[Note: If you are interested in a shorter version of this article, please visit the blog version: Verbally Gifted Children – Who Are They and What Do They Need?  And if you want an even longer and more academic version, please visit Chapter 2 of my dissertation on Nurturing the Linguistic Abilities of Verbally Gifted Children.]

Who Are the Verbally Gifted?

To state the obvious, children who excel in the verbal domain are the verbally gifted. These are the children who love words and language play, like puns. They are generally recognized by their love of reading and skill with language, including speaking and writing, and often enjoy learning a new language. While it’s true that many of these children love to write short stories or learn a new language, there is more to verbal giftedness than an interest in creative writing or foreign language learning. Many of them are interested in language itself, and instruction in grammar is not enough to challenge them and nurture that interest.

Characteristics of Verbally Gifted Children

What do we know about verbally gifted children? We know that they develop language competence before their age mates do. Joyce Van Tassel-Baska tells us that they master basic reading skills early and excel in reading, literary analysis, creative writing, poetry, and prose. Jane Bailey tells us something similar: verbally gifted children demonstrate complex behaviors in listening, speaking, reading, and writing at an early age. They can easily use the appropriate words to express their thoughts and ideas and can easily read and understand the written expression of others. Arne Tangherlini and William Durden say it this way: Verbal giftedness consists of verbal talent in five areas: oral expression, reading, foreign language, creative writing, and general verbal reasoning.

It seems pretty clear what kind of abilities verbally gifted children have. What does it look like, though? How do we recognize those abilities? What do we look for in terms of behavior?  Both Bailey and Van Tassel-Baska created lists of characteristics to make it easier to recognize verbal giftedness.

Bailey’s List of Characteristics

  • Fluid, descriptive oral language
  • Early mastery of the phonetic code [sounds represented by letters]
  • An advanced ability to use a linguistic symbol system [i.e. the alphabet]
  • Active engagement in reading or writing tasks for extended periods of time
  • Playful doing of a skill coupled with seriousness of purpose
  • Ability to express complex thoughts
  • Craving of challenge

Van Tassel-Baska’s List of Characteristics

  • Reads fluently and well
  • Interested in words and word relationships
  • Uses an advanced vocabulary
  • Processes key ideas in what is read
  • Enjoys talking about literature
  • Writes descriptively and communicates a story
  • Reads often inside and outside of class
  • Enjoys verbal puzzles and games
  • Plays with language in oral and/or written forms
  • Exhibits an understanding of the structure of language in speaking and writing

These traits can appear in young children – as young as two. That was certainly true of my son. He was fascinated by letters even before he was talking. He loved to look at letters and trace them with his fingers if he could. Our walks around the neighborhood were very slow because he would stop whenever he saw a lot number imprinted in the sidewalk. He’d plop down and trace the letters and number with his fingers. He taught himself to read before he was three years old, and his only instruction was “Sesame Street, “a program he adored. He favored non-fiction and by the time he was 4, he could explain the difference between a brontosaurus and a brachiosaurus to any interested party and would worry about the earth 2000 years in the future when Polaris would no longer be the North Star. I didn’t teach him any of these things. He learned by reading. Reading to learn is unusual at such a young age. According to Bailey, children don’t move from the stage of learning to read to the stage of reading to learn until about fourth grade – that’s age nine.

From the list of characteristics of verbally gifted kids, it should be clear that many of these children enjoy and excel at creative writing. They love words – and they love what they can do with them. They can express how they feel and what they see.

Have a look at this poem:
You are alone
In your long exploration
Of the world of difference.
Yet, as the light consoles the desolate wick,
So a friend brightens the darkness in your heart
And makes life a joy.

Who would doubt the poetic talent that shines through that poem in its form, depth of feeling, and insight?  What makes that talent truly exceptional is that the writer was just 8 years old when she wrote it.

As impressive as that poem is, there is more to verbal giftedness than poetic talent. In fact, there is more to it than any kind of creative writing or any kind of writing for that matter. Not only are some verbally gifted children not interested in written expression, they aren’t necessarily particularly good at it. Of course, that could be because they aren’t interested!

One thing is clear, however. Verbally gifted children are exceptionally proficient in “linguistic literacy” and generally develop that literacy early. In fact, Pau-San Hoh discovered that the development of their linguistic literacy can be years ahead of their non-gifted age-mates.

Early Linguistic Literacy

Linguistic literacy refers to an understanding of the various elements of language: sounds, words and word parts (like prefixes and suffixes), vocabulary, sentence structure, and meaning. (In linguistic terms, these elements are phonology, morphology, lexicon, syntax, and semantics, respectively.)

