July 26, 2010

Language Arts and the Word-Smart Child

My friend, Dr. Kathy Koch, has written a wonderfully insightful book, How Am I Smart?, in which she describes the theory of multiple intelligences. That’s a fancy way of labeling the eight ways – word smart, logic-smart, picture-smart, music- smart, body-smart, nature-smart, people-smart, and self-smart – in which every human being is gifted with intelligence. I highly recommend the book for every parent and any adult who works with children because it’s very important that kids – especially in today’s culture when many feel so inadequate – understand that they’re smart in several distinct ways. Parents and teachers who read the book can instruct and encourage the kids in their lives with that knowledge.

As I mentioned, every person has all eight smarts. But God has designed each of us uniquely. Thus, one person’s greatest strength is her music-smart and she has less logic-smart; someone else has a lot of logic-smart, but not as much body-smart. When combined with personality and temperament, etc., it’s easy to see that no two people are identical – and that’s a beautiful thing.

I’m going to endeavor in a series of articles here to introduce you to the basics of each “smart” and then offer a few examples of how you might encourage a child with particular strengths to use those abilities to facilitate the learning of spelling and other subjects in the language arts. Of course, for a full picture, the best thing you can do is read the book, but these ideas will get you started.

Word-smart is one of the intelligences. A person with lots of word-smart likes to talk and read and write, easily develops a strong vocabulary, and generally “likes” words. So, as you might guess, a child who is especially word-smart often excels in the language arts without much effort. If you have such a child, he’ll be pretty easy to spot in subjects – enumerated below – that rely heavily on words.

READING: A word-smart child may have learned to read at an early age without much effort on your part. Either she “taught herself” or very quickly caught on when you introduced phonics instruction. In addition, she automatically comprehends quite well and, thus, probably reads above her grade level. You probably don’t need to help her employ any special “tricks” to read well, but you have two challenges:

1.) Avoiding pushing her beyond her emotional ability. In other words, just because a child can read early or above grade level doesn’t mean she must. Follow her cues and relax, knowing that her word-smart strength will enable her to develop a love of reading if you don't pressure her;
2.) Making a wide variety of appropriately difficult books available – but keeping the child’s emotional maturity in mind here, too. For example, my eight-year old daughter is very word-smart and could probably already read the Elsie Dinsmore books with ease. But I know she has a sensitive heart and would be bothered by some of the series’ intense thematic elements. It’s my responsibility to guard her heart as much as I encourage her literary growth, so I need to balance the two for her.

HANDWRITING: A word-smart child may or may not easily pick up on manuscript and cursive handwriting. If his body-smart is also high, he’ll learn to write quickly and without hassle. However, a word-smart child with less body-smart may struggle with writing until his fine-motor abilities develop sufficiently. In the meantime, you can help that child by willingly taking dictation for him as he recounts some of the many stories he has in his head. Or, alternately, allow him to record himself telling the stories to create his own library of “books on tape.”

COMPOSITION: A word-smart kid has stories to tell in abundance – her brain fairly overflows with tales and/or information she’s learned from her reading. For a child who likes handwriting as well, purchase journals and allow time for her to write creatively for her own enjoyment. Or, alternately, provide for dictation or oral storytelling as described above. And I also suggest teaching most kids to type – or investing in voice-recognition software – around the time you begin teaching formal composition. That way, the creative aspect of writing is not hindered by the need to re-write multiple drafts of the same piece through the writing process; instead, revision and editing can be accomplished on the computer, thereby eliminating the potential for a child to avoid composition simply to avoid having to re-copy multiple drafts.

VOCABULARY: A word-smart child is the one who seems to absorb the meanings of “$10.00 words” through osmosis. He reads or hears a word, infers the correct definition from context, and then uses it correctly himself to internalize it. In elementary school, such a child probably doesn’t need formal vocabulary instruction as a separate subject; instead, just allow him plenty of time to read richly and deeply, and then watch his vocabulary blossom. And, whenever you do begin formal vocabulary lessons, you can expect a word-smart child to breeze through them rather quickly and – probably – with great enjoyment. Similarly, a word-smart kid will generally excel in studying foreign languages, introduced at any age.

SPELLING: A word-smart kid is among the “natural spellers” of the world – one who either absorbs correct standard spelling without any formal instruction or could use any spelling program, even one that just has learners memorize word lists, and do well. My daughter, Abigail is like that; she did just fine with the spelling curricula we tried before All About Spelling. However, I still know AAS is the best choice for her, as well as for every word-smart child, for one simple reason. Namely, I want Abigail to learn, not just memorize. And AAS is the only spelling program I know of that really, logically teaches why things are spelled as they are. Such instruction helps all children – even word-smart kids –apply their knowledge to words beyond spelling lists…and, thus, expand their word-smart abilities by adding linguistic underpinnings to their natural gifts.

As you may have guessed, word-smart kids often look like the “smartest” kids in school – because so much of traditional education methodology revolves around words in one way or another. However, though many aspects of school may come easily, we should not put word-smart kids on a pedestal - because, as much as the language arts may be second nature to them, they'll need shoring up in other areas, depending on their mix of multiple intelligence strengths. And, similarly, we ought not consider other kids – those with less word-smart – to be stupid or incapable. In fact, every child can and should use his particular strengths to help in all content areas. So children with high levels of picture- or music- or people-smart can use those abilities to learn the language arts. In other words, kids need to be taught to be “smart with their smarts,” as Dr. Kathy says, instead of copping out and saying, “I can’t.”
So, next time, I’ll take a look at how a very logic-smart person might approach the language arts disciplines – and how you as a parent or teacher can help such a child along.


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