Digest of Gifted Research
Duke University Talent Identification Program
Vol. 7, No. 3
In this article, Debbie Abilock provides advice on how to cultivate your gifted child's interest in reading.
I was browsing the children’s section at my local Borders when I heard, “Not this—you’re too advanced for these,” and watched an earnest young mother close an oversized picture book and point her preadolescent daughter toward the teen section. As the girl slowly turned her eyes from Harriet Tubman’s expressive stare and walked toward the splashy display of edgy young-adult novels, I resisted an impulse to pull her back. To lay open those dramatic double-spread paintings of Tubman’s determined face and to read aloud the lyrical story of a courageous journey to freedom by the light of the North Star. I paused. The girl obeyed her mother. I left as she immersed herself in a mélange of gossipy girls and crossover adult titles.
But the moment sticks. For, as one independent bookstore after another closes and schools divert funds from their libraries so they can focus their resources on test failures, the reading guidance available to parents and children is more often from a paperback’s back cover than from an educator’s knowledge of the just-right book for a particular reader.
Increasingly, remarkable readers are guided on their intellectual journey by the consensus of social networks, marketing directors selling formulas novels with media tie-ins, or generic award lists. An educator’s expertise is being replaced by anecdotal opinions on Amazon, tips from My Space “friends,” mass-retailers’ display shelves of high-volume titles, and impersonal “best” lists issued by various education organizations.
Some self-sufficient gifted readers find and read books across many genres and topics while others soak up everything about a particular topic, such as dinosaurs or the Civil War. As a long-time school librarian, I’ve seen books returned all soggy because they could not be put aside for a bath, and watched a boy navigate a crowd, without lifting his eyes from a compelling book. Such independent readers rarely ask adults for help, yet they can flounder silently. They usually exhaust their classroom’s offerings within the first months of school and, without guidance or opportunity, turn to rereading favorites or to Internet browsing. While both have merit—rereading can deepen understanding and increase fluency, and the Internet does contain a variety of treasures—a steady diet of shallow, predictable reading deadens sensibilities and curiosity. Online text bytes lack extended logical analysis and are devoid of the fully developed characters and lyrical language that feed curious, imaginative minds.
The reading habit tends to decline with age. A recent national Yankelovich survey of parents and primary guardians reports that high-frequency readers (reading for fun every day) declines from 40 percent of 5-8 year olds to 29 percent of 9-11 year olds, and that the percentage continues to decline through age 17.
Aliterate gifted readers (those who can read but choose not to) are an emerging phenomenon. However, families have an important ally within their school and in the community—the librarian. In the Yankelovich study, high-frequency readers cite librarians and parents as the two most important influences on their reading choices. With professional training in children’s and young-adult literature, librarians have the expertise to match your child with just the right book. They serve as your co-advocate in today’s inhospitable climate of flawed skill-and-drill reading instruction. Unlike the classroom’s textbooks and controlled-vocabulary chapter books, which have been selected to support average and struggling readers, the library’s selection policy favors wide-ranging resources for diverse learners of all ages—an ideal intellectual playground for the highly able reader. The school librarian can be a source of information and inspiration for gifted students and their parents. Here are some tips on how you can work with the school librarian to ensure that your child selects challenging reading material at a developmentally appropriate level.
Create connections. If you are able to volunteer in the library, do it. Budget cutbacks may have resulted in the loss of support staff; your services shelving or mending books frees the librarian to spend quality time with children. If you cannot volunteer during the day, consider staffing a book fair before school, joining a Friends of the Library group, or helping organize an author visit one evening. Volunteering also gets you access, which can open doors to advocacy.
Milk the moments. When you have the librarian’s ear, describe your child’s reading preferences and ask for suggestions. If your child visualizes connections and constructions, suggest that the school library acquire adult books about Rube Goldberg, architecture, patents, and inventions. Ascribed reading levels are less important than motivation; librarians know that contraption-loving kids will pour over books way beyond their age-level. If your child puzzles over patterns and problems, look for authors like Paul Fleischman, Dianna Wynne Jones, and Ellen Raskin. Even if you don’t read adolescent novels, become familiar with and learn to discriminate among authors; hand your teenager Cynthia Voigt’s Bad Girls rather than an inferior copy-cat book on bullying or other hot-button issues. Again, your librarian can name highly regarded authors.
Value mastery. When children drive themselves to master a particularly difficult reading selection, they readily focus, persist, and make an effort for pure pleasure. If asked, even young readers may be able to articulate the metacognitive strategies (rereading, reading ahead, questioning the text) that have enabled them to understand a challenging passage. The reward is in unlocking the meaning. However, if a child is taught that the reward for reading is achieving a good grade, winning points, or receiving doting praise, then his or her effort and focus will drop when the pay-off is achieved. Therefore, parents should emphasize mastery for pleasure and be prepared to voice concern if a teacher or librarian over-emphasizes the quantity of books read or if the school institutes competitive reading-incentive programs.
Investigate enrichment. Librarians around the country have instituted special activities to serve gifted readers, such as mentoring an after-school poetry club and an in-school literature discussion program using both volunteers and classroom teachers. Your school librarian will be interested to learn about programs in other schools that can enrich the lives of highly-able readers.
Support curricular programs and services. School librarians are long-time advocates of curricular modifications such as interdisciplinary learning and independent research projects that nourish gifted students. While these well-known programs require additional teacher-librarian planning time and administrative support, even small modifications in the library schedule can support passionate readers. For example, research shows that sustained silent reading (SSR) periods of 15-30 minutes advance the motivation and skill of all readers, especially when students choose their own reading material. And, with your help, your school librarian can institute a “flexible access” period during which individual students from any class can browse and exchange resources on any day, not just once a week at library time. Five to ten parent volunteers can staff the library on a rotating basis during the first or last half-hour of each school day to facilitate open access to the library’s resources.
Develop a strong relationship with your school librarian—your goals are aligned. Together you can light the journey of your gifted reader with the constancy of the North Star.
Debbie Abilock, a consultant, speaker and author, has over 25 years experience with gifted students as a school librarian, curriculum coordinator and school administrator. She is the Editor-in-chief of Knowledge Quest, the print journal of the American Association of School Librarians, and co-founder of NoodleTools, Inc., which develops teaching software to assist students and support teachers and librarians throughout the process of library research.