Are Early Readers Gifted?

June 1991 Masthead

Nancy Ewald Jackson, Ph.D.
Educational Psychology, The University of Iowa

Whenever we counsel parents, identify children for special programs, or try to understand the nature of giftedness in children, we need to deal with the issue of the developmental continuity of giftedness. If a child performs in a way that we would define as gifted at the age of five or six years, what is the likelihood that the child will continue to be a gifted performer in future years? If the child does maintain a pattern of superior achievement, will the accomplishments be predictable in content? The study of children who begin to read at unusually early ages highlights these issues.

Children who are reading fluently before beginning first grade are likely to be perceived by both parents and teachers as intellectually gifted. This precocious mastery of a complex skill certainly merits the label “gifted” and calls for differentiated programming. A six year old who has worked her way independently through Charlotte’s Web does not need to spend many hours each week being instructed in basic word identification skills. On the other hand, we cannot be certain that precocious readers will continue to demonstrate gifted performances through and beyond their elementary school years.

A comprehensive prospective study of the later accomplishments of precocious readers has not been done. Recent research deals only with the narrower question of the extent to which precocious readers continue to be exceptionally good, i.e., gifted, readers. The answer to this question depends on the standard one sets for defining continued giftedness. The results of several longitudinal studies have confirmed that precocious readers continue to be good readers. By the fifth or sixth grade, the typical precocious reader has continued to achieve in reading at a level well above the national norms, and precocious readers who are cognitively normal virtually never turn into below-average readers. However, many precocious readers do not continue to read at levels that would be considered gifted according to most program guidelines.

Given what we know about the development of reading skill, the finding that an early start in reading does not guarantee continued exceptional performance is plausible. One important factor is the shift in the skills required to be a good reader as word identification becomes more automatic, text comprehension rather than word identification becomes central to the definition of good reading, and books begin to challenge the reader’s general vocabulary and world knowledge to a greater extent. Some children may begin reading at an exceptionally early age because they are especially adept at breaking the code of print. These same children are not always especially well endowed with the aspects of verbal intelligence that underlie comprehension of sophisticated texts. A second factor that keeps precocious beginning readers from continuing to stand out as distinctly exceptional readers is simply that, with time and instructional support, many later bloomers catch up.

There may be some ways in which an early start in reading does give a child a lasting advantage. Precocious readers seem to be especially well able to read text rapidly, which facilitates comprehension. Children who achieve well despite coming from the disadvantaged backgrounds often associated with reading failure are likely to have started reading early. However, the nature of giftedness changes as skills and children mature. We need to balance the need to celebrate and support each child’s current accomplishments against recognition that new challenges are encountered as development progresses; the same children may not always meet those challenges most successfully.

This report is based primarily on the article referenced below, in which other relevant studies also are cited.
Mills, J. R., & Jackson, N. E. (1990). Predictive significance of early giftedness: The case of precocious reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 410-419.


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