boy under book surrounded by lettersVerbally gifted children are those who excel in the verbal domain. That means that they have exceptional ability in areas relating to language: reading, writing, and speaking. Those areas are critical for success in school, so we would expect these children to excel in school. However, the exact opposite is true. Verbally gifted children are more at risk for underachievement than because they are far less likely to have their specific needs met in school than any other group of gifted children.

Characteristics of the Verbally Gifted

Verbally gifted children, being gifted, have the same traits as other gifted kids: they are intellectually advanced, they learn quickly, and they thrive on challenge. However, they have additional traits that are unique to them. They are better at handling “word stimuli” and are better able to quickly access verbal information in long-term memory than the mathematically gifted, who are better at handling “digit stimuli” and manipulating information in working memory. That just means that while mathematically gifted children can more easily work with numbers while verbally gifted children more easily work with words. Those are two different symbol systems.

Because verbally gifted children do well with the language symbol system, they love words and all that words can do. They enjoy playing with words and using them to express their ideas and their feelings. It’s not surprising then, that many verbally gifted children enjoy writing, particularly creative writing. Combine the ability to manipulate words with advanced cognitive ability and emotional sensitivity and you can end up with beautiful poetry illustrated by the poem below:

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.

What makes that poem exceptionally impressive is that it was written by an 8 year old child.

Not all verbally gifted children are capable of writing a poem of such depth at 8 years old, but the poem does illustrate another trait of verbally gifted children: their verbal abilities show up at very young ages. They often speak earlier than other children, and progress through the stages of language learning far more quickly than other kids. For example, while other children are uttering sentences like “I goed to the store,” a verbally gifted child may utter a sentence like “Dad, even though you gave me a ginger, you’re pretty lucky because I still love you.” That second sentence is all the more impressive when you understand that they are unusual even in the speech of 11 year olds!

Verbally gifted children also tend to learn to read early, sometimes teaching themselves to read. It is not unusual among the verbally gifted to find a child who began reading at age two. Reading is a far more complex skill to learn than learning to talk, and learning to talk requires quite a bit of cognitive power. Remember that most three year olds are using short simple sentences and haven’t yet mastered all the rules of grammar. Reading requires additional cognitive skills in order to make connections between symbols (letters) and sounds as well as recognizing word boundaries and sentence structures. Now imagine a 3 year old reading a book meant for 8 year olds, who are just beginning to master the art of reading to learn after having spent a couple of years learning to read.

Verbally Gifted in School

To do well in school, children must be able to read and write well, so teachers spend quite a bit of time helping children develop those skills. If a child can’t read, how will she learn the material in other subjects? If a child can’t write, how can he demonstrate what he knows about a subject? Because verbally gifted children often enter school already knowing how to read, they should be at an advantage. If they don’t already know how to read, they learn quickly, putting them well ahead of their classmates in reading. They usually learn to write quickly and easily as well, mastering the basics of grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure.

Unfortunately, verbally gifted children don’t excel in school. In fact, they are more likely than other gifted children to tune out and become underachievers. That is because they are essentially ignored. Teachers spend more time helping those who are behind since, as noted, reading and writing are critical skills to have for academic success. It’s easy to tell a child who is advanced to read ahead in the text or read another book, write another story or essay. But a child can do that on her own at home.

Mathematically gifted children, on the other hand, are much more likely to get advanced instruction, often being sent to another grade for math lessons. That is because it is much more difficult to simply to tell a mathematically gifted child to work ahead or work some more problems. Teachers are more likely to recognize that moving forward in math requires instruction.

Learning Style and Temperament of the Verbally Gifted

Neglecting verbally gifted children is bad enough, but it’s complicated even more by the learning style of these children. Verbally gifted kids tend to be “global learners.” That means that they prefer to see the big picture first and consider the details later. That is the exact opposite approach that schools take toward learning. In school, children are most often expected to first learn the details and then build on them. To make it worse, teachers tend to spend more time on making sure that students have memorized the details, which is a lower level cognitive skill, than on discussing the significance and relevance of those details, which are higher level cognitive skills. Gifted children need that time allocation reversed. When global learners have to focus on the details – and for a longer time than they need to learn them – they lose their motivation to learn.

Another factor that affects the motivation of verbally gifted children is their temperament. They tend to be anxious and have little patience for tedium. Asking them to perform tasks that are too easy or that they are already familiar with can make them anxious. To avoid that anxiety, these children may avoid performing those tasks. That means that when teachers assign homework that is too easy or meant to reinforce learning material a child already knows, that child will refuse to do the homework. Or if forced to do it, they’ll rush through it, not caring if they make mistakes.

