Early Reading Myth #2: When Your Gifted Child Doesn’t Read Before Kindergarten

Children who read before starting kindergarten tend to impress most people. You see a 5-year old reading The Hobbit and you think, “Dang! That kid is S.M.A.R.T.”

Gifted, they most certainly are; but, early reading does not always guarantee astounding achievement in high school. Last week I blogged about early readers who don’t always reach the academic potential that parents and teachers expected back in first grade.

For some kids the expectations were just a wee bit too high. For others, an underlying learning disability hadn’t been diagnosed, yet. And then there’s the group of gifted kids who intuitively learned the fundamentals but still needed direct instruction in some part of the reading process before they could continue to move ahead with their learning.

When you read research on the topic of early reading, it’s easy to be swayed by the notion that precocious reading is a requisite skill for later high achievement. Consider some findings reported over the last 90 years:

  • 43% of Lewis Terman’s Genetic Study of Genius adults (that began in the 1920s) were reading before age 5.

  • 80% of 13- and 14-year olds who scored a 580+ on the SAT Verbal section were reading by age 5, as reported by Joyce VanTassel-Baska from College of William and Mary.

  • 90% of profoundly gifted students (including Terence Tao) followed by Miraca Gross’ longitudinal study in Australia were reading before age 5.

So, what about gifted children who were not early readers? Are they not as smart as their precocious reading friends? Is academic success not in their future?

In an interview with Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development, Dr. Nancy Robinson, a noted scholar and founder of the University of Washington’s Early Entrance Program for profoundly gifted children, frames it this way. “Early reading is clearly a sign of being at least “medium bright,” she says, before going on to note that it is not a skill exhibited by all gifted children.

Some highly and profoundly gifted children are capable of becoming early readers but choose not to develop the skill. The reason may be as simple as not wanting to give up the special snuggly reading time they’ve come to enjoy with their parents – yet, that very same child goes on to graduate high school at age 14.

Visual-spatial children – those who seem to learn things in whole chunks rather in a more linear, step-by-step fashion, have also been noted as late-readers. Visual-spatial children, as a group, tend to memorize whole words, rather than learn phonics skills.

A number of other reasons can account for why an otherwise brilliant child may not be reading before the age of 5. The following checklist may help parents tease apart if non-early reading is part of their child’s normal developmental path.

Playing With Sounds and Words

Does your child like to make rhymes or play alliteration games, where they use the same first sound for every word in a sentence? Playing with oral language like this demonstrates an inherent understanding of essential phonological skills and provides critical practice that leads to eventual reading success. Children who have had a large number of early ear infections have been found to be delayed in acquiring phonological awareness skills. This does not mean the child won’t become a successful reader, but they will need some extra help in gaining skills they missed when they were sick.

Reading Environmental Print

Environmental print includes corporate and sports logos, street signs, and other visual images that contain print and communicates information. Children may “read” environmental print when they see a fast food sign and tell you they’re hungry for a hamburger. Such reading and responding shows us that the child understands that symbols, letters, and words communicate ideas, which allows people to interact with the world and each other.

Rich Vocabulary

Decades of research tell us that children with a large vocabulary in their younger years tend to have higher reading achievement in middle and high school. You don’t have to count every different word your child speaks to know if they’re at that 20,000 word “rich” level. Instead, throw in the occasional big word in your own conversation. Or, read vocabulary rich picture books together. See how your child responds to unfamiliar words. Can they deduce meaning? Do they connect the new word to words or ideas they already know? Do they begin to use the word in their own vocabulary? Seeing a child use these skills lets us know they’re thinking like a reader.

Complex Sentences

Reading a paragraph is very different from reading a pack of flash card words. In order to understand the paragraph, a reader must be able to sound out every word – and then remember what each word means within each sentence – and how the meaning of each sentence links together within the paragraph. That takes a lot of brain power for a 6-year old. Young children who use and understand complex spoken language show us that they have the cognitive ability to remember and access the language skills that will eventually be used when they learn to read. So, what is a complex sentence? It’s the ability to correctly execute a 3-step command at the age of 4, such as “Go upstairs. Get your shoes. And ask Dad to put them on for you.” Or, it’s the ability to listen to a story and retell the beginning, middle, and end with little or no prompting.

Healthy Vision

Children who appear clumsy and knock into furniture as they walk through a room or become disoriented when surrounded by lots of visual patterns (think a busy rug pattern) may have a visual impairment, such as lazy eye, cross-eye, convergence insufficiency, or even nystagmus (a condition that causes the eyes to be in constant motion). Visual impairments do not cause dyslexia but they can make learning to read a difficult task. Treatment may be something as simple as an eye patch or as complex as surgery. Rarely is vision therapy the correct treatment option.

For many gifted children, non-early reading is not the same as late reading. Learning to read at the typical age of 5 and 6 does not necessarily mean the gifted child will fail to thrive in school or that a learning disability exists. It may simply be that child’s “normal”.

Parents with nagging concerns about reading ability should talk with their pediatrician or a reading specialist for help in gauging when to pursue testing to see if an underlying problem is holding their child back.

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Alessa Giampaolo Keener, M.Ed. homeschooled her children from kindergarten into college. Over the last 15+ years, she has also worked with families in creating individualized learning plans. As a professional curriculum developer, Alessa has created afterschool youth development programs for a Baltimore-based nonprofit, as well as teaching materials for homeschool parents and brick and mortar school teachers.

4 thoughts on “Early Reading Myth #2: When Your Gifted Child Doesn’t Read Before Kindergarten

  • September 2, 2014 at 4:45 am

    My daughter didn’t start reading until she was at school. She brought home her first reader in the third week, and read it word perfect. She did this for the next week, and I commented to the teacher that she had a good memory and had memorised the reader after she’d read it / had it read to her at school. Imagine my surprise when the teacher told me that the readers were not even opened at school! By the end of her first year at school, she was reading at a grade 3 level.

    I think now that she probably was reading before she started school, but as we went through 70 library books per week and she loved our family reading time, I suspect she didn’t read for herself until she had to. She is now an adult and is still an avid reader. (She was tested at age 10 and found to be EG. She scored 670 on the SAT at age 12, which is not bad for an Australian child with little exposure to Americanisms.)

  • September 3, 2014 at 7:58 am

    Susan, I think there’s a segment of children (gifted and regularly developing) that have a fear that if they learn to read they will give up that special cuddle time that comes from reading together. There’s always that fine balance between helping our kids learn to embrace new challenges so they can grow and helping them feel safe in knowing we love them no matter what they can do. Sounds like you nailed it!

  • September 24, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    Great article, it is so important to remember every child learns at their own pace and has their own strengths.

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