Nurturing Verbal Talent

By the Duke University Talent Identification Program

My son always receives A’s on his spelling tests. My daughter loves to write and tell stories. Are these youth verbally gifted? Possibly. Should their parents nurture their potential talent? Absolutely. Experts in gifted education recommend fostering a child’s interests while seeking an identification of ability.

Studies confirm that when children’s interests direct the development of their verbal skills, their learning soars. Your child’s passion for a subject, whether scientific, historical, musical, or athletic, can feed burgeoning or hidden verbal skills. Library, museum, zoo, and art gallery trips; plays, concerts, television, and film; and computer programs can spark discussions that lead to research, reading, and writing projects that foster verbal talent. Meanwhile, schools offer interest inventories that identify your child’s preferences so that skill building can occur in subjects important to your child. Expert Sally Reis recommends cultivating children’s interests to help them love learning and eventually identify a meaningful career.

If you and the school already provide interest development opportunities, how do you then determine if your child is “gifted,” versus “bright”? Knowing the distinction can make the difference between a bored child and a fulfilled child. If you and your child’s teachers have observed one or more of the following behaviors in your child, he or she may be verbally gifted:

  • use of advanced vocabulary and complex sentence structures
  • understanding and use of puns, wordplay, verbal nuance, and subtext
  • use of paradox and sophisticated rythms, figures of speech, imagery, philosophical and moral themes, and wisdom in writing an speech
  • photographic memory of spellings, phrases, and quotations
  • discussion of complex, abstract ideas and questions
  • domination of conversations because of intense interest in concepts or subjects

In addition, powerful assessments of your child’s talent can be formal and informal products and performances, such as

  • collections of fiction or nonfiction writings, including song lyrics
  • a teacher’s observation of your child’s noteworthy contribution to a literary discussion
  • a voracious reading habit, no matter how specialized the book list
  • acting and improvisational abilities requiring memorization, recitation, and vocabulary recall
  • private journals, blogs, or other records exhibiting precise descriptions, philosophical musings, self-knowledge, and empathy for others

Diligent and committed educators can use such information to ensure an optimal environment in which your child’s talent can flourish. Moreover, experts recommend that schools and parents use a variety of instruments, including IQ tests, achievement tests, or above-level tests, such as the SAT or the ACT, with ceilings high enough to gauge a child’s abilities adequately. Certain national talent searches invite seventh-grade students who have scored at or above the 95th percentile on a grade-level aptitude, mental ability, or achievement test to take tests such as the SAT, since highly gifted students often “top out” on other tests. For children below age 14 who score between 450 and 520 on the verbal portion of the SAT or between 18 and 22 on the ACT, schools should make available honors-level work, curriculum compacting, and enrichment seminars; talent search programs and other organizations can provide independent-learning curriculum and distance-learning classes. As students’ score levels increase (from 520 to 800 on the SAT and from 22 to 36 on the ACT), university summer programs, Advanced Placement courses, the College Level Examination Program, the International Baccalaureate Program, grade acceleration, and early college entrance become viable options.

What if your child’s grades and tests do not indicate special verbal abilities but your at-home observations do? Or what if your child tops out on tests but performs poorly in school? Connect with your child’s teachers or a gifted resource specialist whose classes emphasize reading and writing skills to determine if you have a misidentified or underachieving gifted student. Ask the following questions in a conference:

  • Does my child seem challenged by the reading and writing assignments? Or does he or she complete them easily?
  • Does my child excel at assessments but skip homework and in-class activities?
  • Does my child exhibit intellectual curiosity, leadership, or creative problem solving?
  • What differentiated instructional options can you provide for my child? Will interest-based adjustments be made to allow my child to apply key skills and principles that the class is studying?
  • What after-school and summer enrichment opportunities might benefit my child?

Most teachers entering the profession today are trained in differentiated instruction. Through preassessment, observation, and inventories, teachers determine students’ prior knowledge, pace, interests, and learning styles. With this diagnosis, your child’s teacher might employ a range of options: curriculum compacting and learning contracts, tiered assignments and assessments, mentors, and learning centers. Ask your child’s teacher to explain these options and to suggest which would suit your child the best. Experts such as Michael Thompson and Joyce Van Tassel-Baska recommend that gifted readers and writers should be given access to classic books in their reading programs, Latin roots in their vocabulary study, Paideia seminars for literary discussion (also known as Socratic discussion, in which students pose analytic and evaluative questions and present substantive, textual evidence), and a diagnostic-prescriptive grammar program (preassessment followed by exercises targeted to their individual needs), which they should be able to master in a short period of time.

No matter what the school offers, your home front can be an inspiring place for your child to grow in verbal skills.

Lyn Fairchild, MA

Lyn Fairchild is coordinator of independent learning at the Duke University Talent Identification Program. She has taught English, creative writing, and other humanities courses for many years and has served as a gifted education resource teacher and a curriculum consultant. Fairchild in the coauthor or The Compassionate Classroom: Lessons That Nurture Wisdom and Empathy; has contributed lessons toDifferentiation in Practice, edited by Carol Tomlinson and Cindy Strickland; and is a featured writer in Faculty Shack, an online magazine for teachers.

Books and Reading Lists
  • Some of My Best Friends Are Books: Guiding Gifted Readers from Preschool to High School, 2nd edition,
    by Judith Wynn Halsted, Great Potential, 2002
  • Developing Verbal Talent,” by Michael Clay Thompson, 2001
  • Improse: Activities That Promote Creativity, Gooder Grammar, and Better Pun!ctua?tion:-)/, by Brad Newton, Gifted Psychology, 1999
  • Classic Words, by Michael Clay Thompson, Royal Fireworks, 1998
  • Young Adult Library Services Association
Independent Learning Options