Children go through specific stages of language learning and most begin to learn grammar rules at around age three. But they generalize those rules. For example, a three-year-old is likely to say, “I goed to the store” because he has learned the basic grammar rule for creating the past tense, but has generalized the rule to apply to all verbs, not just the regular verbs. Children learn those distinctions later. The typical three year old also tends to speak in short sentences of around three words. As children get older and more proficient in language, they are gradually able to create longer sentences, eventually connecting sentences with conjunctions. Compound sentences connected by “and” usually come first. Complex sentences (those joined with subordinating conjunctions like “because”) aren’t used proficiently until children are seven or eight years old.

Verbally gifted children, however, go through those stages of language development much more quickly. Pau-San Hoh found that the child she studied was using sentences like “You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to” at just a little over two years old!  At a little over age three, that same child was using sentences like “Dad, even though you gave me a ginger, you’re pretty lucky because I still love you.” That’s quite impressive, particularly when you know that sentences of that type are not very common in children – even eleven year old children.

Advanced Cognitive Skills

Gifted children develop higher thinking skills at an earlier age than their non-gifted peers and that advanced development can be seen in the advanced language development of verbally gifted children. We can see that advanced cognitive development in the types of questions children ask. Thinking skills progress from lower level skills to higher level skills. The progression in the types of questions is the same as the progression from lower thinking skills to higher ones. (Think of Bloom’s Taxonomy.) The first type of questions children are able to to ask and answer are simple yes/no questions and those questions are often just two words. For example, an 18-month old might want to know if a cookie is his, so he’ll say, “My cookie?” (He’s not quite ready for “Is this my cookie?”) It’s not until a child is four or five that he can ask simple who, what, where, and why questions.

Verbally gifted children, however, will ask those more advanced questions at younger ages. The child in Hoh’s study, for example, was asking questions like “Why I no swim?” at just 26 months of age. By age four, that same child was asking questions like “How did the first person come about?” “What is life about?” And “How did the first person talk?” The ability to ask these types of questions helps verbally gifted children gain knowledge and helps them develop social competence. It helps this development because these children can easily strike up conversations with adults. And because these children also tend to have an advanced development in their sound formation (phonological development), they are more easily understood by adults and therefore have more opportunities to carry on conversations with adults than their non-verbally gifted age mates. And those conversations help them advance their verbal skills even more.

Verbally Gifted Children in School

With the advanced verbal skills and knowledge they gain through their verbal skills, we’d expect verbally gifted children to have an advantage over other children in skills. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Verbally gifted children tend to be neglected and are more at risk for underachievement than other gifted children. Verbally gifted kids, if they’re lucky, may be given a more advanced book to read by their teacher or may be allowed to read ahead in a book. Contrast this to the mathematically gifted child. A teacher can’t just give that child more difficult problems to work or have that child work ahead in the math book. At some point, a teacher recognizes that a mathematically gifted child needs further instruction in math. Consequently, a mathematically gifted child is more likely to be grade skipped or provided with advanced instruction in math.

It’s not just high ability in math that gets noticed in school either. In addition to children who excel in math, children with “notable performance” in music or sports are also more often recognized and are more likely to find support for their abilities both in and out of the school environment than verbally gifted children. In general, schools pay little attention to those children who surpass their age mates in literary skills. It is this neglect that can lead to underachievement of verbally gifted children.

Learning Style and Temperament of Verbally Gifted Children

It isn’t just that the verbal skills of verbally gifted children are essentially ignored in schools that is a problem. It’s also their learning style and temperament. According to Richard Redding, the learning style of verbally gifted children is a holistic one. That means that they look for meaning and try to understand the big picture, before focusing on details. They want to understand concepts and their implications, so they often don’t want to bother memorizing information or paying attention to what might be on a test. This global learning style is the opposite of what we find in most school environments. In school children must first memorize details; discussing the significance of those details is saved for later. When verbally gifted children have to focus on concrete details rather than abstract concepts, they can lose their motivation to learn.

The motivation to learn is complicated by the fact that many gifted children are intrinsically motivated. That means that they aren’t motivated by the idea of getting an A or any other external reward. It’s the challenge that motivates them and it is meeting the challenge that they find rewarding. They are motivated when they feel that the work is relevant to their lives, interesting, and challenging. For them, memorizing details disconnected to any meaning is neither challenging nor rewarding and gifted children who are not challenged are at risk of underachievement.

