Growing Up Gifted and Generation Z: Vision for Equity

Mark Hess

My son once announced to me that he had read four books in one week. “Well, actually,” he clarified. “If you want to get technical about it, I didn’t read the books. I listened to them as audiobooks or watched them on YouTube.” This made perfect sense to me. After all, this is the kid who spent hours building a website, and a whole week of evenings creating a video for a high school English project. But he  had never really acquired the knack of immersing himself in pages full of words. As a 22 year-old, he is one of the older Generation Z gifted kids (1995-2012), and like many GenZ gifted kids, my son typically satisfies his intellectual intensities not necessarily outside of, but parallel to, the written word.

As a former Language Arts teacher, I sometimes find myself viewing reading as the sacred key to knowledge and understanding.  Undoubtedly one of the most powerful and wonderful processes in education is a first grader walking into a classroom in August as a non-reader and walking out of the same classroom in May as a reader—their intellectual world having been changed forever. Many of us were drawn to teaching because we loved school, and loving school often meant loving books. We are at home in elementary schools where up to 80% of instruction is language-based. Words are a large part of who we are . . . but that's not so true for most of the kids we teach. 

Data from 2015 (Twenge, Jean M. Ph. D., p. 51) shows that Generation Z seniors spent over two hours texting, two hours on the internet, one and one-half hours electronic gaming, and half an hour on video chat each day.  In 2015, teens were spending twice as much time online as seniors a decade before. Put another way, that’s six and one-half hours each day not reading books. Sixty percent of all GenZ kids cite YouTube as their preferred way to learn, and in recent years, my gifted elementary students have begun listing professional gamer and YouTuber as future career choices—though, as one of my second graders pointed out—"My dad says that’s not really a valid career choice.” 

This is not to say our GenZ kids disdain words. My students love storytelling, and sharing picture books and read-alouds in circle time just as much as kids always have—maybe even more. Recent research published in the Journal of Neuroscience explained that listening to audiobooks and reading showed virtually identical brain activity. This is not to say that reading in and of itself does not have inherent intellectual and academic value. We understand that intelligence, learning, student engagement, achievement, and discovery, however, go well beyond the written word. Let’s step back and survey the education landscape in our present cultural context and recognize that the one key to student engagement for Generation Z is visual and nonverbal.

Our cultural landscape shows an incredibly visual experience for our students: Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, Video Games, Netflix--emoticons to express every nuance of every mood we can think of--and visual memes that gain traction and go viral. Undoubtedly, screen time poses many concerns, but at the same time, what we see and process visually—our brain’s visual-spatial sketchpad—is essential for learning. Working memory operates through two channels—sounds (or phonological loops) and the visual-spatial sketchpad—and working memory is a greater predictor of school-based success at age 5 than reading scores, motivation, a positive attitude, math scores, and IQ (Eric Jensen, Ph.D., as presented at the Colorado Symposium 6/29/18).  There is, in short, a vast potential for all children in what they process by combining pictures and words. Have you noticed how visual and rich in graphics publications such as Time and USA Today have become? Part of their appeal is that we don’t just want to read these publications. We want to see them, too, and these journals are perfect examples of the powerful imprinting process of working memory.

One measurement of Gen Z students’ vast visual potential is through nonverbal ability tests—emphasis on the word potential. As educators of gifted learners, we strive to honor all abilities and broad spectrums of talent and across cultures—to not leave anyone out. This is our vision for equity.

Donna Ford-- our nation’s leading voice for gifted equity--cites nonverbal ability tests as her “first choice” for both culturally-linguistically diverse learners as well as for African-Americans (Beyond Giftedness Conference. Arvada, Colorado, 2/28/2020).  Two widely respected state guides, Iowa’s Identifying Gifted and Talented English Language Learners and Missouri’s Identifying and Serving Traditionally Underrepresented Gifted Students, encourage using nonverbal ability tests in the gifted identification process.  In Colorado, the state’s largest (and very diverse) Denver Public Schools has turned to the Naglieri Test of Nonverbal Ability (NNAT) as its universal screening instrument.  Near Colorado Springs, the two most  most diverse school districts in Colorado, both use the nonverbal battery (along with multiple measures) from the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT) to identify students for gifted programs.  Nonverbal ability is the avenue to recognize and develop potential not only for culturally-linguistically diverse learners, African-American students and other underrepresented populations like twice-exceptional learners, but for an entire generation of students with visual orientations. 

