An early interest in books, letters and words, accompanied by an ability to memorise well, frequently results in gifted children being able to read at an earlier age than other children. Early reading is one of the characteristics of gifted children. Some gifted children learn to read by themselves, initially reading signs in their environment; however they rapidly progress to reading books, often reading fluently before parents realise their child is able to read. Not all gifted children learn to read prior to school but if not, they tend to make rapid progress with reading once they are taught how to read.
The complexity and importance of reading
Reading is a complex skill that depends upon the brain’s ability to visually decode words. Reading requires activation of a network that connects different areas of the brain and does not occur until a child is cognitively ready to read. Some children, including intellectually gifted children, may struggle with reading well after starting school, indicating the need for an assessment to investigate the possibility of a learning disability.
There are many benefits associated with reading for any child. Theodor Geisel, well known as Dr Seuss, wrote for children: “The more you read, the more things you will know, the more you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Mariah Evans, a sociologist from the University of Nevada identified that children raised in homes with five hundred books are likely to progress an average of 3.2 years further in education than children who have not have as much exposure to books, highlighting that early development of literacy skills predicts completion of higher education.
Benefits of early reading
There are additional cognitive and educational benefits when a child learns early to read by themselves. Stuart Ritchie and Timothy Bates from the University of Edinburgh found that early reading was associated with higher intelligence scores, academic motivation and duration of education. These researchers, together with Robert Plomin from King’s College, London, confirmed that early readers develop higher levels of intelligence and achieve greater successes in life.
The link between intelligence, language acquisition and reading skills is clear. As the brain acquires language, the neural structure changes and develops the individual’s capacity to think, analyse information, synthesise ideas and create. Language builds the brain’s capacity for thought. Steven Stahl, the author of books about teaching vocabulary, said: “We use words to think; the more words we know, the finer is our understanding of the world.” Coaching and the use of ‘word pedometers’ have been trialled to increase the quantity and quality of vocabulary exposure for young children; whereas early readers exponentially increase their language skills (including vocabulary, sentence construction, grammar and the expression of abstract ideas) through independent reading.
A group of researchers, led by Paul Morgan from Pennsylvania State University, conducted a study of 8,650 children and found that two year olds with larger vocabularies demonstrated higher reading achievement, lower levels of behavioural difficulties and increased capacity for self-regulation when entering kindergarten. David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano from The New School for Social Research in New York identified that children who read fiction enhance their understanding of others’ perspectives, thus enabling them to form more positive social relationships.
A love of reading
Gifted children who learn to read easily and quickly are often described as voracious readers. Many adopt a natural speed-reading technique that allows them to read much more than other children within a similar time frame. Gifted children read with such speed and intensity that they may appear to ‘gulp’ text or ‘inhale’ books, providing them with significantly greater exposure to written language than other children of a similar age.
Adults sometimes attempt to slow down a young child’s pace of reading, believing that the child is not sufficiently comprehending the text. In contrast, older students are often enrolled in speed-reading courses to manage the volume of reading required to achieve success in upper secondary and tertiary level education. Psychologists Anne Cunningham from the University of California, Berkley and Keith Stanovich from the University of Toronto, refer to the “reciprocal influence in early reading acquisition and reading volume” as indicators of later reading comprehension and cognitive abilities. It comes as no surprise that Cunningham found readers have higher levels of intelligence, general knowledge and academic results.
Work with your child’s teacher
Parents should not assume that teachers will be aware of a child’s precocious reading skill. Advanced readers sometimes adjust their reading behaviour to fit in with the reading patterns that other children exhibit. It is important for parents to inform a young child’s teacher at the start of the school year about the child’s current reading ability. Gifted children can camouflage their reading skills at school and confine their reading of more complex, advanced texts to the home. It can be useful to show a child’s teacher a couple of books that the child has read independently, especially if the child is reading before entering school.
Parents may need to advocate for a greater number of books (than usually allowed) to be borrowed by their child from community and school libraries; arrange forays to second-hand bookshops; drop hints to relatives about books that might be given as gifts, to try to keep pace with a child’s insatiable appetite for reading.
The greatest challenge for advanced readers, their parents, teachers and librarians, is to identify books that are appropriate to the child’s reading level, interest areas and preferred genre while maintaining a close eye on subject matter that is appropriate for the child’s stage of development, life experience and parental values. Adults are understandably hesitant to allow young children access to young adult fiction and yet their advanced cognitive and reading capacity may mean they have ‘outgrown’ the books usually featured in the children’s reading sections of bookstores and libraries. Selecting books from among the classics can provide advanced early readers with interesting subject matter, complex characters and challenging plotlines without exposing them to books that feature frightening subject matter and grim themes.
Reading can provide: a restful, relaxing escape; an imaginative, creative fantasy; a stimulating, provocative quest; a thoughtful, informative education; critical skills; extraordinary life-long benefits and exciting opportunities. It is important to model reading, to read frequently to all children and to encourage gifted children to establish early, independent, reading patterns.
© Michele Juratowitch
Michele Juratowitch is Director of Clearing Skies, providing counselling, study skills seminars, social skill workshops for gifted students; advocacy and parenting seminars; professional development and consultancy in schools. Michele was awarded a Churchill Fellowship, conducts STEAM Residentials for gifted girls and is co-author of Make a Twist: Curriculum differentiation for gifted students.
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