Temperament also makes a difference in how verbally gifted children do in school. According to Richard Redding, verbally gifted underachievers tend to be high-strung, anxious, and impulsive. They simply don’t have the patience to pay attention to detail, and paying attention to detail is required for academic achievement. It’s difficult for these children to continue working on a tedious task, and tasks that are too easy are tedious. Tasks are easy when a child is already familiar with the concepts, and familiar tasks quickly lose their intrinsic appeal. Like other gifted children, verbally gifted children need novelty in their work – and they were apparently born with a need for novelty. Hillary Steiner and Martha Carr found that infants who were tested and found to be gifted when they were older had a significant preference for novelty compared to those who were later found to be of average intelligence.

The increased anxiety of verbally gifted children makes it even harder for them to complete work with no intrinsic motivation. In fact, the anxiety they feel when they are forced to complete easy and tedious work is so great they may just avoid doing the work at all. Many, if not most teachers, however, don’t recognize that it’s the anxiety caused by a lack of challenge that leads verbally gifted children to avoid doing the assigned work. Instead, they think that these children don’t do the work because they are simply incapable of completing the assignments, either because they don’t understand the material or they’re too lazy and disorganized to do the work.

Need for Challenge

According to Margot Biersdorf, all language use – reading, writing, and language learning – is related to the verbally gifted child’s experience as a “communicator and language user and thinker…” Reading, writing and language learning, according to her, are relevant and engaging for these children at many levels.  This kind of learning is significant for verbally gifted children because when the relevance of a task increases, motivation increases as well.

Clearly then, providing verbally gifted children with appropriately challenging and interesting tasks will help them achieve. Remember that verbally gifted children often have a hard time paying attention to necessary concrete, detailed – and as they may see them, unpleasant – tasks. Allowing these children to pursue intrinsically satisfying interests that can hold their attention can help them learn how to persist with a task from conception to completion, a feat often quite difficult for gifted children, but necessary for success. Tasks that verbally gifted children will find interesting and that will hold their attention are tasks related to language.

Current Language Arts Curriculum

Language Arts programs today consist of reading, writing, and grammar. The additions to that simple curriculum in programs for gifted children are almost exclusively creative writing and foreign language learning. That isn’t surprising as that is what is what is most often recommended. Harry Passow, for example, lists creative writing, acting, and foreign language learning as areas that can be used to nurture the verbal talents of verbally gifted children. Arne Tangherlini and William Durden list foreign language learning, oral expression, reading, and creative writing.

This is not to say that no one mentions the study of language. Thomas Buescher, for instance, says that children need to play with language, play that consists of the free investigation of both verbal and non-verbal language symbols. He believes that this kind of language play generates interest not found in most Language Arts programs. Joyce Van Tassel-Baska also stresses the importance of a strong language study element in a sound language arts program for gifted children. She believes that this language study element must “allow students to understand the English language from a variety of perspectives.” In spite of some mentions of language study, any real exploration of language is missing in virtually every Language Arts Curriculum for gifted children. The lone exception is the program at the Indiana Academy of Math, Science, and Humanities, which offers a full course in linguistics.

What most language teaching focuses on is prescriptive grammar – the formal rules of standard (or prestige) English grammar. That has been the focus of language teaching for over 100 years, even though that focus makes no a significant difference in the ability of students to read, write, or speak. What’s worse is that grammar textbooks have changed very little in that same time period, even though our knowledge and understanding of language have changed. Here are some definitions taken from a grammar textbook published in 1866 (first printing in 1855):

  • “An Interrogative Sentence is a sentence so arranged as to ask a question.”
  • “An Imperative Sentence is a sentence used to command, exhort or entreat.”

Those definitions are simplistic – and verbally gifted kids know it. For example, we know that a sentence such as “Would you please pass the salt?” — while certainly “arranged to ask a question” — is used to entreat. It’s more of a “command. It’s not uttered to get information. It’s a polite way of saying, “Give me the salt.” (Say “Would you please pass the salt” to a verbally gifted child, and you’re as likely to get the answer “yes” — or “no” —  as you are to get the salt.) What other discipline uses textbooks that don’t reflect changes in knowledge over the last 150 years? If geography were taught as though nothing had changed in the last hundred years, we would be using, according to Larry Andrews, “maps with the warning, ‘Here there be beasties’ emblazoned on the outer reaches of the oceans.”

The focus on prescriptive grammar in language teaching causes many verbally gifted children to dread the subject they should look forward to and excel in. It’s not just the focus itself that’s a problem either. The global learning style of these children no doubt contributes to the dread of language arts classes. Grammar is generally presented in small sections, which makes it difficult for these children to see the whole linguistic picture. They learn about nouns, and verbs, and adjectives, then sentences, and so on. Grammar instruction is also dragged out for twelve years with basically the same lessons repeated year after year. Students learn the basic parts of speech in the first year and they learn them again the next year with little (or no) depth added to the lessons. This repetition and lack of depth is especially unpleasant for gifted children because they learn more quickly than their non-gifted age mates. Joyce Van Tassel-Baska points out that they can “master all the principals of English grammar and syntax in less than four weeks of instruction in any given year.” These children can also retain the information from one year to the next, but they must, like the other students, “learn” it over and over and over.

