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Tips for Parents: Nurturing Verbal Ability in Gifted Learners

Highlights from Expert Series
This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Joyce VanTassel-Baska. She provides information on how verbally talented learners can benefit from opportunities in all aspects of the verbal arts.

Author: VanTassel-Baska, J.
Publisher: Davidson Institute
Year: 2012

As parents of verbally talented students, you may have become aware of their characteristics and needs at an early age. Many of these students learn to read early, often memorize poems and plays spontaneously, and write original stories from early on, even dictating to their parents the ideas they cannot yet write down for themselves. These students grow to become voracious readers consumers of ideas to which they are exposed, and communicators in oral and written forms of creative products. They are sensitive to the nuances of language and appreciate puns, large words, and verbal puzzles of all kinds. Yet without interventions that support their natural aptitudes and predispositions, they may not develop their talents to an optimal degree. The following suggestions may be useful in ensuring such development at all stages.

Verbally talented learners can benefit from opportunities in all aspects of the verbal arts. These would include the following areas and the emphases noted within each area:

  • Literature: Literature should provide many experiences for students to read quality texts. College-bound book lists that include poetry, plays, essays, biography, and autobiography are available at most libraries, as are the books noted by Thompson (1998), Baskin and Harris (1988), and Halstead (2002). Students should read broadly across subject matters and develop a familiarity with favorite authors and their lives. Emphasis on critical reading and the development of analysis and interpretation skills should be a focal point.
  • Writing: A writing program for verbally talented learners should emphasize the development of skills in expository and persuasive writing, focusing the writing process on draft development, revision, and editing, and developing ideas and arguments on current issues. They also need experience in writing in other forms such as narrative and informative, using appropriate models for development. For older students, copying the style of favorite authors would be a useful exercise to gain control over written forms.
  • Language Study: The formal study of English grammar and vocabulary should be a major component of language study. Thus major language emphasis should involve understanding the syntactic structure of English and its concomitant uses, promoting vocabulary development, fostering an understanding of word relationships (analogies) and origins (etymology), and developing an appreciation for semantics, linguistics, and the history of language. An integrated language study approach across these areas is highly desirable.
  • Oral Communication: Verbally talented students can profit from a balanced exposure to oral communication both through listening and speaking. Major emphases should include developing the following skills: (1) evaluative listening; (2) debate, especially for use in formal argument; and (3) discussion, particularly question-asking, probing, and building on ideas stated. An emphasis on oral interpretation and drama productions provide one of many venues for creative talented learners to develop higher level skills.
  • Foreign Language: Students advanced in verbal ability can benefit greatly from early foreign language study, accelerating through four years in one language and at least two years in a second language by the time they graduate from high school. The choice of a second language should be one of the languages spoken in the student’s geographic area so that follow-up opportunities would be available. Good choices for second and third language study include Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Latin (VanTassel-Baska, Johnson, & Boyce, 1996).

Individual Differences among Verbally Talented Students

The implications of adapting a language arts curriculum for students of the same age but different levels of functioning in the language arts presents a real challenge, even for experienced educators and parents. Yet such individual differences prevail. The following two vignettes portray the vast differences that exist among learners who are the same age and exhibit aptitude in verbal areas. Based on the in-school and out of school opportunities as well as a personal level of functioning, these students require very different language arts experiences if they are to be sufficiently challenged. Each is 13 years of age and entering the eighth grade. Each has been identified as gifted on multiple measures, including ability and achievement measures, teacher recommendation, and prior performance in class work as evidenced in portfolios, grades, and performance-based tasks.

Abel demonstrates adult level reading comprehension and mastery of literary elements such as plot, character, and setting, but tends to read easy texts, enjoying reading the same author’s works. The Harry Potter books are personal favorites. He exhibits highly capable use of language in the basic forms of narrative and informative writing. Abel, however, does less well with advanced forms of writing such as expository. His research skills are limited and his independent work unexceptional. Abel comes from a single parent family and is an only child, living with his mother. He is currently enrolled to take Year 1 of Spanish at his middle school. He has participated regularly in Saturday/Summer programs at the local college. He loves drama, having been cast in two plays during middle school. He has placed in spelling bees at the regional level, representing his school.

Adrienne is bilingual in English and French and is currently enrolled in Year 2 of Latin. She has traveled extensively, including Italy and England where she visited authors’ homes and worksites. She won multiple writing awards for her essays and has a five-year history of theater credits for her acting. Adrienne’s parents are both professionals; she is the older of two children. Last year she designed and implemented a literary study on a period, author, and subject/theme of 6000-7000 words that was published by a literary journal. She reads widely and deeply, enjoying multiple genres, especially poetry. She has a strong command of language in all forms.

While Abel has the need for stronger emphasis on advanced reading and writing activities in his language arts program as well as continued opportunities in drama, he is progressing very well in his work in verbal areas. A session with his mother might help her see the value of his varied undertakings. She should be encouraged to help him continue his interest in theater, his desire to attend outside classes, and his incipient involvement in foreign language. Adrienne, however, will require more individualized work to keep her interested. She might be best placed into high school English classes, perhaps at sophomore level and be considered a strong candidate for Advanced Placement English next year. A mentorship or special class at the university would also be an important option to explore with her. Her parents should be apprised of how advanced she is and encourage her to accelerate her learning in English, commensurate with her foreign language accomplishments.


The role of parents in developing verbal talent cannot be overestimated. As your child’s first teacher, you provide opportunities for early language experiences in all forms. By how you use language in your daily life, you model its importance as a pathway to learning—from the books you read to the writing you do in journals or professionally to the discussions you hold at the dinner table about world events and issues of importance to the family. Language is the basis for successful learning in all areas, and parents have the opportunity to promote its development in ways that no educator does. For verbally talented students, parental involvement is a real boon.


Baskin, B. H., & Harris, K. H. (1988). Books for the gifted child. New York: Bowker.

Center for Gifted Education. (1998). Language arts series (K-12). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.

Halstead, J. (2002) Some of my best friends are books. Phoenix, AZ: Great Potential Press.

Thompson, M. C. (1995). Classics in the classroom. Unionville, NY: Royal Fireworks Press.

Thompson, M. (2000) Word within the word. Unionville, NY: Royal Fireworks Press.

Thompson, M. (1999) The magic lens. Unionville, NY: Royal Fireworks Press.

VanTassel-Baska, J,. & Stambaugh, T. (2011) Jacob’s Ladder for Grades 7 and 8. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

VanTassel-Baska, J. (2002). Assessment of gifted student learning in the language arts. Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 13(2), 67-72.

VanTassel-Baska, J., Johnson, D., & Boyce, L.N. (Eds.) (1996). Developing verbal talent. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 365 pp.

VanTassel-Baska, J., & Little, C. (Eds.). (2011). Content-based curriculum for gifted learners. Austin, TX: Prufrock.

VanTassel-Baska, J., Zuo, L., Avery, L. D., & Little, C. A. (2002). A curriculum study of gifted student learning in the language arts. Gifted Child Quarterly, 46(1), 30-44.

Permission Statement

This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit


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