Rather than recognize that the child is trying to avoid the anxiety such homework creates, teachers most often think that not doing the homework or making mistakes on it is a sign that the child simply isn’t capable of doing it or is lazy or disorganized. For this reason, teachers often miss identifying a verbally gifted child as gifted and so will not recommend the child for the school’s gifted program (if they even have one).

Language Arts Teaching in Schools Today

If a verbally gifted child is fortunately enough to get into her school’s gifted program, she may or may not do well. It would depend on the abilities and interests of that particular child and what the program offers for verbally gifted children. Children with exceptional writing ability are easily recognized and more likely to get into a gifted program. Most gifted programs do offer some enrichment in writing, usually in the form of creative writing.

However, not all verbally gifted children are creative writers or even interested in creative writing. Some aren’t interested in any kind of writing. Fortunately, some gifted programs also offer some instruction in a foreign language. That kind of instruction is another common component of gifted programming. Unfortunately, even that isn’t sufficient for some verbally gifted kids. While they may enjoy learning a new language, they want to dig deeper into language. Why are there different languages to begin with? Where did they come from? Why is the word order different? Why are the sounds different?

While many researchers in the gifted field recommend a linguistic component for gifted programs, that component is missing from virtually all programs. Some make an attempt by offering students an opportunity to study rhetoric and even word etymology (the history of a word), but those topics barely scratch the surface of the study of language itself. And it is that study that many verbally gifted children crave.

Of course, studying rhetoric and word etymologies is better than what is offered outside of gifted programs in schools. Most language instruction is just prescriptive grammar – the rules of standard English (how we are supposed to speak and write). Those rules are important, but the lessons are dragged out for 12 years and repeated every year, with little to no additional depth. Verbally gifted kids learn those rules quickly, so the repetition is unnecessary and tedious.

The same basic lessons are repeated in spite of all the linguistic knowledge we have gained over the years. Lessons and textbooks on grammar have changed very little over the last 100 years. Here are a couple of rules from a textbook from 1866 (with a 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.”

Verbally gifted kids know those statements aren’t 100% correct. If you say to one of these kids, “Would you please pass the salt?” you are as likely to get an answer of “yes,” “no,” or “maybe” as you are to get the salt. That’s because they enjoy playing with language. Structurally, your request for salt is “so arranged as to ask a question,” so they’ll answer the question, even though they know you are simply politely requesting the salt.

In no other field will you find textbooks that fail to reflect new knowledge. Imagine using a geography textbook today that included maps with “Here there be beasties” written on the outer “edges” of oceans.

The Need for a New Approach

Current offerings in Language Arts simply aren’t enough for verbally gifted children. They certainly need to learn grammar rules, can benefit from studying rhetorical strategies, and may enjoy learning a new language. However, they also need the opportunity to study language in its own right, and those opportunities are virtually never provided in schools, even though that study can have positive effects on a child’s performance.

Studying language in its own right is to study language as linguists do, and that means taking a scientific approach. By approaching language study scientifically, verbally gifted children will have the opportunity to investigate their area of interest using the scientific method of enquiry, as well as research and data gathering methodologies. It gives them the chance to learn something new, to challenge them, and intellectually stimulate them. Language Arts would no longer be an area that serves as a “handmaiden” for other subjects. It will no longer be nothing more than a  skill to be learned and refined to help them do better in other subjects, but will turn into a content area worthy of study for its own sake.

If verbally gifted children are challenged in their area of strength, they will be more likely to be engaged in learning and less likely to tune out and lose any interest in learning. Instead, they will be far more likely to excel, not only in the Language Arts domain, but in other domains as well, including those areas, like math, where they may not be as strong. Their interest in the subject matter will help them remain motivated, and as a special bonus, they will learn more about what makes us human – our language.

[If you are interested in more detail and a list of references, please visit the extended version of this article: Characteristics and Needs of Verbally Gifted Children.  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.]
Carol BainbridgeAbout GiftednessEducationGifted Traits,Linguistics,Verbally Gifted
Verbally gifted children are those who excel in the verbal domain. That means that they have exceptional ability in areas relating to language: reading, writing, and speaking. Those areas are critical for success in school, so we would expect these children to excel in school. However, the exact opposite...