Advanced bilingual learners are the focus for this issue. We explain how to provide challenges for gifted and talented learners who speak English and other languagesword-8209701

Personalising learning G&T bilingual.doc

Who are our advanced bilingual learners? How do I understand their learning needs?
An advanced bilingual learner is someone who sounds fluent in English, who probably sounds like a native speaker of the language. When you look at their writing, it’s quite good. But when you examine it closely, there are a number of features which show that English isn’t their first language, and that they may be a long way short of the kind of academic language that they need. They won’t acquire that by osmosis. They will acquire it if you teach it to them explicitly.

The learning needs of advanced learners are complex; there is no single set of barriers to learning that applies to all. They may be recent arrivals who have been educated in English language environments, or have been in school in England for several years. English may be their first language but they may use another at home.

Consider some of these features of this group. How do they reflect the advanced learners in your classroom?

Advanced bilingual learners may:

  • have more gaps in their academic vocabulary and handle certain features of writing less confidently for academic purposes than their peers with English as their mother tongue language (EMT)
  • have less grasp of idiomatic speech, or take things more literally than intended. For example, in a text titled ‘GM foods a political hot potato’, a sub-heading said ‘food under the microscope’. Pupils can take this literally to mean that food is under a microscope, rather than the intended figurative meaning of food being investigated
  • lack cultural capital – the understanding and exposure to the diversity of history, society and experience which are critical to high achievement
  • be unfamiliar with the conventions and expectations of academic writing, such as how a scientific report differs from a summary of a historical event
  • have good ‘playground’ English but this quality and confidence in social talk may not be mirrored in their ability to use formal language and genre
  • slip into a more informal tone for a particular task when what is required is more formal language
  • have good topic-level knowledge, but limited capacity to show what they know when answering questions. In other words, they may be topic-specific in answers rather than being question-specific, or write answers that read like lists.

Gifted and talented learners who are also advanced learners of English may be assumed to be self-sufficient, but often need additional support to master the demands of language or cultural references in order to achieve at the highest levels.

The REAL Project has identified some common ‘misconceptions’ about advanced learners. Would you agree?

  • new arrivals have the greater need
  • advanced learners can ‘simply’ engage with language used across subjects
  • cultural capital can be acquired through the ‘normal’ diet of learning
  • advanced learners require more support than challenge
  • academic language is developed solely through the curriculum.

What does high challenge teaching and learning look like for advanced learners?
Providing high challenge learning for students with English as an additional language (EAL) depends on understanding how their learning needs might be meaningfully different from their peers. All learners, regardless of background, are different. Meaningful differences are those that we need to focus on in order to differentiate learning. In a nutshell, this means thinking about how the balance between challenge and support for advanced learners may need to be different from that for any other gifted and talented learner.

The key questions are:

  • How do we provide differentiated support so that EAL learners can access challenge in normal classroom learning?
  • What should be different about the learning opportunities we offer to build on their strengths?

REAL Projects have identified five distinct areas on which classroom practice can be differentiated to meet the needs of advanced learners.

  1. Analysing questions and task requirements.
  2. Being explicit about using English as a resource for learning.
  3. Highlighting how language is used in particular contexts.
  4. Encouraging pupils to think about the ways in which they can develop effective language learning strategies.
  5. Making cultural references accessible.

For further information about how to support and challenge advanced bilingual learners, visit

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2010

About the author: Ian Warwick is Senior Director of London Gifted & Talented, a branch of London Challenge. Matt Dickenson is Equalities and Achievement Director with London Gifted & Talented, leading the REAL Project (Realising Equality and Achievement for Learners).