A two-year old child teaches himself to read. By age 5, this child reads fluently, and with full comprehension, books meant for third graders. However, when he enters kindergarten, he must “learn” the alphabet with the other children. Another child, this one in second grade, has been teaching herself French at home and yearns for formal lessons, but her school system does not offer any foreign language instruction until middle school. Yet another child, an eight-year-old, enjoys playing with language and creating puns. He never misses an opportunity in the classroom to make a verbal joke, causing his teacher to consider him the class clown. Still another child baffles her parents by asking questions they can’t answer about the English language: “Why is there a k in knife?” “Why do we say won’t instead of willn’t?” How did language start? This child also does not hesitate to point out errors in other people’s grammar. She is only six.

These children represent the verbally gifted, gifted children with a natural linguistic competence too often left to develop on its own or to wither from neglect. Lehr (1983) goes so far as to say that these verbally gifted children are the most neglected group in American schools (p. 51). Part of the reason for this neglect is that too few teachers understand what lies behind the linguistic competence of these children. Early readers are seen simply as precocious children whose skills appear early but signify little need for anything beyond the standard classroom fare taught to their age mates. The child who uses verbal humor in the classroom is often considered disrespectful and viewed as a disruptive influence on the class. Children who correct the teacher’s grammatical errors are often considered argumentative and disrespectful of authority.

While this misunderstanding of linguistic competence may contribute to the neglect of verbally gifted children, Lehr (1983) suggests additional reasons, such as budget restrictions, a belief that these children can succeed on their own, anti-intellectualism, and anti-elitist attitudes. Budget restrictions are understandable and affect a variety of special programs, although like music programs, programs for the gifted are among the first to go, while athletic programs generally remain intact. The belief that gifted children can succeed on their own is one of many myths preventing gifted children from getting the services they require, although this myth at least acknowledges that some children are in fact gifted. Anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism are more difficult problems to overcome, particularly for verbally gifted children.

Lehr believes that anti-intellectualism in our society prevents the positive evaluation of knowledge not immediately productive and practical. This belief makes sense in light of what Andrews (1993) says about the neglect of linguistic competence: schools view language as a tool used for other subjects, and the purpose for teaching it, therefore, is “to improve student achievement in other areas, such as the next grade, for high school, for college, for work” (p.3). This view is justifiable. After all, children must learn to read to function well in society, but then what is the justification for teaching reading to a child who already knows how to read?

Anti-intellectualism also prevents people from appreciating exceptional intellectual ability in the same way they appreciate other exceptional abilities, such as athletic ability. Singling out those who demonstrate exceptional intellectual ability is considered elitist in a way singling out exceptional athletes is not. Both anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism have contributed to the growing trend toward egalitarianism in education, which causes supporters to believe that all children must be treated the same way. However, equal treatment is appropriate only if all children are the same. Few people today seem to be willing to accept the idea that some children have intellectual abilities beyond those of their age mates because that would suggest that children are not the same.

Whatever the reason, schools are not meeting the needs of verbally gifted children. Verbally gifted children are both exceptionally good with and interested in language in some form or another. They may enjoy creative writing, or they may enjoy reading or learning a foreign language. Some of these children, however, are intrigued by the very nature of language itself. It is for these children that this project was undertaken.

Theoretical framework/foundations

Numerous definitions have been suggested for the term gifted, but no single definition is accepted by everyone or even by a majority of people. The various definitions result from the history behind the use of the term, which was first used in 1869 by Francis Galton. He referred to adults who demonstrated exceptional talent in some area as gifted, for example, a gifted chemist. Children could inherit the potential to become a gifted adult, and Galton referred to these children as gifted children. Galton’s view left us with the idea that to be a gifted child is to demonstrate an exceptional talent in a particular area. Lewis Terman expanded Galton’s view of gifted children to include high IQ and in the early 1900s began his a long-term study of gifted children, whom he defined as children with IQs of 140 or more. He found that IQ alone could not predict success in adulthood. Definitions of gifted based on Terman’s work begin by looking at adults who have demonstrated exceptional achievement in their chosen field, like Einstein, and work backward to see what traits, such as high motivation, other than high IQ that adult had in childhood. A child without that trait, regardless of IQ, is not gifted according to these definitions.

A final view of gifted comes from the work of Leta Hollingworth, who also believed that the potential to be gifted was inherited. However, she felt that providing a nurturing home and school environment was also important in the development of that potential. Definitions that consider giftedness as potential to be developed make a distinction between what a child is capable of achieving and what the child will achieve. The fact that a child has exceptional potential is part of what makes him or her gifted. The child’s environment determines whether that potential leads to achievement. This view of gifted forms the basis of the work presented here.

Defining Linguistics

For many educators, the terms “linguistics” and “grammar” are interchangeable, so when they discuss the need for a linguistic component in an English curriculum, their primary consideration is some form of traditional grammar. For them, grammar consists of the rules for constructing sentences. In a broader sense, grammar refers to the structural patterns of a language, the ways in which words and their component parts combine to form sentences, the system of inflections, syntax, and morphology of a language. The teaching of grammar then becomes the teaching of those rules. Traditional grammar is, therefore, prescriptive grammar, which dictates how sentences should be constructed. Most of what primary and secondary school students learn when they study grammar in schools consists of this traditional, prescriptive grammar study.

Linguists, however, study language descriptively. That is, they seek to describe the way speakers of a language use it. They empirically observe the morphologic, syntactic and semantic rules of a language as it is used by its speakers. Linguistics, therefore, is the scientific study of language. It is a science because it objectively attempts to answer the same type of questions any science asks about its subject matter: What is it? What is it made of? How does it work? For linguists the questions are about language: What is language? What are the meaningful sounds in a particular language? How are the sounds combined? How are sentences structured? What do all languages have in common? How does one language differ from other languages? It is by answering such questions that linguists attempt to describe language, and as Freeman and Freeman (2004) note, they describe language in order to study it (p. xiv).

Although linguistics is the scientific study of language, it has, as Fallon (2003) remarks, “the potential to act as a bridge between science and the humanities” (p. 1492). It is at the same time, the most scientific and the most humane of the humanities: the most scientific because it looks at language “as a set of empirical facts subject to hypotheses about the nature of language” (Fallon, 2003, p. 1491); the most humane because it is “the thing that is central and common and peculiar to mankind” (Roberts, 1963, p. 333). It is this interdisciplinary aspect of linguistics that makes it an ideal area of study for verbally gifted children.

Earlier research
Since most programs for the verbally gifted focus primarily on verbal reasoning, reading, foreign language and creative writing (Lehr, 1983, p. 51), it is not surprising to find that much of the literature on teaching verbally gifted children focuses on these areas, although some can be found that focus on expository writing and grammar as well. In only a few cases are studies conducted to determine the benefits of a particular strategy or content. One notable example is Joyce Van Tassel-Baska’s (1987) study of the benefits of teaching Latin to verbally gifted children. She found that Latin increases English vocabulary and grammatical competency. Another study is one by McGinn, Viernstein, and Hogan (1980) on fostering the intellectual development of the verbally gifted. They found that helping students develop skills in creative and expository writing improved divergent thinking and led to gains in verbal reasoning scores. One study looked not at a single aspect of language arts, but at the effectiveness of an integrated curriculum model, which combined literary analysis, persuasive writing, and grammar (Van Tassel-Baska, Johnson, Hughes, & Boyce, 1996).

The majority of the literature on teaching verbally gifted children provides suggestions and recommendations for curriculum and instruction. In reading, for example, Bailey (1994) notes that it is important to present high ability students with reading material advanced not only on readability scales, but on the cognitive level of thought needed to construct or generate meaning. Moore (2004) suggests that appropriate reading materials for gifted readers include advanced language and rich vocabulary as well as ambiguous endings and characters who are either professional role models or are themselves gifted (p. 44). Brown and Rogan (1983) recommend small group instruction and encouragement for children to read “widely, creatively, and critically.”

Recommendations for teaching creative writing include exposing children to literary models while encouraging them to be observant and record their observations (Finn, 1981). Feldhusen and Van Tassel-Baska (1989) add that verbally gifted children should be given abundant opportunities to write since those opportunities will not only improve their writing skills, but also help develop their ability to think. The study of a foreign language can also provide opportunities to think. In the case of foreign language learning, however, the thinking comes from exposure to the intellectual content of poetry and prose of another language (Thompson & Thompson, 1996, p. 187). Feldhusen and Van Tassel-Baska (1989) add that children can benefit a great deal from the study of a second language to enhance their grasp of the structure and semantics of their own language and that foreign language instruction should begin in kindergarten (p. 224). Thompson and Thompson (1996) agree that foreign language can enhance students’ understanding of their native language, but add that it can also provide a deeper understanding and wonder of language itself (p. 176).

The study of language itself is almost always included in the list of required subjects in a curriculum for verbally gifted children. Van Tassel-Baska (2003) believes that the goal of language study should be to understand grammar and its usage, develop vocabulary, improve understanding of word analogies and etymologies and develop an “appreciation for semantics, linguistics, and the history of language” (p. 2). Although Van Tassel-Baska includes an appreciation for linguistics in her goals for language study for the verbally gifted, it is likely that she is doing what Andrews (1997) says many educators do – seeing linguistics as little more than a “newer kind of glorified method of analyzing sentences” (p. 18), in other words, grammar. In a study on the effectiveness of an integrated language arts curriculum done with Johnson, Hughes, and Boyce, Van Tassel-Baska (1997) found that verbally gifted children were able to increase their linguistic competence. However, the portion of the curriculum devoted to language study was self-taught grammar related to reading students were doing and the researchers defined linguistic competence as the “identification and use of appropriate syntactic forms and functions” (p. 467); that is, grammar and usage.

Other recommendations for teaching language to verbally gifted children include word games with portmanteaus, study of etymologies, looking at grammatical patterns in a Shakespeare play, and working with questions that require judgment, value, defense, or justification of a choice or solution (Lehr, 1983, p.52). These are recommendations and practices echoed by Michael Clay Thompson, who has created a vast array of language learning materials, such as “Word Within a Word,” which builds vocabulary through etymology, and “Classic Words,” which explores sentence structure and vocabulary through classic literature.

Literature on teaching language beyond some form of grammar or vocabulary building is scarce and concerned primarily with linguistics as a method of teaching scientific discovery. For example, O’Neil (1969) and Honda (1994) both believe that linguistics offers an ideal context for science teaching. Students speak at least one language and therefore have more knowledge of language than they have of other natural phenomena. When students investigate their knowledge of language both the explanations for particular linguistic phenomena and linguistic concepts necessary to formulate them are conceptually available to them (Honda, 1994, p. 35). As O’Neil (1969) notes, experimental problems need not be constructed that lead children to foregone conclusions. Such problems are no better in his view than rote learning. What using linguistics as the basis of scientific inquiry can do is teach theory construction itself, a way to offer consistent and coherent explanations of data, thereby gaining “insight into the nature of formal explanations and formal systems” (p. xv). Additionally, Honda claims that students need not understand or even know linguistic theories in order to construct hypotheses about language (p. 49) and provide sophisticated explanations that make use of linguistic concepts (p. 57).

Honda, Maya, and O’Neil (1993) also believe that questions arising from linguistic inquiry represent a reasonable way to encourage students to seek answers to their questions and introduce them to scientific research. They found that junior high school students could grasp linguistics problems, had no trouble generating relevant data, and could easily make linguistic judgments. The students could formulate questions, formulate hypotheses, search for counterexamples, and revise their hypotheses as necessary. Students, even a couple who did not do well in school, demonstrated not only an ability to work with linguistic problems, but also an eagerness to do so (Honda, 1994, p. 58).

Although using linguistics to teach scientific discovery does seem to provide junior high school students with an intellectual confidence they can carry with them to other subjects in the science curriculum (Honda & O’Neil, 1993, p. 244), the focus is on language learning as a means to and end, not the end itself. In other words, it is used to teach science, not to learn about language itself. Yet as Fallon (2003) notes, questions of language are “the most important and central subject of all humanistic studies” (p. 1491). O’Neil, Honda, and Pippin (2004) believe that the study of language itself is an overlooked area in the English classroom, while Freeman and Freeman (2004) believe language study should be introduced early in school (p. xi).

Very few studies have been done on teaching linguistics to students at the elementary school level. One study with fifth graders by Fabb (1985) had limited success because linguistic theory was introduced at too complex a level (p. 59). The idea was to learn the rules of language by helping them create their own rules. Students were able to discuss simple language issues, but not able to construct structural descriptions of language. Fabb, like O’Neil (1969) Honda (1994), Honda and O’Neil (1993), and Honda, Maya, and O’Neil (1993), feels that a problem-solving approach to grammar could help children learn the scientific method (p. 59). Nevertheless, Honda (1994) points out that what Fabb’s work tells us is that primary school students find linguistic phenomena inherently interesting and accessible (p. 43).

Goodluck (1991) also explored the possibility of teaching linguistics to fifth grade children. In her case, she selected gifted children to work with. They were not necessarily verbally gifted, but had been identified as qualifying for their school’s gifted program. She concluded that ten-year olds could be interested in linguistics-based activities, but noted that while the children enjoyed the activities, they did not find the linguistic explanations exciting (p. 39). However, she also acknowledges that she started with the “misguided idea that 10-year olds could be given a watered down version of the sort of linguistics class that goes down well with undergraduates” (p. 35). In addition, it appears that her attempts to get the children interested in linguistic explanations were through lecture and “blackboard explanation” (p. 36), not a particularly appealing method for children who enjoy more “hands-on” types of learning.

One final study with fifth graders, this one by O’Neil, Honda, and Pippin (2004), found that students could examine data to formulate hypotheses that would account for the data and test their hypotheses against counterexamples (p. 1). They were even able to discriminate between syntax and semantics. While they do not focus on using linguistics to teach scientific inquiry, they do note that the linguist’s approach to language appeals to math and science type students, who enjoy demonstrating their reasoning skills within the world of language (p. 6). They believe that linguistic study can trigger in such students an interest in language, an area in which they had previously had little motivation or success. For example, one student in their study had wanted to be a scientist, but after participating in the linguistics class, he decided he wanted to be an English teacher.

Clearly, a need exists to explore teaching linguistics to verbally gifted children. Educators in the gifted field recognize the need to provide verbally gifted children with material and instruction that will develop their verbal talent and even recommend that the materials and instruction include a linguistic component. However, they tend to think of linguistics in terms of some form of traditional grammar, although some will also include morphology and the history of the English language as well. Linguists, on the other hand, view linguistic instruction differently. Some believe that linguistics, as the science of language, can be a useful tool in teaching scientific discovery and that this strategy can be used with primary school students. Others find that the study of linguistics can lead students to a new-found interest in English. However, no one has yet explored how the teaching of linguistics might nurture the linguistic abilities of verbally gifted children.

Aims and Scope

The aim of this dissertation is to explore the feasibility of teaching linguistics to elementary aged verbally gifted children as a way to nurture their inherent linguistic ability. The feasibility of teaching linguistics to young children is determined by several issues: the ability of teachers untrained in linguistics to teach it, the ability of young verbally gifted children to comprehend it, and teachers’ views of what it means to be gifted and the way the gifted should be taught.

Elementary school teachers are required to master the basics in a variety of subjects, such as math, reading, history, science, and language arts, which includes reading, writing and grammar. It is unrealistic to expect all teachers to be equally proficient in each of these areas. Some of the teachers are certainly interested and proficient in the language arts, but their knowledge of linguistics and even of grammar depends largely on their educational background. Some elementary school programs do include a basic linguistics course for their elementary school majors, but many do not. Most college elementary school programs focus on reading, writing and basic grammar, making it unlikely that a graduate of the program will come away with much more than a basic knowledge of traditional English grammar or with an understanding of language as a course of study in its own right.

Even if elementary school teachers had some training in linguistics, their students might not be capable of understanding its concepts. An interest in language does not necessarily reflect the level of abstract thought needed to work with linguistic principles. A verbally gifted child may love phonics, but will that child also love phonetics? In addition, gifted children may find the study of linguistics challenging, but if it is too challenging, they will not benefit from it. What all learners, including gifted ones, need is an appropriate match between their abilities and the academic demands made on them. An appropriate match is an “optimal” one; it challenges learners to work just beyond their cognitive grasp (Tangherlini & Durden, 1993, p. 431). When learners experience an optimal match, they achieve what Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” a state of pleasure or satisfaction that results from that match. Work that is insufficiently challenging can lead to disinterest while work that is too challenging can lead to frustration. The goal of teaching verbally gifted children linguistics would be to provide them with an optimal match, to provide them with appropriate challenges in a subject that rarely challenges them in school.

Finally, a teacher with an understanding of linguistics may have students capable of learning linguistics, but still may not successfully teach them because a good part of that success depends on the way that teacher views gifted children and therefore the methods for teaching them. Many teachers, particularly those not trained to recognized giftedness, believe that gifted children are those who excel effortlessly with little help from a teacher. They are eager to learn all that a teacher gives them and will do so without complaint, displaying exemplary behavior in class at all times. While this description may fit some gifted children, it certainly does not fit all of them. In fact, teachers may miss some gifted children because the children display opposite behaviors. They can be fidgety and disruptive, disorganized and unwilling to do assigned work.

Even when gifted children are recognized, some teachers provide them, not with challenging work, but with “enrichment,” which, according to Feldhusen and Van Tassel-Baska (1989), is work that often purposefully avoids higher-level content (p. 220). Programs for gifted children, particularly pull-out programs, provide enrichment experiences in response to teacher complaints. Teachers in higher grades fear that they will have nothing left to teach if children in lower grades are taught more advanced level work. However, if a school’s policy is to provide enrichment activities for its gifted students, a teacher may be unaware of the reason and simply believe that such activities are appropriate for gifted children.

Research questions

  1. Will verbally gifted children be able to understand, appreciate, and enjoy learning about language beyond the concepts of traditional grammar?
  2. How can linguistics be presented to elementary school age children?
  3. Will a teacher untrained in linguistics be able to teach linguistics to his or her students?


The method chosen to study the feasibility of teaching linguistics to elementary school age children was an exploratory case study. The case studied was a linguistics course designed for verbally gifted children in grades four through six. The course was part of a Saturday enrichment program for gifted children sponsored by a local gifted organization unaffiliated with any school corporation. The teacher for the course was chosen because she had several years of experience working with gifted elementary school children and expressed an interest in teaching a language class in the program. She did not, however, have any training in linguistics.

An exploratory case study was chosen because no body of research exists on teaching linguistics to elementary age children, no conceptual framework to test or build upon. Both Yin (2003) and Shank and Orlando (2004) consider such a situation one for which an exploratory case study would be most useful. The purpose of qualitative research such as case studies is to understand better the object of study. To use Shank and Orlando’s metaphor, it is like a lantern that illuminates the darkness. In the case of this study, the darkness is the current approach to nurturing the linguistic abilities of verbally gifted children.

The goal of this research is to explore what happens when a teacher with experience working with gifted children but without a background in linguistics attempts to teach linguistics to a group of verbally gifted elementary school children. The study will determine what, if any, problems arise in the attempt to teach linguistics to young gifted children, including the preparation of materials to be used, the ability of the teacher to understand linguistics sufficiently to allow her to present it to the students, and the degree to which students participate in the classroom, both as a result of their ability to understand the material and of their apparent interest in the material. By shining a light on the use of linguistics to meet the needs of verbally gifted children, new materials and activities can be developed.


If verbally gifted children have specific needs that aren’t being met and that in turn can cause problems with motivation and success for these students in school and in life after school, then it is important to find ways to meet those needs. Part of the problem is the lack of materials and methodologies available for this kind of instruction. Unfortunately, little research has been done on exposing children to the study of linguistics, in spite of the vast amount of support for language study for verbally gifted children. The research tends to focus on prescriptive grammar study, vocabulary, foreign language study, and creative writing. One purpose of this study was to determine whether it is feasible for teachers without a background in linguistics to provide lessons in linguistics to verbally gifted children. Another purpose was to see whether children would be interested in and challenged by the material being presented. Providing this kind of instruction might help prevent or possibly even reverse the underachievement of many verbally gifted children who are not being sufficiently challenged in their area of expertise.


The study will not provide any quantitative data on the effects of teaching linguistic principles to young children. It is entirely possible that the children will be capable of learning these principles and thoroughly enjoy learning about them. However, it is also possible that learning and working with these principles will not have an appreciable effect on a student’s motivation to learn or have an effect on his or her learning experiences. On the other hand, it is important to determine whether teaching these principles is feasible. It will not help us much to know that students will benefit from such instruction if it is impossible to provide that instruction.

Table of Contents | Chapter Two

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