Nurturing a Gifted Reader
Parents can contribute greatly to the development of their gifted reader. Gifted readers are a subset of gifted learners who may have the ability to understand information at a higher level or from a different angle than a non-gifted learner. Many gifted readers show themselves long before starting kindergarten; some profoundly gifted three-year-olds seem to teach themselves to read. According to the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented located at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, “as a group, talented readers are characterized by
- reading earlier than their peers,
- spending more time reading,
- reading a greater variety of literature, even into adulthood (Collins & Kortner, 1995; Halsted, 1990),
- reading at least two grade levels above their chronological grade placement,
- demonstrating advanced understanding of language,
- having an expansive vocabulary,
- perceiving relationships between and among characters,
- grasping complex ideas (Catron & Wingenbach, 1986; Dooley, 1993; Levande, 1999),
- having skills which are advanced in relation to their peers,
- possibly not profiting from conventional instruction in reading (Levande, 1999),
- benefiting from diagnostically based instruction to ensure that their skills continually improve.”
Parents are the gifted child’s first teachers in a very concrete way. “Giftedness” seems to be a combination of native ability and enriched environment. Parents can provide a stimulating and enriching environment for their child from birth through high school graduation. Parents have the opportunity to expand their child’s learning through experiences not available through the school system.
There are many ways a parent can foster their gifted reader. Perhaps the most important thing a parent can do is keep the child and their own view of this talent in perspective. Each of us is a unique bundle of talents, gifts, and capabilities. It is the whole package that makes us who we are. Parents play a major role in helping children develop into an integrated whole. Concentrating solely on one talent or gift will result in lopsided growth and the result is not helpful to the child or those around him or her.
Fortunately, gifted readers can use their reading ability to their advantage to grow other portions of their personalities and talents, since reading can be used to unlock many fields of endeavor and thought. Parents can use the ideas in this article to enrich their child’s experiences with reading.
In the early years. The average spoken vocabulary at 24 months is 300 words and by 36 months the average spoken vocabulary is 1000 words. The receptive vocabulary (words understood but not spoken) is much larger than the spoken vocabulary (this is true throughout life but particularly apparent in the young). Profoundly gifted readers will have above average vocabularies at earlier ages then the norm and often, but not always, teach themselves to read. In fact, in 1972 the Marland report from the US Office of Education stated half of gifted students had taught themselves to read before entering school. Enriched environments for young children can support the child’s propensity for quick language acquisition. In addition to reading to your child daily, make sure books of various levels are available in your household. Collect books for your child’s library and keep the books where your child can reach them. Talk with your child in a descriptive way as you go through your daily life. Your child will be distinguishing discrete words and sentence structure, learning new vocabulary, and equating books with happy times spent with you.
Library Resources. Make trips to the library a weekly habit in your household. Take your child to “Story Hour”. Get them a library card as soon as they are eligible. Encourage them to participate in the Summer Reading Programs. If your library sponsors Book Clubs for children or teens, encourage your child to join. Check with the Reference Librarian or Children’s Librarian for reading lists appropriate to your child’s reading level or interests. Remember that a child should read a variety of material and levels. Reading at or below their highest reading level reinforces and builds confidence in their skill. Reading above their current level is a good stretch, but can be discouraging, so smaller doses are appropriate.
Reading Night. While many parents understand the need to read to their young children, once the child has learned to read, many families abandon the practice. Research shows however, that communal reading is beneficial into at least the teen years. Those of you who watch Turner Classic Movies may have seen the movie “I Remember Mama”. In the film a young woman writer recalls how her family gathered around the living room to hear the latest chapter in whatever novel the family was reading through at the time. This family made a practice of sharing great literature. Different family members read the material, questions could be asked and, if no one knew the answer, research could be done to find the answer. Since everyone in the family was involved, this activity not only strengthened the family unit, it gave a way to discuss important issues from the books in a supportive, safe environment. Institute a Reading Night with your family. Read a chapter a night from a sweeping saga which carries you away to a new and fascinating time and place. Rotate the reading through all the family members to give everyone a chance to practice this important skill. Answer your child’s questions about vocabulary and discuss situations, history as it applies, or issues as they appear in the story.
Read everything, everywhere. When you visit a park, zoo, or museum with your child, have your child read the placards, look at the map and navigate you to the exhibits you wish to view, or read the signs for opening and closing hours. The point is to show the child that the opportunity to read and learn is all around us. When you go to the grocery store, have your child help you find the products you wish to purchase and evaluate nutrition information or pricing. Let them check items off the shopping list. The important part is their active participation in the activity and the application of reading skills in their every day existence.
Encourage hobbies. Parents of gifted readers can provide opportunities to their children the school system can not. Encourage your child in a hobby, interest, or club. Music, dance, art, rocket building, theater, 4-H, Scouts, photography, horse back riding, model building are all examples of the types of activities a parent can support which will enrich and expand the child’s learning opportunities (and, by the way, exercise their reading skills in addition to the other skills they will be learning).
Play word games. Perhaps not surprisingly, most gifted readers also enjoy word games of all kinds. They are very likely to create puns, for instance. Play along. Introduce rhyming games, hangman, Scrabble, crosswords, anagrams, word searches, tongue-twisters, puns, and other word-teaser games to your gifted reader. Gifted readers love words and playing with words is the most fun of all. You will be happy to know that all this play develops strong vocabulary and spelling skills.
Expand understanding. Make it a point to discuss what a child has read and delve more deeply into the content. While a gifted reader may master the mechanics of reading easily; understanding, analyzing, and evaluating the material are more sophisticated skills. Make this a mutual discussion and not a quiz. Also, use this sparingly. Reading needs to be enjoyed to be a self-motivating activity. Concentrating on the analysis and evaluation of writing calls for a different mindset than reading for enjoyment. Explore questions like:
- Was the material factual? How can a reader tell?
- What is an authoritative source for the purported factual information? Where can one find that information and verify it?
- Does the author use logic or emotion to get across his point of view? What is the advantage or disadvantage of the approach the author took to the content?
- Does the author describe principles and show how the details are related or has the author presented many details without providing an underlying principle which connects these details?
- What did the author mean when he wrote…?
- Can you explain in your own words what the author meant when he wrote…?
- If you had to explain this same concept to your younger brother, what would you say?
- What happened in the story?
- Who were the main characters and what were they like?
- Why do you think the author chose to give these characters the attributes he did? How do those attributes contribute to the story?
- What decisions did the main character make which might have changed the outcome of the story if the decisions had been different? How might the story have changed?
- What writing techniques did the author use to create interest in the story? (foreshadowing, flashbacks, cliffhangers, symbolism, irony, satire, similes, metaphors, etc).
- Is there a life lesson, moral or message in the story?
Be a role model. Children emulate their main role model — their parents. Enjoy reading yourself. Set aside time each day when you read for your own enjoyment. Your child can read to themselves during this time or play quietly. You are setting the example that we continue to read throughout our lifetime for pleasure, to learn new skills, and for work. Reading is an important part of our life.
Concentration. Let your child read things that interest him without interruption. Your child needs to develop concentration. Interrupting a child when they are focused on a particular activity, even to give praise, leads to lack of ability to concentrate. Allow your child to focus his attention on a particular activity for as long as possible. Minimize your presence. Where there is interest, let that flourish.
Support the “whole” child. Parents are essential in providing guidance and balance in a child’s life. There is a distinct tendency in human beings to spend a lot of time on activities which they do well. This tendency can lead to an unbalance in a person’s life. It is important for all aspects of human character to be developed. Children need to develop physical, basic life, social, and emotional skills in addition to mental skills. Often persecuted by their age peers with labels like geek and nerd, gifted children need help building their self confidence and defining their role as a member of society. Dewey G. Cornell, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia, found children whose parents openly refer to them as gifted have less favorable self-images, are more prone to anxiety, stress, and depression, are less well-liked by their peer groups, and have more behavior problems. Instead of focusing on the label of gifted, he suggests encouraging kids to be well-rounded, kind, helpful, and friendly in his article “Child Adjustment and Parent Use of the Term ‘Gifted’” in the Gifted Child Quarterly 33, 1989.
Additional Resources. If you are looking for more ideas on how to nurture your gifted reader, the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented provides information and resources for teachers and parents through their website.
You may also wish to check out the National Institute for Literacy for their newsletter, series of publications for parents and educators about supporting acquisition of reading skills, and their report from the National Early Literacy Panel. While these publications are intended for readers on a normal progression path, those nurturing gifted readers can use the information at the level needed for their particular situation as the institute covers reading from early childhood through adulthood.
For more ideas on how to best guide your gifted reader and for specific book suggestions, get a copy of “Some of My Best Friends are Books; Guiding Gifted Readers from Preschool to High School” by Judith Wynn Halsted. The book explores the development of gifted readers. It has an annotated bibliography with suggested books for different age groups and issue areas. Gifted children often face similar challenges in developing their identity and learning to relate to others. The author provides specific suggestions for books which offer coping strategies and ideas a child could adopt.
Nurturing a gifted reader can be a great pleasure for both you and your child. New words can be discovered, secrets revealed, concepts understood, history exposed, and more in the comfort of an armchair while turning the pages of a book. Reading allows us to share the thoughts of the best minds humankind has produced. Facilitate your gifted reader’s journey into the written word with a daily infusion of ideas from this article.