High nonverbal ability scores are shared by architects, engineers, choreographers, quarterbacks and coaches, artists, graphic designers, film directors, designers in every field, electricians, Pulitzer Prize winning photographers, mechanics, surgeons, and Einstein himself who stated, “My thoughts did not come in any verbal formulation.  I rarely think in words at all.”  Poetry is not exclusive to words, and poets might also work in nonverbal mediums. Any time a person seeks to arrange, connect, construct, envision, design, pattern, or choreograph, they rely on nonverbal ability to do so.  But nonverbal ability is not mutually exclusive of or counter to verbal ability. Think of Time Magazine, think of your favorite movie, and think of the best advertising campaigns which rely on a memorable combination of images and words. Verbal communication, itself, is much more than words. Communication effectiveness is up to 3/4th nonverbal and includes gestures, posture, movement, and facial expressions—nuances our brain’s powerful visual processing centers use for us to react and understand. 

Who are these students who score high on nonverbal ability tests?  They are students like Kayla, born in the Philippines and still learning English at my school when I met her as a 2nd grader. She was full of curiosity—an inventor, designer, and an artist.  By 5th grade she had begun to score high enough on a standardized achievement tests to qualify for gifted services, yet she had already been a standout in the gifted program for three years.  They are students like Rachel and Hannah Begay—twin sisters of Native American heritage—poetic and artistic and accomplished writers even though their strongest ability scores were nonverbal.  They are the dozen or more boys over the years in my gifted program (usually boys but sometimes girls) who have 30 and 40 point gaps between their verbal and non-verbal ability scores. They sweep into my room during “studio time” for independent project work. Often emotionally intense, they almost franticly consume wooden dowels, craft sticks, hot glue, and cardboard. At the end of the session, they sprint out of my room lest I might ask them to write something. They are students like Becca—a 4th grader who scored in the 97th percentile on the Naglieri Test of Nonverbal Ability yet was also attending remediation sessions for reading. On her student profile, her mother had written, “She loves scarves.  She loves the different shapes, the different colors and patterns, and the different styles.  Her closet is full of scarves! She delights in finding combinations in colors with different outfits and the look and feel of the materials.” I don’t doubt that someday we may be wearing Becca Originals.  They are students similar to a twice-exceptional student who had solved every puzzle in my classroom electronics kit by the end of the first quarter and the girl who scored in the 65th percentile in reading yet won trophies for her storytelling and performances on the speech team. She also won the class spelling bee (“I can just see the words in my head.”). And they are students like Jason, a 4th grader who had turned his spelling test into a work of graphic art out of frustration. He graduated college with a double major in computer engineering and physics and now manages projects in Silicon Valley. If it weren’t for nonverbal ability testing, none of these students would have been included in gifted programming.

Professor C. Own Lo asks, “What if Mozart lived in Mongolia?” What if Mozart did not live in a culture that afforded the opportunity to showcase his amazing musical abilities? What if someone in 2020, however, was amazing at designing and creating and constructing yet rarely got that opportunity in school? What if an African-American boy in 2020 possessed verve and storytelling abilities that were a delight to anyone who witnessed them outside of a school building, but inside that school building, the same boy was seen as “hyperactive” or disrespectful or an unwilling writer. What if a student literally did not have the words yet—not in English? As gifted educators, we understand that part of gifted identification is creating the affordances and the resources so that students of a broad range of high abilities may engage wholeheartedly and creatively to express their giftedness. 

The most beautiful and compelling trait common to Generation Z is their acceptance of others. As Dr. Jean M. Twenge phrases it on the last page her book iGen, “They’re exquisitely tolerant and have brought a new awareness of equality” (p. 313).  We already understand that we can’t define giftedness solely through achievement.  Let’s invite students who show potential into our gifted classes and talent pools and let these students grow their academic talent in challenging and engaging, creative and diverse activities. Let’s serve students first and identify giftedness second. As educators, we celebrate children. It is more than our charge. It is who we are. It’s why we became teachers in the first place.


Lo. C. Own, Ph.D. et al. Giftedness in the Making:  A Transactional Perspective in the Gifted Child Quarterly, 2019. 63:3 p. 172-184)

Twenge, Jean M., Ph.D. iGen:  Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. Atria:  2017.

Mark Hess is the gifted programs specialist in School District 11 in Colorado Springs, board member and co-chair of the Special Populations Committee for the Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented, and a member of SENG’s Research and Education Committee.  His book, Understanding and Nurturing Nonverbal Ability in Gifted Learners is available here.  His website,, contains links to free resources and lessons designed for nonverbally gifted learners and a visual generation.

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of NAGC.