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February 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 5

The Right Fit for Henry

How can schools help students who are twice-exceptional?

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Second grade was a defining year for Henry, the third boy in a family with two older gifted siblings. He attended an elementary school in a small Wisconsin town and appeared to be a typical 2nd grader. However, as the year progressed, his classroom teacher noticed that Henry used high-level vocabulary words in conversations with adults. He asked delightfully insightful questions. He understood subtle jokes his classmates missed. He had an intense interest in the world around him and wanted to know details about everything.
Henry's teacher suspected he was gifted, and at the final parent-teacher conference of the year, she suggested an assessment to see whether Henry qualified for the Challenge Program, the school district's self-contained, all-day magnet program for gifted students in grades 1–5. The program's curriculum is advanced by two years while remaining developmentally appropriate for the students' ages. Even though the Challenge Program provides a fast-paced curriculum, some highly advanced students receive additional subject-matter acceleration. Henry easily met the entrance criteria and began his 3rd grade year as a Challenge Program student.

Concerns Arise

As 3rd grade began, Henry seemed to be doing well. He developed excellent social skills and became popular. Interactions during class quickly earned him a reputation as a "smart kid" even in a room full of smart kids. When Henry could demonstrate what he knew verbally, he was able to show understanding far above his age level. His leadership ability was obvious, and many other students wanted to work with Henry during group projects. In conversations, he frequently surprised teachers with his level of sophistication. In most ways, he was thriving.
But Henry wasn't reading or writing well. Most of his problems were in word-attack skills, spelling, and composition. His teacher was spending at least an hour each day working with him on reading, but the gap between Henry and his classmates was increasing. The same problems appeared at home. Homework that should have taken 15 minutes was taking two hours and ending with Henry in tears. His parents were frustrated and wondered why he wasn't learning to read as easily as their older children did. They suspected he wasn't gifted after all and wondered whether the Challenge Program was right for him. They requested a conference with his teacher.
Having worked with gifted children for many years, Henry's teacher recognized that he exhibited many classic traits of giftedness, but she also knew that something was wrong. In some ways he functioned above his grade placement, and in some ways much more like a child with a learning disability. Could Henry be twice-exceptional?

What Is Twice-Exceptional?

A twice-exceptional student is any gifted child who also has a disability. Essentially, any disability listed in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that is not classified as an intellectual disability could be present with giftedness (Foley Nicpon, Allmon, Sieck, & Stinson, 2011). Henry was advanced verbally but had serious deficits with written skills and thus fit the U.S. Office of Education's (1977) definition of a child with a learning disability. His Challenge Program teacher was certain he was twice-exceptional. Such studentsmay look like other kids in the class, appearing to be average learners as their strengths and weaknesses cancel out one another, or these kids may stand out because of their poor behavior, lack of achievement, or poor disorganization. Smart kids with learning difficulties can be highly verbal, expressing great insights and knowledge … They may be reading below grade level and unable to remember simple directions. They may be holding it together at school, but falling apart at home. (Weinfeld, Barnes-Robinson, Jeweler, & Shevitz, 2006, p. 24)
Baum, Owen, and Dixon (1991) identified three groups of students with giftedness and accompanying learning disabilities. The first group consists of students who have been identified as gifted but who have subtle learning problems. The second group consists of students who are not identified in either area. The third consists of students who have been identified as learning disabled but not as gifted. Henry was clearly a member of the first group because his giftedness had been identified first and his subtle learning issues second.
Unfortunately, twice-exceptional children typically receive either remediation for their deficits with no attention to their giftedness or attention to their giftedness with no remediation for their deficits. Henry's teacher was determined that this wouldn't happen to him. She requested an evaluation.

A Plan for Henry

Henry's Challenge Program teacher, the school's special educator, the school psychologist, and Henry's parents met to discuss the results of the evaluation. The results indicated that Henry did not meet the standard criteria for specialized services, and most of the group agreed that Henry should be returned to the general education program.
The Challenge Program teacher, however, vehemently opposed this idea. And after team members took some time to think over the situation, they decided to implement a dual placement for Henry. He would remain in the Challenge Program, but he would also have an individualized education program (IEP) specifying targeted reading instruction and writing support. This was the first time the school had identified a twice-exceptional student and provided services for two types of exceptionality.
So began a dedicated partnership between Henry's teacher and the school's special educator. After reviewing Henry's testing results, the special educator decided that she could not provide him with targeted reading instruction in any of her existing reading groups because, despite his deficits, he was still functioning well above the other students on her caseload. She found two 20-minute slots in her schedule when she could provide Henry with writing support and individualized reading instruction.
The special educator and the Challenge Program teacher then collaborated about classroom accommodations. They concluded that there were four major areas in which Henry would need accommodations.

