You may have heard stereotypes about gifted students — that they are verbally precocious, academically capable, and intellectually quick. But not all gifted kids match these stereotypes, and gifted kids with learning differences (twice-exceptional or 2e) often defy them. Most people familiar with 2e students know that some gifted students read slowly, forget math facts, or struggle to express themselves in writing. Perhaps because they often don’t fit the stereotype of a gifted child or a student with a learning difference, some experts believe 2e students go unrecognized or aren’t identified until late in their academic careers.
When it comes to cognitive abilities and academic skills, how are 2e students different from gifted students without a learning disability, and how do they differ from their neurotypical peers? These are the questions I sought to answer in my recent research study, “Cognitive and Achievement Characteristics of Students From a National Sample Identified as Potentially Twice Exceptional (Gifted With a Learning Disability),” published in Gifted Child Quarterly in January 2020. The goal for the study was to help educators, parents, and psychologists more accurately recognize and support 2e students.
The study used a nationally representative group of students in Grades K-12 who completed a standardized set of cognitive and achievement tests: the Woodcock Johnson IV Tests of Cognitive Abilities and Academic Achievement. Students scoring in the top 10 percent on general, verbal and/or reasoning ability were classified as potentially gifted. Students with a deficit in processing speed, working memory, long-term memory, or auditory/phonological processing who performed worse than expected in one or more academic areas given their cognitive ability were classified as potentially twice-exceptional. Another subset of students was classified as potentially average ability because they had overall ability scores in the average range and no clear academic weakness.
The study compared the 2e group to the average-ability and gifted groups to determine whether 2e students had notable strengths and weaknesses compared to their peers. As expected, 2e students’ verbal abilities were just as strong as those of their gifted peers, but the group also displayed deficits in processing abilities more frequently than the other groups. Surprisingly, almost half of the 2e group had a deficit in processing speed specifically, meaning they processed information and completed tasks more slowly than their same-age peers. As a group, the 2e students earned a lower processing speed score than either comparison group.
The most defining characteristic of 2e students, though, was their heterogeneous performance across tasks. In the general population, cognitive abilities are positively correlated with one another; people who score high in one aspect of intelligence tend to score high in others. With the 2e students, however, notable cognitive deficits existed alongside notable cognitive strengths — not only strengths in reasoning and verbal skills but also in some processing abilities.
For example, a 2e student with below-average processing speed who thought more slowly than others could also have above-average long-term memory abilities that would allow them to learn and remember more than their peers. Alternatively, a 2e student with an auditory processing deficit might have difficulty sounding out words and spelling yet have very quick thinking speed overall.
These students also had particularly large discrepancies between their cognitive scores, where relatively consistent performance is the norm. The average discrepancy between verbal and reasoning abilities for the 2e group was almost 24 points — over 1.5 standard deviations — compared to about 11 points for neurotypical peers and 17 points for gifted peers. The discrepancy between 2e students’ processing speed and their verbal or reasoning scores was similarly large, between 22 and 26 points. Even though composite intelligence scores such as the full-scale IQ are traditionally considered the gold standard for gifted identification, these scores actually obscure 2e students’ specific strengths and weaknesses because the scores illustrate the average level of performance instead of showing the 2e students’ remarkable highs and lows.
Perhaps because they often don’t fit the stereotype of a gifted child or a student with a learning difference, many 2e students go unrecognized or aren’t identified until late in their academic careers.
Academically, 2e students as a group performed only slightly better than the average-ability group on most academic tasks. On timed tests of reading, math, and writing, they did not outperform average-ability peers and sometimes performed worse, likely because of their slower processing speed. As with cognitive abilities, though, 2e students’ academic performance varied. Despite poor performance in one or more areas, 2e students often excelled in their areas of strength. More than 40 percent of 2e students performed in the top 10 percent in at least one area of academic achievement, and 13 percent performed in the top two percent.
Some students excelled and lagged in the same domain, depending on the task. For example, some students were able to solve math word problems above their grade level but completed math facts slowly or inaccurately. Clearly, these students need to be supported or accommodated in some areas and challenged academically in others.
It is important to note that although some common themes were identified in the cognitive and academic performance of these students, there was no single 2e profile nor even several profiles to easily classify students by a pattern of strengths and weaknesses. Instead, variability was the rule.
Based on the results of this study, I recommend that parents, teachers, and other providers:
- De-emphasize speed. Almost half of the 2e students had deficits in processing speed, and as a group they performed poorly on timed tasks, even when they were able to excel on untimed tasks in the same subject area. As much as possible, avoid speeded tasks to identify or instruct students who are gifted or 2e.
- Pursue additional testing. If teachers and parents notice students who have discrepancies in abilities or uneven performance on tasks, such as a student with strong conceptual understanding who has difficulty keeping up with work, or if they suspect that a student may be gifted, have a learning disability, or be twice-exceptional, the next critical step is to pursue additional testing. A psychoeducational evaluation is the best way to understand a student’s cognitive and academic strengths and weaknesses. Such evaluations are sometimes available through a student’s school or through a community mental health center, university, or private practitioner.
- Examine performance in specific areas. Because 2e students’ performance is so variable, it is critical that educators and evaluators examine students’ performance in specific areas of ability and achievement to ensure that individual strengths and weaknesses are identified instead of obscured. For example, teachers should consider reading accuracy, reading comprehension, and reading speed as three separate skills and look for students with notable gifts or deficits in any one. Psychologists and school psychologists should follow the recommendations of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC, 2018) and use cognitive ability scores that focus on specific ability domains (e.g., verbal, fluid reasoning, or nonverbal reasoning) instead of focusing on the more traditional summary IQ score.
- Develop dually differentiated educational plans. Twice-exceptional students have real academic strengths and require academic challenges that meet them at their level. At the same time, these students have real cognitive deficits that make some academic tasks difficult or unnecessarily demanding. Provide accommodations and assistive technology to reduce frustration and support achievement in students’ areas of disability. The results of this research suggest that 2e students can sometimes excel in areas of strength without remediation of basic skills, particularly if appropriate accommodations are made.
National Association for Gifted Children. (2018). Use of the WISC-V for gifted and twice exceptional identification. Retrieved from National Association for Gifted Children website: