Research Design

Previous research on teaching linguistics to children used linguists as teachers (Goodluck, 1991) or had specific goals, such as teaching scientific principles (O’Neil, 1969; Honda, 1994; Honda, Maya, & O’Neil, 1993). The purpose of the present study, however, was to determine the feasibility of teaching linguistics to verbally gifted children. In most cases, such instruction would take place within a school environment and would be taught by regular classroom teachers, some of whom may be trained to work with gifted children, but few, if any, trained in linguistics. In order for linguistics instruction to be feasible for elementary school children, these teachers would need to be able to understand the material and present it to the children. In addition, the children would also need to find the material challenging, but manageable, and they would need to enjoy it.

A case study approach was determined to be the best approach for this study. Case studies, according to Yin (2003) are appropriate when “a how or why question is being asked about a contemporary set of events, over which the investigator has little or no control” (p. 9). The questions considered for this study were “how would a teacher untrained in linguistics manage to teach the subject matter?” and “how would verbally gifted elementary students respond to such instruction?” The study investigated, not a past classroom lesson or methodology, but a current approach to language arts instruction, specifically an attempt to teach linguistics to fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. The control the researcher had over the events would be limited to the choice of subject matter, some lesson objectives, and information on linguistics provided to the teacher to work with.

The specific type of case study used for this study was the exploratory case study since as Yin (2003) notes, these studies are useful in situations where “the intervention being evaluated has no clear, single set of outcomes” (p.15). No clear or specific outcomes were expected from the current research, although the researcher did expect that verbally gifted children would be both challenged by and engaged in the study of linguistics and that such study would not be beyond their abilities. The ethnographic technique of direct observation was deemed best since it would allow the researcher to focus on the interaction between the teacher and students, and between all the participants and the linguistic material. This approach would allow the researcher to observe the teacher, her approach to teaching, her ability to work with and teach linguistics as well as the students’ responses to the various lessons.

Children for the study would be recruited through a Saturday enrichment program, called “Discover the Challenge, sponsored by a local gifted organization. This program would be offering classes for gifted children in grades four through six, which created an opportunity to offer a linguistics course specifically for gifted children. The classes in the program would meet for two hours every Saturday morning for eight consecutive weeks. Every course in the program was to open with an introductory class, during which children would be introduced to the teacher, to one another and to the course material, and end with a “presentation” class, when children would have a chance to share what they had learned with their parents.

Each of the remaining six classes would be devoted to one aspect of linguistics: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, historical linguistics, and sociolinguistics. This structure was based on the fact that the enrichment classes were meant to expose children to subject matter they had not yet encountered or to provide depth to familiar subjects, more than they would get in school. Elementary school children study grammar in school, but a study of linguistics would provide them with a more in-depth look at language study. However, because few, if any, elementary school children are familiar with linguistics, delving deeply into linguistic study would not be appropriate, useful, or successful. Both the Goodluck (1991) and the Fabb (1985) studies had little success because the material presented to the students was too complex for them. In the analysis of her study, Goodluck noted that her lack of success resulted from her original belief that it was possible to teach fifth graders a “watered down” version of undergraduate college linguistics class material.

By devoting one Saturday session to each of the fields of linguistic study, the Junior Linguists course would provide the children with a basic overview of linguistics and help them see how linguists view language and invite the children to learn to think like linguists. For example, in the first class, the students would begin by attempting to define language. Their first task would be to discuss their answers to the question “What is language?” They would then be asked questions like “Do animals have language?” “Where did language come from?” And “How would the world be different if we had no language?” The following class sessions would help the children see how linguists attempt to answer those and other questions about language.

The specifics of the class lessons would be left up to the teacher. The reasoning behind this plan was twofold: first, a teacher with experience teaching gifted fourth through sixth graders would know if material being presented was too complex for them. Although gifted children are cognitively advanced, they are not college undergraduates. Material would need to be adapted for their learning styles and levels, and an experienced should know what kind of material would be challenging and how best to present that material. Second, few, if any, elementary school teachers have any linguistics background, but for teaching linguistics to elementary school children to be feasible, a teacher would need to be able to understand it sufficiently to present it to the children. By leaving the specifics of the class lessons to the teacher, the researcher would see whether the teacher could work on her own, and if not, how much help and guidance would be needed. If the material is too difficult for either the students or the teacher, then providing linguistics instruction for verbally gifted elementary school, regardless of how useful it might be, would not be feasible.

Teacher Recruitment and Preparation

Several teachers of gifted children were contacted and told about the Discover the Challenge program. If interested, they were to submit an informal proposal for a class to be offered in the program. One of the teachers who applied expressed an interest in creating a language arts class. She was contacted by the researcher and briefed on the goal of the research project. This teacher had approximately fifteen years experience teaching gifted children and was currently teaching gifted fourth and fifth graders. She stated that she enjoyed grammar and would therefore like to participate in the research.

A meeting was arranged with this teacher to discuss her knowledge and background in more detail. The discussion revealed that the teacher seemed to think that grammar and linguistics were basically the same. Her experience with gifted children, enjoyment of grammar, and lack of knowledge of linguistics made her an ideal teacher for the project. It was determined that the researcher and teacher would collaborate on lesson plans for the course. Initially, the researcher would provide the teacher with some lesson objectives as well as basic information on the units of linguistic study from which the teacher would attempt to construct lessons and exercises for the students. At any point, the teacher could get help with the lesson planning from the researcher. This collaboration would allow the researcher to determine how much a teacher could do independently, but would also ensure that lessons be constructed with fourth through sixth grade students in mind.

Junior Linguists:  Course Recruitment, Eligibility Requirements and Characteristics of the Students

Course Recruitment

The linguistics course offered in the program would be called “Junior Linguists.” Three other courses were also offered in the program: “Science Sleuths,” “Multiple Math,” and “Space Engineers.” The Science Sleuths course covered forensic science, scientific methods of crime solving, such as fingerprints, footprints, and even blood spatter. It was taught by an employee of the forensics division of a local sheriff’s department. Multiple Math, taught by the teacher of gifted children, allowed students to explore math using the various intelligence domains proposed by Howard Gardner. The Space Engineers course, taught by various members of the local Challenge Learning Center, included instruction on space missions and building and programming model landrovers with Lego Mindstorms. The courses were meant to appeal to gifted children with varying interests.

Some children might be interested in more than one course, but only children with a specific interest in the study of language would be interested in taking the Junior Linguists course.   The course description read as follows:

“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Huh? How can a sentence be grammatically correct and still make no sense? Explore this question and more in this class all about language. You will learn where words come from and how they change over the years. (Did you know “nice” once meant “foolish”?) You will also learn how we use language to create our identities and establish and maintain relationships with others. Learn why we might think a groo is a huge animal, while we’d expect a gree to be a teeny one. (There’s a hint there!) If you enjoy playing with words and language, you will really enjoy this class! You’ll have a good, pun time.

Brochures about the Discover the Challenge program were created and distributed to every elementary school in the county where the classes would be held. These brochures described the courses offered, short biographies of the teachers, and the eligibility requirements for children wishing to participate. Parents could register their children by filling out the registration form on the brochure and sending it in, by printing an Internet online version of the registration form, or by registering using the Internet registration process. In addition to the registration form, parents were required to submit a document proving that their child was eligible for the program.

Eligibility Requirements and Characteristics of the Students

In order to participate, students had to submit one of four documents: a copy of a standardized achievement test; a copy of an IQ test, a letter from the school indicating that the child had been identified for the gifted program; or a letter from a parent or teacher describing the child’s abilities and behaviors that indicated that the child was gifted.

The achievement test had to show that the child had scored in the 90th percentile in at least one area: math, language, etc. If a child wanted to take the Junior Linguistics course, the 90th percentile had to be in the language area. One reason the Goodluck (1991) study was a problem was that it assumed fifth grade gifted children would be interested in and be able to understand college-level linguistic instruction. The present study sought to avoid this problem by providing a minimum of lecture, focusing more on learning activities. Another potential problem with the Goodluck study was that the course was open to all gifted children, not just verbally gifted children. By requiring a high percentile score in the language area, the researcher hoped to limit the course to verbally gifted children. With IQ scores, a minimum overall IQ score of 125 was required, but a lower score would be considered if the child obtained a high score in the language domain. Letters from teachers and parents were screened to determine if the child had the ability to do well in the class of his or her choice. Letters about children who wanted to take the Junior Linguists course would be screened for evidence of interest and ability in language, reading above grade level, for example. Letters stating that a child had been accepted into a school’s gifted program were the most difficult to assess since they did not always specify the criteria used to admit the child to the program.

Eight children applied for the Junior Linguists course and all were accepted. One, however, failed to show up for any of the classes. He has not been included here. The seven who attended class submitted the following proofs:

Student Proof of Eligibility
Katie Letter from school stating she had been identified as gifted in the area of language arts. No additional materials were submitted.
Parin Achievement test on which she scored 565 on the language portion (700 was highest possible score, 110 the lowest).
Liana Letter from school stating she had been identified as gifted in the areas of language arts and math. No additional materials were submitted.
Mary Letter from teacher. Her reported IQ was lower than the required IQ score, but the teacher recommended her saying that she would score higher if given the chance to retake it. The teacher’s letter described Mary’s gifted characteristics, primarily an “ability to make self to self, self to text, and text to world connections.”
Zachary Slosson IQ test – Total score of 131. Letter from principal stating that Zach had a large vocabulary and a strong intrinsic motivation to read.
Jason Letter from school stating he had been selected for the full-time gifted class. No additional materials were submitted.
Priscilla Letter from the school stating she was eligible for enrichment classes.

Katie, Parin, and Liana all submitted material that indicated they had exceptional abilities in the language arts area. The letter from Mary’s teacher noted that although her test scores were lower than the required scores, her facility with making textual connections indicated an advanced language ability. Liana and Mary also later stated that they had wanted to take the class because they had both had the teacher before in school and liked her. The teacher also later stated that neither Liana nor Mary were “truly gifted,” but of average ability.

Material submitted for Zach indicated that his IQ score was in the gifted range, although no score was provided for the language component. The letter provided by the principal, however, pointed to Zach’s large vocabulary and motivation to read, two indications of verbal giftedness.  In addition, according to Zach’s father, Zach had always been interested in grammar and the different ways people use grammar. For example, he had already been learning what he could about various dialects and was aware of Cockney rhyming slang. Few adults have ever heard of that slang; it is especially unusual for a fourth grader not only to have heard of it, but also to know what it is.

Both Jason and Priscilla’s proof of eligibility indicated their schools had identified them as gifted, but not specifically verbally gifted. However, Jason’s mother reported that Jason had been interested in language for several years. He had been asking her questions she could not answer about the origin of language, questions such as “Who spoke the first language?” “How did language start?” “How many different languages are spoken in the world?” Priscilla’s mother reported that Priscilla enjoyed all language arts activities, and Priscilla later returned to the program to take classes in creating writing and acting.

Observation Protocol and Data Collection

The class would be held in a small room set up with round tables rather than individual desks for students. The researcher would sit at a back table and observe, taking notes on what the teacher did and how the students responded. The teacher for the course and the researcher agreed that the researcher would intervene only if and when the teacher had difficulty presenting the material to the students. If the researcher felt the students’ understanding of the material would be negatively affected by the teacher’s lesson, then the researcher could jump in with a clarification. For example, in a lesson on phonology the teacher might misidentify symbols of the phonetic alphabet. At that point, the researcher might interject, being careful not to undermine the teacher.

Although this kind of interjection could be seen as interference which could compromise the results of the study, it would actually provide additional data. It would allow the researcher to ensure that the material presented was accurate and to determine whether the accuracy of the information affected the students’ ability to understand it. For example, if the teacher’s explanation was an oversimplification of the material and the researcher interjected with more complex information, the researcher could note whether the students reacted more or less favorably to the material.

Other methods of collecting data would be to note what students did for their final course projects. It was assumed that students would choose for their project course material that they found particularly interesting. For example, if a student found the exploration of the question “What is language?” to be especially interesting, that student might attempt to create a project based on that issue. An analysis of the projects could also reveal the level of a student’s understanding of the issue. For example, if a student chose a project on morphology, but did not adequately or accurately represent principles of morphology covered in class, the researcher might conclude that the student was not able to comprehend the material or that the teacher had not adequately covered it.

No tests would be given on the material so no quantitative date would be collected. Additional qualitative data would be gathered through a simple questionnaire given to students at the end of the course. Students would be asked whether the material was too hard or too easy and whether they enjoyed working with it.

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