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Precocious Reading

Reading beyond their years.

Recently, a friend asked us what we might advise as appropriate reading instruction for her kindergarten daughter, Karina, who was already well able to read. Karina’s teacher had determined that Karina was reading on at least a second or thrid grade level, but because of her phonemic awareness skills did not measure as high, the teacher felt that Karina should participate in the regular kindergarten literacy instruction anyway. So, with her non-reading classmates, Karina was spending hours each school day practicing writing her letters, participating in phonemic awareness games, learning simple vocabulary, and answering questions about stories the teacher read to the class.

Karina already had most of these skills in spades. For example, Karina recently asked her mother what “euphoria” meant which she had found in a book she was reading and sounded out correctly by herself). Though "euphoria is certainly not a word most children her age might be expected to know, Karina’s mother remembered that Karina crowed with glee when she was told what it meant, loving the mere thought of it. Her mother was worried that Katrina might really need something beyond the standard kindergarten instruction.

This story brought back memories to both of us, some good and some not as good. We had each experienced something quite similar for our own sons, albeit over twenty years ago. Okay, we are literacy researchers so it isn’t all that surprising that our sons spent most of their school years well ahead of their peers in reading. But we were a little surprised, given all the emphasis in recent years on differentiated instruction and personalized learning, that this problem hadn’t been worked out.

The scientific term for kids like Karina is precocious reader. Precocious readers are children who often learn to read prior to entering school, and are able to read aloud and comprehend more like children who are at least two or three years older than themselves (Stroebel & Evans, 1988). These children have learned to read without any really coherent reading instruction from the adults around them. Instead, it seems these children gradually figured out the "code," just asking for help as they needed it.

The most remarkable thing about precocious readers is that they are not all that remarkable. They are sometimes verbally gifted, but often not. Early talkers are not more likely than other children to be early readers, as one might think (Crain-Thoreson & Dale, 1992). Precocious readers are not unusually intellectually driven or academically motivated outside of simply wanting to learn to read and managing to do so at an early age. They might watch Sesame Street a good bit, but so do many kids who are not precocious readers. They come from all socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, not just from families from which one might expect precocious readers to come. There are few common threads: there are usually children’s books around in their homes, and at least one parent generally spends time reading to them. It is often in the context of this shared reading that these children develop knowledge of letters and a store of sight words that may help get the process of learning to read started. Parents of precocious readers often use rich language while interacting with their children (Davidson & Snow, 1995), but these children also seem to be instigating parents to use this rich talk. Importantly, although many homes turn on Sesame Street, have children’s books, and enjoy shared book reading and rich conversation, most do not produce a precocious reader.

Precocious readers sometimes show a better ability to blend word sounds than their peers (Backman, 1983), but their superiority in manipulating word sounds is not universal, and the specific advanced phonological skills that precocious readers display seems to vary from study to study; such skills may even be the result, rather than the cause of precocious reading. And like Karina and Nancy’s son, many precocious readers show no particular advanced sound manipulation skills. Often, such children without great phonological awareness approach reading as a visual problem rather than a task about sounding out words (Forester, 1977). Essentially, they read by sight. Nevertheless, it is more likely that children will be a precocious reader if the language they are reading is phonetically transparent, that is, a language in which the alphabet and the sounds used in reading words have a clearer one-to-one match. So, Finnish children, whose writing system is quite phonetically regular in this way, are considerably more likely to be precocious readers than English-speaking children (Silven, Poskiparta, & Niemi, 2004). Indeed, this support from the writing system might actually operate to prompt children to develop an understanding of the sounds of their language.

One question we have is whether being a precocious reader actually matters in the long run. Do these children go on to have unusual abilities in reading and writing in the future? Will these children grow up to be our future writers and journalists? Though one would think such an easy start would encourage further reading development, the research is quite mixed on whether these children even maintain any advantage over their peers with regards to reading skills after a few years in school.

