JOURNAL OF LEARNING DISABILITIES
VOLUME 39, NUMBER 6, NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2006, PAGES 515–527
Gifted Students With
Who Are They?
Benjamin J. Lovett and Lawrence J. Lewandowski
More than 20 years ago, psychologists first described gifted students with learning disabilities (LD). In the past decade, several sets of
identification criteria have been proposed for this population. Many of the suggested assessment practices are unsupported by research
in psychoeducational assessment, and some have been directly contradicted by recent research. We argue that an uncritical acceptance
of the concept of concomitant giftedness and LD has led to unsound identification procedures and to interventions that are not targeted
properly. Specific recommendations for future research and implications for current clinical practice are discussed.
individual’s ability and his or her
achievement or performance. Al-
though the use of this method of clini-
cal diagnosis has been criticized by
many (see Bradley, Danielson, & Hal-
lahan, 2002), the basic idea may still
serve as a useful heuristic for under-
standing the gifted student with LD.
Within the discrepancy paradigm, it is
easy to imagine an individual whose
measured general ability is signifi-
cantly above average (i.e., in an ab-
solute sense, relative to the population
at large) but whose achievement in
some academic subject area is squarely
in the below-average range. Such an
individual would seem to simultane-
ously possess giftedness and a specific
learning disability, at least by defini-
tion (i.e., by meeting criteria for both
classifications). Furthermore, it seems
reasonable that such an individual
might well benefit from interventions
to remediate the LD and from ser-
vices to develop skills in those areas
where the individual has above-average
ne way to operationalize
learning disabilities (LD) is as
a discrepancy between an
In this article, we briefly review
the history of this “dual exceptional-
ity” before examining proposed defini-
tions of children with both giftedness
and learning disabilities (G/LD). We
then describe four recently proposed
sets of guidelines for the diagnostic as-
sessment of G/LD children, and we
evaluate these guidelines in the light of
recent empirical research in psycho-
educational assessment. Finally, we
discuss the empirical basis for inter-
ventions for the G/LD population,
propose four specific research projects
to better understand the concept of
G/LD, and conclude by discussing
what steps clinicians might take when
faced with children who have uneven
Two previous works have dis-
cussed similar issues. Vaughn (1989)
was the first scholar to critique the
G/LD field, providing a comprehen-
sive review of the G/LD literature and
describing the need for research vali-
dating the identification practices and
the intervention programs that had
been proposed at that time. Specifi-
cally, Vaughn noted that many of the
published papers describing the G/LD
child relied on “case studies, observa-
tions by teachers and clinicians, self-
reports from persons who are gifted/
LD, and intuition” (p. 124) rather than
on systematic empirical investigation.
Five years later, Cohen and Vaughn
(1994) provided an update and reached
largely the same conclusions, main-
taining that although “there is little
doubt that students who are both gifted
and learning disabled exist” (p. 93), re-
search had yet to provide reliable and
valid ways of identifying such stu-
dents. In some ways, the current article
begins where Cohen and Vaughn left
off, using research from the past dec-
ade to evaluate work in the G/LD field
from the same time period. We also
hope to go beyond an evaluation of the
current G/LD literature to show how
assessment procedures contribute to
our understanding of children with
uneven ability profiles and how new
research is required not only to in-
crease the validity of diagnostic assess-
ment, but also to better understand
what it could mean to be gifted and
Several topics, though worthwhile,
are beyond the scope of the present ar-
JOURNAL OF LEARNING DISABILITIES
ticle. We will not provide a general
evaluation of the state of G/LD re-
search (for this, see Cohen & Vaughn,
1994). Also, we will not provide a com-
prehensive review or analysis of defi-
nitions of giftedness or LD, but we di-
rect the reader to Bradley et al. (2002)
for the latter. We instead limit our aim
to a critique of present identification
practices in the G/LD area, along with
a context of historical antecedents and
a discussion of clinical consequences.
