Education Opinion

Mind the Gap: Engaging Gifted Readers

By Donalyn Miller — March 07, 2009 4 min read
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March 10th marks the 95th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s death. Tubman is famous for leading slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and trails from the South to the North. Nowadays, the term “Underground” represents other networks like the London Underground and subcultures apart from the mainstream like Underground music and art. The Underground represents freedom, escape, and unfortunately, hiding. I use the term “underground readers” to describe gifted readers, those students who live in a world that is often outside the confines of classroom cultures, which are often pitched toward developing readers.

In a previous post, I expressed the need for greater effort in serving gifted readers. Many of you asked for practical solutions, and I know from talking to parents, they have questions, too. As my first post for the Share a Story; Shape a Future blog tour, I offer some advice for supporting underground readers.

How do I know if a child is a gifted reader?

Many gifted readers read constantly, often covertly, and choose reading as a pastime. Signs a child is a gifted reader include those who:

• Read at an early age.
• May have taught themselves to read.
• Require less drill to master the reading process.
• Synthesize multiple reading strategies.
• Possess advanced vocabulary knowledge and usage.
• Read 3 to 4 times more than their same age peers.
• Continue to read voraciously after the peak reading years end (4th -8th grades) and into adulthood.
• May prefer abstract genres like fantasy, read deeply from one genre or topic, or prefer nonfiction text to fiction.

My gifted child used to love reading, but now he hates it. What can I do?

While gifted children may express advanced early reading ability, some lose interest in reading as they progress through school. A few lack confidence (or support) and avoid challenging themselves. Others become bored with grade level work and stop reading altogether. Gifted readers who grow uninterested in reading need support in choosing books that meet their interests and the opportunity to read widely. They should choose their own reading material most of the time and compact out of reading material or instruction in concepts they have already mastered.

Some children with high verbal IQs also have learning differences such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, or ADD that mask their giftedness and make reading difficult for them. Imagine being gifted and challenged in the same area! Targeted instruction in strategic reading skills helps such readers compensate for learning differences and maximize their potential.

How do I provide appropriate material to gifted readers who read at a higher level than their age?

The mismatch between reading ability and interest, and appropriate content became apparent to me one day, when I observed one of my gifted sixth graders reading Under the Tuscan Sun during independent reading time. Approaching her, I asked why she chose that book and she revealed that it was her mother’s favorite! Many parents and teachers are at a loss when a child’s reading ability surpasses the books most commonly recommended for children their age. Consider these options:

• Offer a wide range of literature from reviewed district, state and national lists.
• Revisit “classics” that are age-appropriate.
• Consider the emotional maturity of the individual child.
• Offer nonfiction at the child’s true reading level and popular fiction at their age level. (This suggestion comes from gifted education researcher, Judith Wynn Halstead.)
• Read off-level books before or with your child.

Which books can you recommend for gifted readers?

Gifted readers prefer books that are more complex in genre, vocabulary, structure, perspective, or theme. Librarian Patricia Austin recommends specific categories that appeal to gifted readers. I have included a partial list of books that gifted middle-schoolers love. ** You may email me at thebookwhisperer@gmail.com for the expanded list.

Look for books that include:

Distinctive Language and Word Play

Chess Rumble by G. Neri
Palindromania by Jon Agee

Challenging Structures

The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg
Skeleton Creek by Patrick Carman

Unusual Perspectives or Points of View

Beastly by Alex Flinn
Blood Red Horse by K.M. Grant

Ambiguous Endings

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
The Giver by Lois Lowry

Thought Provoking Content: Social and Emotional Issues

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick
Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor

Thought Provoking Content: Historical and Cultural Themes

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Under the Blood Red Sun by Graham Salisbury (more appropriate than the Tuscan Sun!)

Role Models

Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller by Sarah Miller
The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis

Gifted Protagonists

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

Considering Austin’s book categories, is it any wonder that so many gifted readers love fantasy and science fiction? These genres offer the abstraction and complexity gifted readers crave. Here are a few of my students’ top picks:


by Neal Shusterman
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
Savvy by Ingrid Law
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
The Warrior Heir by Cinda Chima Williams

Science Fiction

H.I.V.E.: The Higher Institute for Villainous Education by Mark Walden
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Epic by Conor Kostick
The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

As teachers, we must watch for gaps between the instruction we provide gifted students and their learning needs and interests. As parents, we must look for ways to keep our gifted readers motivated. Share the successful strategies, lesson ideas, and tips you use with the gifted readers in your lives. Join us in the Share a Story; Shape a Future event by posting comments and visiting the great sites hosting bloggers this week. I will return Wednesday as part of Read Aloud Day!

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.