Young Girl with AwardIn the field of second language learning, you’ll find discussions on the difference between competence and performance. Those discussions are much like the discussions on the difference between ability and achievement in the field of giftedness. If you recognize how competence and performance differ, you’ll be able to recognize how ability and achievement differ. And then you’ll better understand why achievement should not be used as a way to identify gifted children.

Competence Versus Performance

What is Competence?

In second language learning, competence is simply the ability to use the second language. It is what the learner knows and understands about the language. For example, a learner might know vocabulary, word endings, word order, and other factors that make up the language, so technically, he is competent. However, although the learner might be competent, he may not demonstrate that competence. In other words, we can’t see the competence. We might be unable to see that competence for a number of reasons. For one thing, the learner might be having a bad day when a test is given, or might not perform well on tests. The test itself might even be flawed. It may be poorly designed.

If the learner has to speak in the second language, she may be too shy or may be so intent on being perfect that she freezes. She might also have trouble making the right sounds, even though she knows what the sounds should be. It’s also possible that the second language learner pauses a lot in order to think of how to express complex ideas. He may not have sufficient vocabulary to express those ideas. That is true, though, of native language speakers. Is a speaker not competent in his native language simply because he struggles to find the words to express his ideas?

What is Performance?

While competence is hidden, performance is observable. When someone is learning a second language, we can observe that learning in a couple of ways. First, we can give tests that measure how much a person has learned about the language. These tests can measure a person’s competence in speaking, reading, writing, and even listening in the second language. A learner might be asked to listen to a short passage in the second language and then write a summary of the passage. Or she might be asked to read a passage and then talk about what she read.

Even when tests aren’t given, we can observe how fluent the learner is by observing how well he reads, speaks, and writes in the new language. Can he carry on a conversation? When he speaks, are his sentences free of grammatical errors? Can he write something that others can understand, something that is coherent and has few, if any, grammatical errors?  What a learner is able to demonstrate with the language is performance.

Problems with Using Performance as a Sign of Competence

One problem is that because competence is hidden and is not always well reflected by performance, it becomes difficult to determine whether a second language learner is actually competent in that language. Another problem is that language learning is not instant. It occurs over time. Consequently, early performance may not be as proficient as it could be after years of learning and practice. At what point should we begin to measure performance and determine whether a learner is performing as he should be? Perhaps it’s better to measure progress? But then how much progress should be expected and at what points should progress be measured?

A final problem is that a person learning a second language might not be interested in performing. For one thing, the goal might not be to speak the language, but simply to study it and learn how the second language differs from the native language. For another thing, a learner might have social or psychological reasons for not wanting to perform. She might not want people to know she is competent. It wouldn’t be unheard of to discover that a teenager is holding back on performance because his parents would like to send him to study overseas if he becomes fluent in a second language, but he doesn’t want to go. The lack of performance isn’t an indication that the learner is not competent in the language.

Ability versus Achievement

What is Ability?

Like competence in the second language learning community, ability in the gifted community is hidden. We can’t see it. We can attempt to measure it, but as it is with competence, it’s difficult to measure ability – and for many of the same reasons. Actually, it’s more difficult to measure ability than it is to measure competence. What exactly is ability? We may all think we know what it is, but when we consider ability as a component of giftedness, it becomes difficult to define. What ability are we considering? Reasoning ability? Long and short-term memory? Mathematical ability? Verbal ability? Leadership ability? There are many types of ability.

We might be able to observe these abilities. For example, we can see how well a young child can read and we can see what kinds of math problems a child can do. But how should we measure ability? With an IQ test? If we do attempt to test ability, we first have to determine what it is we are testing and then we can run into the same problems that exist with all testing. The person taking the test may be having a bad day, the person might not do well on tests, or the test itself might be flawed. Those are precisely the problems we encounter with IQ tests.

What is Achievement?

We might be able to observe how well a child reads or the kinds of math problems she does, but those are essentially achievements. Achievement in the gifted community is like performance in the second language learning community. It is what can be observed and can be measured. We can see what a child can read and we can test his comprehension. We can provide math problems for a child to complete and note which problems she got right and which, if any, she got wrong. We can grade a child’s work and we can hand out awards. We can see grades and we can see the work that led to the awards.

A child could get straight A’s, win awards at science fairs, win debates, or other kinds of competitions.Those are all achievements. If we consider accomplishments, it would be fairly easy to pick out gifted kids because those who have achieved – those who have attained the high grades and awards – stand out from those who haven’t. What can we point to in a child who hasn’t achieved something to show he’s gifted? Even though a child may have high ability, he may not show it in performance – in achievement.

Problems with Using Achievement as a Sign of Giftedness

Some of the same problems that exist for using performance as a sign of competence exist for using achievement as a sign of ability. Ability by itself cannot be observed, so it’s difficult to determine ability without looking at achievement. However, not all gifted kids achieve what we expect them to achieve based on their ability. That is, they may become underachievers. The absence of achievement does not signal a lack of ability. The best way to understand this fact is to read Stephanie Tolan’s article “Is It a Cheetah.” In the article, Tolan compares a non-achieving gifted child to a non-running cheetah. Even when a cheetah isn’t running, it still has the ability to run. The cheetah could be locked in a cage and won’t even try to run, but it still has the ability to run. A child with high ability who is stuck in a dull academic environment with no challenge is like the cheetah locked in a cage. She still has high ability, but she may not even try to achieve. The absence of achievement isn’t an indication that a child lacks ability.

Some gifted kids may not be interested in achieving either – at least not in the kind of achievement required in school. They may be internally motivated, which means that they aren’t motivated by outside rewards like high grades or awards. The pleasure they get from learning and personal accomplishments is all the reward they need. They may also be achieving outside the school setting. For example, they may be composing music or they may be helping others in the community.

Another problem is that it is possible for a child to achieve high grades and awards in school and yet not be gifted. Some children are highly motivated high achievers. They tend to be externally motivated, which means that they are motivated by the desire to attain external rewards, such as grades and awards. We wouldn’t want to take anything away from these children; hard work should be rewarded. But working hard is not the same as being gifted. Gifted children have specific needs. They do need to be challenged, as do the high achievers, but they also need a faster pace and more in-depth instruction.

Moving Forward

When you consider the problems in trying to understand competence in second language learning by observing performance, you can start to see the problems with trying to understand giftedness by using achievement as a defining characteristic. It is definitely possible for a second language learner to be competent and to demonstrate that competence in performance. But the lack of performance is not a sign that the learner isn’t competent.

In the same way, it is possible for a child to be both gifted and high achieving, but one is simply not a sign of the other. Including achievement in a definition of giftedness is like including performance in a definition of competence in second language learning. Ability is something that cannot be observed, but the fact that we cannot observe it does not mean that it does not exist. We need to understand ability and provide all the opportunities we can so that each child can work to his or her ability. To do that, we need to stop looking at achievement as a way to measure ability.

Carol BainbridgeAbout GiftednessEducationIdentification
In the field of second language learning, you'll find discussions on the difference between competence and performance. Those discussions are much like the discussions on the difference between ability and achievement in the field of giftedness. If you recognize how competence and performance differ, you'll be able to recognize...