What Does It Mean to Be Verbally Gifted?

Verbally gifted boy reading with his father
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What does Verbally Gifted Mean?

The term verbally gifted is used to refer to children who have strong language skills. Verbally gifted kids become competent in language before their age mates do. They also perform better on verbal and general information tests and tests of English expression than mathematically gifted children do.

Verbal skills include the ability to understand language easily. That includes grammar as well as creative uses of language as in poetry.

Learning languages tends to come easily to the verbally gifted and they generally have a good ear for the sounds of a language. The verbally gifted also have the ability to understand and manipulate language symbols like alphabets.

Learning Language

All children with working auditory and oral systems learn language, and unless they have a learning disability such as an auditory processing problem, they learn it with ease and without instruction. Children learn language in stages, beginning in infancy. In fact, babies are born with the ability to make all 150 sounds that occur in the more than 6500 languages spoken around the world. As children grow and develop, they go from learning the sounds of their native language to the words to the grammatical structure and meaning of sentences. This process generally takes three years so that by the time a child is three years old, he is able to speak mostly grammatical sentences, although the sentences tend to be fairly simple sentences.

A verbally gifted child is one who passes through the stages of language learning more quickly than non-gifted children. For example, a verbally gifted child may speak his first word at nine or even six months old, while non-gifted children typically don't speak their first word until they are a year old.

Some verbally gifted children seem to skip some language learning stages, but it may be that we just can't observe their understanding of language because they remain relatively silent. For example, a gifted child may not mimic words as most children do at age one. He also may not begin speaking simple sentences like "Me cookie" at age two. Then suddenly at two and a half, he will ask a question like "Where's my cookie?"

Learning to Read

As they do with learning language, verbally gifted children tend to learn to read quickly unless they have a disability like dyslexia. Children learn to read in stages just as they learned language. However, reading is a skill that must be learned through some kind of instruction. That instruction can't begin until children already have a grasp of the basics of language. After all, the written word is simply a visual representation of spoken language and if a child doesn't fully understand the spoken language, it will be difficult to make the connection between the spoken word and the written symbols on a page.

Children can, of course, begin making a connection between written and spoken words, but at very young ages, they will tend to see those written words as environmental print, images that represent an object. So a young child can learn that "mom" represents that woman at home who loves and takes care of them, but they don't make connections between the individual sounds of the letters that make up the word, nor would they be able to transfer the sound of "m" in "mom" to another word with "m" such as "me."  In order to be able to read, a child must understand the connection between the sounds represented by the letters of the alphabet and be able to blend those sounds together in words and understand the meaning of those blended sounds. Reading is a very complex skill.

Verbally gifted children tend to learn to read quickly and often quite early. They may be fluent readers by the time they are five years old, having begun to read at age three. Most importantly, they often learn to read almost like they learned language - without instruction. These early readers are known as self-taught readers.

Gifted Children and Verbal Skills

Not all gifted children are verbally gifted. Some gifted children are mathematically gifted. Mathematically gifted children will probably not show these early verbal skills, although in terms of reading ability, once they begin to learn to read, they may learn quickly. They will more likely demonstrate early mathematic skills, such as an understanding of numbers at an early age and the ability to add, subtract, and even multiply long before their age mates, often before they start kindergarten.

For this reason, if a child doesn't speak or read early, it doesn't mean that the child isn't gifted. It may simply mean that he is gifted in other domains, like math.

It is important to understand that while reading is one of the most important skills to have in order to achieve academic success, verbal giftedness is not a sign that a child will excel in school. In fact, verbally gifted children are at risk for underachievement in school.

See also:
Globally Gifted
Mathematically Gifted

Source: Benbow, C.P., & Minor, L.L. (1990). Cognitive profiles of verbally and mathematically precocious students: Implications for identification of the gifted. Gifted Child Quarterly, 34 (1), 21-26.

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