It seems possible, even likely, that precocious readers' development may stall because the schools are not encouraging them to read and learn at their level. Indeed, if schools don’t meet these children’s needs by providing differentiated instruction, it is not hard to see how their might lose their advantage, and interest, in reading over time. Imagine that Karina spends two hours per day (possibly more) receiving instruction on things she basically already knows how to do. Over the course of a school year, that’s approximately 360 hours of pointless instruction. Her teacher is not really worried about Karina because she has at least six children in her class that that did not even know how to hold a book at the beginning of the year--those are the children she worries about. Karina, meanwhile, is likely bored a good bit of the school day, and thus is in danger of losing any motivation to read or to excel.

Imagine that, instead, Karina could be provided the advanced instruction that she needs. One way of addressing this type of reader is grouping by ability where higher performing students are put together and taught as a group, but many people object to this practice. While the issues are complex, there is some evidence that early ability grouping may be particularly disadvantageous for those in the lower groups, while not actually benefitting those in higher groups (Hong, Corter, Hong, & Pelletier, 2012). In any case, there are many other possible ways Karina's teacher could provide her with much more stimulating and useful instruction.

Children who read better could be given more advanced instructional materials during reading time, without having to be put in "groups." Newer technologies make this increasingly easy to do, as reflected in the pioneering work being done in many schools involving differentiated or personalized instruction. Karina's teacher should engage her students in discussion and critical thinking around a variety of topics, which will benefit all the children in her class. Karina could also be placed in first or second grade for reading but spend the rest of the day with her kindergarten peers, a strategy called cross-grade grouping. If she does not want to be separated from her friends and her familiar teacher, Karina and others who are ready could certainly be provided books designed to expand her knowledge on some topic she might be interested in. At this age, one of our sons was obsessed with books on frogs and the Amazon jungle. He would have willingly read them by the hour if given the chance in school, and this kind of engaged reading is exactly what enhances reading development at all levels. Karina could then carry out some sort of project on her topic, like making a poster that she presents to the teacher or the other children. This strategy is called enrichment. Karina could at least be allowed to read high quality children’s literature on her level, and then spend a few minutes each week discussing them with her teacher. She could also be encouraged to carry out some sort of creative activity such as writing her own books or plays with some teacher support. Any of these strategies would not overburden her teacher, but would be not only more motivating for Karina, but would also offer her the chance to further develop her reading and writing abilities in school.

Regardless, we can all agree that Karina’s problem is one of the nicer literacy problems to have, and her teacher and her school need to try out new strategies to encourage the development of literacy skills for children like Karina.


Backman, J. (1983). The role of psycholinguist skills in reading acquisition: A look at early readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 18, 466–479.

Crain-Thoreson, C., & Dale, P. S. (1992). Do early talkers become early readers? Linguistic precocity, preschool language, and emergent literacy. Developmental Psychology, 28(3), 421-429.

Davidson, R., & Snow, C. E. (1995). The linguistic environment of early readers. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 10, 5–21.

Hong, G., Corter, C., Hong, Y., & Pelletier, J. (2012). Differential Effects of Literacy Instruction Time and Homogeneous Ability Grouping in Kindergarten Classrooms: Who Will Benefit? Who Will Suffer?. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 34(1), 69-88.

Olson, L. A., Evans, J.R., Heckler, W.T. (2006). Precocious readers, past, present, and future. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 30, 205 – 235.

Silven, M., Poskiparta, E., & Niemi, P. (2004). The odds of becoming a precocious reader of Finnish. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 152–164.

Stroebel, S., & Evans, J. (1988). Neuropsychological and environmental characteristics of early readers. Journal of School Psychology, 26,J243–252.

Wood, P. (2008). Reading instruction with gifted and talented readers: A series of unfortunate events or a sequence of auspicious results? Gifted Child Today, 31, 16-25.

More from Paula J. Schwanenflugel, Ph.D., and Nancy Flanagan Knapp, Ph.D.
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