How Gifted Kids Learn to Read

By Deborah L. Ruf, Ph.D.

One of my doctoral studies’ advisors specialized in how people learn to read. I paid little attention to that research at the time, and by the early 1990’s, my own understanding was still mostly anecdotal or from my own experiences. I had some personal family stories, taught school in a very intellectually diverse community, seen differences between generations and when they started to read, and watched my own three children’s learning paths.

When I was a little girl in the 1950’s, my mother read Dr. Spock’s baby book and anything else she could get her hands on to make sure she was doing all the “right things.” Parents were told not to push their children. This meant that many in my generation were not encouraged to read before starting school. “Don’t interfere with what the trained educators will teach your children,” our parents were told. So, I started school not knowing how to read, although I certainly knew how to sight read many signs, logos, record labels and book titles because I’d memorized their associations, e.g. we stop at the “stop” sign. When I started school, my mother was alarmed that I wasn’t learning to read. She made flash cards and taught me phonics. I remember the hardest word in the stack of flashcards for me was “baby.” How do you phonetically sound out “baby”? I kept saying “baa-bye,” which rhymes with rabbi. My mother was a yeller. This was not a good experience.

Then one day when I was about 7 years old, I simply started to read. The first book I read was Lassie Come Home by Erik Knight. One day I couldn’t read … and the next day I could literally read and understand anything. I see this with my client children all the time except that it usually happens when they are younger than I was. My own children’s father grew up a 1,000 miles away from me, but he experienced much the same reading delay as I had. He got very ill when he was in second grade—still not a reader—and the school sent a tutor to his home to work with him while he was recuperating. Same thing happened; he went from not reading to reading anything – in one day. What happened?
My mother, on the other hand, born in 1927, came from a generation that got to do what they were ready to do whenever that time arose. Grade skipping was common. If a child was ahead of age-mates, she got moved up a grade level or two to learn with older students. My mother was the fourth child in her family. One summer morning when she was four years old, she walked to the public library and wanted to take some books home. The librarian told her she needed a library card. “How do you get a library card?” she asked. “You have to know how to read,” came the answer. Mom ran home, confronted an older brother, and told him she needed to learn to read “right now!” She went back for her library card—and some books to bring home—that afternoon.

I currently tell parent clients that gifted kids learn to read after they develop their vocabularies and learn to know what should come next in a sentence. The brighter the children, the earlier they start absorbing verbal—language—information from their surroundings. Phonics is a useful tool later, but teaching smart children to read with phonics is very confusing to most of them and sometimes slows them down. Phonics works to teach “decoding” skills, but a child who knows how to decode still may not understand what he reads. Most really bright children appear to start reading almost spontaneously. Most parents of such children report that they aren’t sure how their children learned to read.
Bright kids learn to read when they are exposed to how the printed word gives information or tells a story. There are studies showing that the parents of poor children use fewer words with their children, read to them less, and have fewer books in their homes than do typical parents from higher socioeconomic status groups and even some specific racial and ethnic groups. But the big question is this: is it equally effective for all children—regardless of the intellectual abilities and overall interests that the children individually possess— for parents, teachers, and other adults to talk and read to them more? Our public school policy is largely driven by the assumption that all children learn to read the same way and with the same tools and approach. Will providing the same level of vocabulary, conversation, books in the home, and parents who read to them turn the vast majority of American children into capable, high-level readers? Right now the adult literacy rate in the United States is only about 86%. But even that number is misleading because regular reading for information or pleasure is done by only a very small percentage of our population.

It is precisely these questions that makes typical public school classes so problematic for so many gifted children and their parents. For example, research by McCoach & Reis at the University of Connecticut shows that gifted children learn more over the summer than during the school year. Although some interpret this as proof bright children come from stimulating rather than impoverished homes, I propose it is more often due to these smart children finally being freed to read and learn what they are ready to learn—at their own pace and in their own time. The No Child Left Behind school day is set for the majority of learners, not the brightest ones who are still required to be there with others their age who learn much differently and more slowly.

Studies consistently show that the brighter the child, the earlier in their lives they start to absorb vocabulary, normal sentence structure, and the nuances of language in general. When Sesame Street first aired, the goal was to give children in poverty the same early start as their higher socioeconomic counterparts. This is one reason I ask new clients when it was that their children started to pay attention to television, movies, and videos. How early in their lives did they begin to absorb language and verbal skills from their environment? The Sesame Street study uncovered the fact that there appears to be a difference not in how much parents from different socioeconomic groups use TV as a babysitter, but in what the preferred TV programs were for children from each group. Brighter children have an earlier ability to attend—pay attention to—educational programming than do less intelligent children regardless of whether they live in poverty or affluence. Gifted children start learning sooner than other children. They start school “better prepared” because their intellectual profile allows them to absorb sooner and more intensely from whatever environment they are in. Please note that the excellent article linked here—like most educational policy examinations—does not adequately address how intellectual level and profile affects readiness.

Because most children have no options except to attend public schools, it is imperative that those schools instruct all children appropriately–taking their abilities and readiness into account–if they are to learn. It is not true that “by third grade (or fourth grade) we can’t even tell who the early readers were.” It is an unacceptable excuse for keeping all children of the same age in the same classes for instruction. I’ll talk about the topic of gifted children and reading much more in future blogs.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the author.  She says this about her website:  “I founded Educational Options to provide accurate information regarding intelligence, what it is, where it comes from, and how our family, school, relationship and workplace environments either nurture or stifle its expression. When someone is highly intelligent – different from the majority in thoughts, expression, and interest – the wrong environment can lead to confusion, sadness, and underachievement. My continuing purpose is to open the eyes and awareness of adults in ways that will benefit them and the children under their care.”

Check out Dr. Ruf’s latest project at, especially the page on Ruf Estimates of Levels of Gifted Assessments.

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