Language Arts and Language Science

The study of language is not an art; it's a science.

Girl Writing
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We continually try to improve our educational system. We've seen the No Child Left Behind Act, Race to the Top, and now we're seeing a focus on STEM and STEAM. This latest focus is a push for science, technology, engineering, and math. Art is added to cover artistic and creative abilities, but all of these still miss a significant talent and ability: verbal skills.

Yet verbal skills are important in any field, including the sciences.

We do need our children to study the subjects in STE(A)M since they are important in today's world. But language is also important. Language is part of what makes us human and the study of language helps us understand just who we are as human beings. Focusing on STE(A)M is useful in nurturing kids who are mathematically gifted, and many gifted children enjoy the study of the sciences. The A in STEAM can also be stressed to help artistic kids. But what do we do for verbally gifted children?

Who Are the Verbally Gifted?

Basically, verbally gifted children are those who have high ability in verbal skills: reading, writing, and speaking -- skills that are needed for success in school and even throughout life. Their competence with these skills develop early and are easily recognized since they tend to read early (or learn quickly once they begin to learn to read), have an advanced vocabulary, enjoy word play, demonstrate an understanding of the structure of language, and are able to discuss key ideas in what they read.

Verbally Gifted Kids May Be at Risk

Since verbally gifted children have excellent verbal skills that are needed in school, we would expect these kids to excel in school. Unfortunately, that isn't always the case. In fact, many verbally gifted children become underachievers. Their learning styles are often at odds with the teaching styles they are exposed to.

For example, they tend to be holistic learners, which means they want the big picture before they get the details. In school, however, details are presented before the big picture. For example, kids are asked to memorize the multiplication tables with no context, no understanding of their purpose or usefulness. It's not enough for them to hear "You'll need to know these facts to work out math problems later."

Many verbally gifted children are also intrinsically motivated, which means they are motivated by the challenge in what they are learning or by the sheer pleasure of learning. Grades and other external rewards don't do much to motivate them. Richard E. Redding discusses the implications of these learning styles of verbally gifted children, along with their typical temperament, which includes anxiety and impulsivity. He believes that their learning styles combined with their temperament put them at risk of underachievement.

What is Offered Now in Language Arts?

Many in the field of gifted education recognize that gifted children are not all alike.

Some are verbally gifted, some are mathematically gifted, and some are globally gifted. They also tend to recognize that different abilities need different types of nurturing. You don't offer creative writing to nurture abilities in math.

Creative writing is, however, one of the types of lessons offered to nurture the abilities of verbally gifted children. They are taught about writing stories and poetry, both of which can use creative language, but not all verbally gifted children enjoy the creative aspects of language. They may enjoy word play, but not because it is creative, but because it allows them to play with and understand other aspects of language such as semantics and syntax.

Other offerings for verbally gifted children include the study of foreign languages. The study of other languages can be fun and challenging for verbally gifted children because they can find it fascinating to see how other languages put sentences together and show different aspects such as verb tense, mood, and plurality.

Although creative writing and foreign language study can be interesting and challenging for many verbally gifted children, neither type of study satisfies the need some verbally gifted children have for understanding and working with language itself. They want look at language, not creatively, but scientifically. They want to understand how language works.

Linguistics for Kids

One way to satisfy the scientific interest some verbally gifted children have in language is to offer some study in linguistics. Kids can learn about what makes language, language, how sounds work to form words, how word order and endings create meaning, and much more. These are the kids who love learning grammar, but grammar really isn't enough for them. Learning the rules is one thing, but why do we have those rules? Where did the rules come from? Why do different languages have different rules? There are many questions that can be asked and explored.

The problem is that elementary school teachers are rarely, if ever, asked to take even one course in linguistics, which means that they aren't familiar enough with the topic to enable them to teach it. It's no wonder that they, and others, think first about creative writing and foreign language learning.

What We Can Offer

It may not be possible for every teacher to teach linguistics to their students. However, it is possible for every teacher to explore language along with their students. No one ever said that one teacher has to know everything about every topic. What is important is that they demonstrate a willingness to learn and explore along with their students. Teachers can design lessons designed to learn about and explore various linguistics principles such as phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. They can also design lessons to explore historical linguistics and sociolinguistics.

It does mean some extra work, but until we have more materials designed for children to study linguistic principles, that is the best we can do. Perhaps one day, we will find these materials as readily available as we now find grammar worksheets.

Source: Redding, R. (1989). Underachievement in the verbally gifted: Implications for pedagogy. Psychology in the Schools, 26(3), 275-291.

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