History and Definitions
The “Gifted Handicapped”
It has long been realized that intellec-
tually gifted students may neverthe-
less have a disability such as visual im-
pairment. Case studies of Helen Keller,
Steven Hawking, and other eminent
individuals have attested to this. How-
ever, proactive attempts to find these
students only began with the main-
streaming movement (Whitmore &
Maker, 1985). Gifted education advo-
cates noted that moving students with
disabilities into the general education
classroom allowed these children to
show talents and skills that might have
been ignored in special education
This recognition prompted a re-
sponse from professional organiza-
tions, leading to a committee on “gifted
handicapped children” formed by the
Council for Exceptional Children (CEC),
two national conferences on the topic
in 1976 and 1977, and even a new
“gifted handicapped” category for
documents catalogued by the Educa-
tional Resources Information Center
(ERIC) to make the latest information
more available to scholars from a vari-
ety of disciplines (Whitmore & Maker,
1985, Chapter 1).
Textbooks on gifted education
gradually began to incorporate work
in this area. Davis and Rimm (1989)
were typical in devoting a chapter to
“the handicapped gifted child” and es-
timating the size of this population to
be large (in their case, between 300,000
and 450,000 children). Davis and Rimm
emphasized that identifying giftedness
in students with disabilities requires
procedures different from those in a
typical giftedness assessment. Specifi-
cally, they recommended the use of be-
havior rating scales, creativity inven-
tories, peer or self-nominations, and
prolonged student observation.
It is important that from the be-
ginning of work in this new area,
scholarship was conducted from an
advocacy perspective: The “gifted
handicapped” were viewed as lan-
guishing in special education classes
where they were denied the right to
fully develop their talents. Whitmore
and Maker (1985) were clear on this
point, describing the G/LD field as
“emerging within the context of moral
concern for the civil right of all chil-
dren to have an appropriate public
school education that will help them
fully develop their potential for life sat-
isfaction and contribution to society”
Gifted Children With
The “gifted handicapped” movement
initially concentrated on children with
sensory and physical disabilities, but it
was not long before scholars began to
extend their interest to students with
LD. The earliest articles on this topic
were not empirical studies but, in-
stead, descriptions of eminent (and os-
tensibly gifted) individuals whose bi-
ographies suggested deficits that might
be characterized today as LD. For in-
stance, Thompson (1971) provided bi-
ographical sketches of Thomas Edison,
Albert Einstein, and others, with spe-
cial reference to these individuals’ iso-
lated deficits, such as Harvey Cush-
ing’s poor spelling. Thompson even
diagnosed William James (a voracious
reader; see Bjork, 1997), with dyslexia,
based on a brief autobiographical pas-
sage in James’ Principles of Psychology
about the visualizing of alphabet let-
ters. Similarly, Elkind (1973) cited Win-
ston Churchill and Igor Sikorsky (a pi-
oneering aviator) as examples of gifted
individuals with LD.
These descriptive pieces aside, the
first two major works on G/LD chil-
dren were published in 1983. One was
an edited volume entitled Learning-
Disabled/Gifted Children: Identification
and Programming (Fox, Brody, & Tobin,
1983), based on the proceedings of a
1981 conference held by the Johns
Hopkins University. None of the con-
tributors offered a clear working defi-
nition of G/LD students, except by
separately advocating certain views of
giftedness and LD. In general, the con-
tributors endorsed very broad notions
of giftedness (far beyond IQ tests), and
stressed the below expected achieve-
ment aspect of LD. Tannenbaum and
Baldwin (1983), for instance, endorsed
a “social–psychological perspective”
on giftedness, in which environmental
and chance factors interact with the in-
dividual’s abilities to produce gifted
performance, and they also character-
ized LD as “a considerable discrepancy
between the child’s potential and ac-
tual work performance” (p. 20).
The same year, Daniels (1983)
published Teaching the Gifted/Learning
Disabled Child, a description of several
programs designed to help children
whose academic skills lagged behind
their above-average ability. Daniels de-
scribed two groups of children for
which the G/LD label was appropri-
ate: (a) children with reading problems
who have high intelligence but who
have never been given an IQ test, and
(b) children who perform at grade
level but who could progress at a faster
rate were it not for undiagnosed LD
(Daniels, p. xi). This latter group is the
first description of the “masking
hypothesis”—the idea that G/LD chil-
dren may appear ordinary and average
in the general education classroom, as
their giftedness and learning disabili-
ties “cancel each other out.” The mask-
ing hypothesis is crucial to the claim
that such a large group of G/LD stu-
dents remains undetected.
Whitmore and Maker (1985) sim-
ilarly argued that G/LD students are
ignored, and they attributed this to
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