Need for Language Learning in Programming for the Verbally Gifted

Verbally gifted children appreciate and process language at more advanced levels than their non-gifted age mates in the same way that mathematically gifted children appreciate and process math at more advanced levels than their non-gifted age mates. For that reason, they need a challenging language arts curriculum. Without one, verbally gifted children can lose their motivation and become underachievers.

The outdated instruction in language is unlikely to provide verbally gifted children with the challenge they need. These children need to do more than memorize traditional parts of speech because they have a deeper interest in language usage, beyond simple grammar, than their non-gifted peers. They enjoy expressing their insights as well as “the patterns, rhythms and delights” they discover long before their classmates discover them. For this reason, Geoff Dean believes these children should be allowed to focus on style and syntax from the moment they start school.

Michael Clay Thompson also favors teaching children about style. He eloquently justifies the study of language by saying that it is both a medium for and a manifestation of the mind. For Thompson, to be ignorant of language is to be ignorant of “the very medium we inhabit.” It is through language that “we may know ourselves, and…the selves of others, both living and dead.” For Thompson, grammar isn’t just a set of rules; it serves meaning. Grammatical rules can be modified as needed in piece of writing. For example, a well-placed fragment can be an effective rhetorical device – providing the writer understands grammar rules and rhetorical devices. That is, a fragment can use used effectively, when used consciously and intentionally. Understanding grammar rules allows students to apply divergence, aesthetics, intuition, and emotion. As Thompson puts it, grammar is “an exceptional tool for making logical, structural, and aesthetic decisions in writing and speaking one’s own ideas.”

As wonderful as all that may sound, what good is such an emphasis on grammar to verbally gifted children who love to read, but hate to write? What good is such a “tool” for these children when they are neither interested nor especially talented in writing? But Thompson says that grammar instruction is even more than a tool for creativity in writing: it is, he says, a “way of thinking about language…[a]… superb form of higher-order thinking.” Grammar instruction can be as rigorous a method as logic, mathematics, and creative problem solving. James Gallagher and Geoff Dean both agree that mastering grammatical skills can help students understand complexities of other subject areas and develop learning and thinking abilities that are useful in beyond language learning. In other words, it will benefit them in their other courses.

In any case, whether the teaching of grammar is justified in terms of benefits to creativity or to higher-level thinking, both views confirm what Larry Andrews says: “…language is seldom studied in its own right.” But it is that kind of study that many verbally gifted children crave. They may enjoy learning about grammar (once) and appreciate learning the nuances of style, but they also want to explore language itself.  They would enjoy the kind of free investigation of language that mirrors the kind of exploration found in the sciences. Arne Tangherlini and William Durden believe that the techniques used in other disciplines can be used to allow verbally gifted children to explore language using the scientific method of enquiry, as well as research and data gathering methodologies.

The scientific method of enquiry is not generally associated with a language arts curriculum. Instead, language arts are seen more as a skill-development area, like mathematics than as a content field, like chemistry. This view of language arts explains why grammar is taught primarily as a way to improve a student’s achievement in other areas. However, allowing students to explore language as they would a science can not only teach them methods of scientific inquiry, it can also provide them with the intellectual stimulation they crave – in an area that interests them.

To nurture potential in a specific domain, students should be able to experience the methodologies and processes used by practitioners in that domain.  For verbally gifted children, that means experiencing the methodologies and processes used in the field of linguistics. These methodologies and processes include modes of problem definition, problem solving, and ways to exercise creativity, innovation, and originality. Although we do not know which specific learning experiences will nurture a particular giftedness, we do know that the lack of certain kinds of experiences can either slow down the realization of talent or stop it altogether.

We may not know which specific learning experiences nurture a particular giftedness, but Roger McCaig found that children whose abilities are nurtured tend to do better than those children whose abilities are left alone; and they do better, not just in their area of strength, but in all areas. This finding suggests that when the linguistic abilities of verbally gifted children are nurtured, their abilities will improve not only in the language domain, but also in areas in which they may be weak, mathematics, for example.

Offering verbally gifted children opportunities to study language as linguists clearly has numerous benefits. It can strengthen their language skills, provide challenge in their area of interest, provide experience with the scientific method, help prevent, or possible even reverse, underachievement of these children, and as an added bonus, help these children improve in areas where their abilities are not as strong. What’s more, teachers need not be linguistic experts to offer these opportunities to students. They simply need a willingness to learn and explore language right along with their students.


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