Reading Accommodations

The reading portion of the Challenge Program uses leveled chapter books that students read independently; they then respond by answering a series of focus questions. Henry was given a lower-level book to practice his word-attack skills and a higher-level book to practice his comprehension skills.
Henry read his stories to an adult who corrected mistakes as they occurred. He then dictated his focus-question responses to an adult. This enabled Henry to improve his word-attack skills at his lower identified word-attack level while developing comprehension skills at his higher identified comprehension level.

Language Arts Accommodations

The language arts portion of the Challenge Program consists of creative-writing assignments that students complete on word-processing programs. Because spell-check was available, accommodations in this area were relatively simple. Henry wrote his assignments independently, printed his written pages, and met with his teacher, who reviewed them with him. He then made changes they agreed on together before printing a final copy. The conferences were optional for other students, but required for Henry.
As the year progressed and Henry became more confident, he learned to use software that provides speech-to-text translation.

Spelling and Vocabulary Accommodations

The spelling portion of the program consists of direct instruction in above-grade-level words tied to reading material or instructional units. Henry was required to complete the spelling assignments, but he was excused from taking the weekly tests. Instead, he completed an alternate lesson in a workbook with spelling words at his level and was tested on those words. This allowed Henry to be exposed to spelling patterns and vocabulary consistent with his advanced level of understanding but to be evaluated at his instructional level.

Content-Area Accommodations

Henry attended science and social studies classes with his Challenge Program classmates. These classes included many hands-on projects and experiments for which Henry needed no accommodation. When students in the program were assigned to read material on the subject and write responses, Henry read his selections to an adult and then dictated his responses. This strategy enabled Henry to participate fully with his classmates in these content areas, and it addressed his deficits in reading and writing.

What Made This the Right Fit

There were four reasons this plan for Henry was effective.
First, his Challenge Program teacher was willing to make accommodations for Henry and design learning experiences in which Henry could demonstrate his knowledge. Occasionally, other staff members and parents questioned whether Henry was doing what the other children did. The teacher simply answered, "He's learning what he needs to learn in a way that works for him."
Second, the school's special educator recognized that even though Henry wasn't at the same level as her other students, he had needs that she could address. She was willing to make time for him in a busy day.
Third, the Challenge Program philosophy recognized the individual differences among children, even children who were identified as gifted. Henry was not the only student receiving accommodations. Assignments were already differentiated to accommodate the learning styles and needs of students who did not have identified disabilities. Henry's assignments were just further differentiated. The atmosphere in the classroom honored the different learning styles and capabilities of all class members.
Henry's Challenge Program teacher also made certain that the other students in the classroom knew about the areas in which Henry excelled. His areas of deficit were not allowed to define him. Henry was known as "gifted first" in the classroom.
His placement was exactly the right fit.

Tips for Meeting the Needs of Twice-Exceptional Students

  • Provide decoding instruction at the student's level of disability but comprehension instruction at the gifted level. (A program such as the Wilson Reading System can be beneficial.)

  • Be sure that the student can demonstrate his or her content-area knowledge in a format that does not require written language.

  • Acknowledge the ideas in written work without penalizing the student for errors in spelling and punctuation.

  • Allow the student to participate verbally in classroom activities so that he or she can feel successful and so that classmates have an appreciation for the student's giftedness.

  • Make use of word-processing technology wherever possible. Don't rely on just Microsoft Word, but consider other appropriate software, such as Dragon, Naturally Speaking speech-recognition software, now available as a free app.

  • Make sure that accommodations are made throughout the school day, not just in language arts. This may include reading tests aloud and writing down the student's spoken answers, having the student read content-area assignments aloud so that concepts aren't missed, typing writing projects for the student, and helping him or her keep materials organized.


Baum, S. M., Owen, S. V., & Dixon, J. (1991). To be gifted and learning disabled. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

Foley Nicpon, M. F., Allmon, A., Sieck, B. & Stinson, R. D. (2011). Empirical investigation of twice-exceptionality: Where have we been and where are we going? Gifted Child Quarterly, 55(1), 3–17.

U. S. Office of Education. (1977). Assistance to states for education of handicapped children: Procedures for evaluating specific learning disabilities. Federal Register, 42, 65082–65085.

Weinfeld, R., Barnes-Robinson, L., Jeweler, S., & Shevitz, B. R. (2006). Smart kids with learning difficulties. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

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