional: identified gifted students who have a learning disability, students with a learning disability whose giftedness has not been identified, or “unidentified students whose disabilities may be masked by average school achievement”. Furthermore, additional research indicates that between 2-5% of all students are identified as being gifted and having a disability (Dix & Schafer, 1996; Whitmore, 1981).
Giftedness masks dyslexia. Conversely, dyslexia masks giftedness. In the early grades, the twice exceptional student often presents with creative qualities, reasoning, critical thinking, leadership, and strong oral language skills, while at the same time, he or she may experience difficulties with phonological awareness, learning letters and sounds, and developing automatic decoding and spelling skills, which are hallmarks of a student with dyslexia.
The good news is that the multisensory, structured language approach used for the treatment of dyslexia proves to be beneficial for 2E students. And, like other students with dyslexia, gifted students may benefit from instruction that includes direct, systematic, explicit instruction, technology, and multiple sensory modes.
Don’t be fooled
Some educators misinterpret the diagnostic assessments and make the assumption that someone only has dyslexia if they are failing their classes or performing below grade level or below the level one would expect the “average person” to attain. And to quote the great Sally Shaywitz, reading and intelligence do not always go hand-in-hand. Many 2E students go through school without a dyslexia identification because their giftedness masks their possible dyslexia eligibility. Dyslexia may not be discovered until high school, or even post-secondary because of the 2E student’s ability to compensate in school. Parents and teachers alike need to become well-versed in both the 2E student’s giftedness and academic challenges in order for an identification to be made.
Be aware of the special emotional needs and struggles of the twice exceptional student and carefully ensure that both the disability and the ability are addressed in the student’s individual education plan.
Are accommodations/modifications needed for the 2E student?
Educators and parents often entertain the misconception that the twice exceptional student can compensate and succeed without additional support (like accommodations or modifications) to complete school work and that they should be self-motivated learners. The 2E student may still need educational support found in individualized accommodations and modifications just to level the playing field for that student. That also includes support in pre or advanced placement courses at any grade level. The identification of 2E students is critical to their academic success. Without a dual classification that includes both giftedness and dyslexia, the student may not have access to appropriate services that will provide the support and stimulation necessary to succeed.
Emotional concerns for the 2E student
The 2E student can be emotionally diverse. This could be because of the unique neurology and life experiences of these individuals. They can be at a higher risk for anxiety and depression. Research suggests that being a 2E student can be distinctively stressful, so teachers and parents need to consider the emotional and academic needs of 2E individuals. Instruction for 2E students should be designed to develop higher-level cognitive functioning in addition to addressing their challenges to develop handwriting, reading, spelling, and written expression. Otherwise, these students may be labeled average students or underachievers who simply need “to try harder” throughout their school careers.
Though the identification of 2E in the public or charter school setting can pose some challenges, it is important that educators and parents become informed on its implications for their student’s learning processes. The 2E student can have superior skills in areas in and outside of traditional academic domains. Consider the “peaks and valleys” of the student’s academic areas and take a developmental perspective toward understanding the individual, the assessment, and the interpretation of test results. Additionally, be aware of the special emotional needs and struggles of the twice exceptional student and carefully ensure that both the disability and the ability are addressed in the student’s individual education plan. To quote Jonathan Mooney, 2E advocate, author, and speaker, “You have to stop fixing and start accommodating and empowering students who think differently”.