by Hanna Vock
See also: Reading and Writing in Kindergarten
Irena was 3 years and six months old when she came to our kindergarten for the first time. She was thrilled and very attentive when I explained to her which hook to use for her coat, namely the one with the sailing ship on it. She whispered to her mother: “Mum, that’s easy to remember, see, it’s got my name right next to it.” An unusual utterance to be made by a 3 years old child. She was showing that she could not only read but also use reading as a tool for orientation in a new situation.
Early reading or the early wish to learn how to read is an indicator of an extraordinary cognitive and verbal aptitude. Further observation yielded many more indications of her extraordinary advancement in thinking and speech.
… in a nutshell …
Many gifted children desire to learn how to read at an early stage. They understand reading is a great tool for gathering information – and thereby satisfying their hunger for knowledge. Gifted children strive for the greatest possible cognitive autonomy early on. For them being able to read is part of it.
And how may kindergarten teachers support them in learning how to read in time? In time meaning at just the time, when the child wants it and also disposes of the necessary prerequisites.
Methodological suggestions as to how that learning process may be facilitated will be given in the article.
Sven, five years old, was suddenly able to read. He started (all of a sudden?) reading long texts fluently and without making mistakes, as if he had been doing so all along. Upon the question “How did you learn that?” he answered: “I don’t know, I just did.”
Ilka, when getting a picture book for her 4 th birthday, said to her mother: “That’s not fair: everybody’s able to read but me.” Was she just babbling away?
Soon after the family is off for two weeks of summer holidays and she has packed the reading primer by which her mother had learned reading many years ago and which was in the shelf with Ilka’s picture books. Now her parents won’t be able to say they don’t have any time helping her learn how to read. Ilka works herself through the entire book within two weeks, oftentimes wanting to do another and yet another page.
At the end of the vacation she can read. Words like “telephone” or “traffic lights” she writes correctly and without help or having to practice them. This shows an extraordinarily high learning tempo.
A number of years later an IHVO-student reports of a four and a half years old girl in her kindergarten group who had said almost the very same thing to her mother: “You are all mean, you can read and I can’t.”
How drastic little lovely girls have to get until their desire to learn is acknowledged! Unfortunately they are not always taken seriously.
Why do many gifted children want to learn how to read even as early as when they are four years old?
In our Certificate Courses the participants make use of the questionnaire by Joelle Huser in order to involve talented (possibly gifted) children in a conversation about their interests and playing and learning needs. Among many others one particular question therein is: “What would you like to learn?” A rather harmless question, yet much too rarely asked.
Again and again colleagues are amazed that quite a few children, unsolicited, choose “reading” from the indefinite number of possible answers.
And they always realize the children are serious about it.
Why is it so important for them?
Developmental psychology has an answer to this.
1. Intellectual giftedness always goes along with a far above average craving for knowledge, a hunger for intellectual nourishment, for input of information about the world.
2. Every child will in its early development pass different stages with regard to its capability of acquiring information about the world.
It’s worthwhile to take a closer look at these stages in order to understand gifted children better.
The newborn child initially makes use of its close senses which have developed in utero: the tactile sense (touching), the olfactory sense (smelling), the gustatory sense (tasting) and the balance sense. The information acquired via these sensory channels is continuously being integrated into the child’s view of the world.
By making use of these senses in its new environment outside the womb it is practising them so that it learns to perceive ever more accurately and discriminately.
The near senses are important for the child’s orientation (as when engaging in its primary activity: drinking) and they are very important for an uncorrupted sense of being safe and secure.
The far senses, hearing and vision, have developed to an extent inside the first, tight and narrow home of a child, the womb, but they could provide only little and diffuse information.
However, as soon as the child has been born and upon making the initial exhausting adaptations to the new environment the far senses will develop rapidly.
This can be observed primarily with regard to vision: the children practise focussing, which in their case means purposely examining certain details and structures of the outside world, purposely and with great concentration. All the while not only neurons form an incredible number of new connections but the muscles of the orbit (controlling the movements of the eyeball) are being trained as well.
It can be observed that ‘wide awake’ (possibly gifted) infants are more motivated and work harder than other children. The example of little Pete may once more serve to demonstrate this (see also: Observations on a Baby .)
At the age of 3 months and 11 days little Pete showed the following performance:
In the course of 24 hours he was visually fixating toys hung over his bed/baby blanket while kicking his legs lightly and strongly, being highly concentrated, amused and without any extrinsic motivation necessary over these great periods of time:
- from 3.10 to 4.07 (57 minutes),
- from 9.12 to 9.38 (26 minutes),
- from 15.06 to 16.21 (75 minutes),
- from 21.33 to 22.18 (45 minutes),
That amounts to a self-imposed ‘labour time’ of 3 hours and 23 minutes – aside from the ‘labour time’ spent drinking.
At the end of this period the child is able to gather quite a lot of information about the world just by looking at it. It can now even see more distant colours and structures rather well. This method of acquiring information by looking at things will be of great importance for any further learning – lifelong. New skills and abilities are yet to be added.
The infant demands ever new visual stimuli. It loves being carried around on the arm or on the back so that new colours and structures keep appearing in its visual field. The ‘wide awake’ infant will immediately be uneasy and unsettled if it is being laid down flat while awake without enough interesting visual stimuli or when it’s being carried around in a wrap around baby carrier limiting its sight.
The baby learns how to grab and handle objects. The developing eye-hand-coordination allows the child to pull things it is seeing closer and examine them from all sides.
The example of little Pete (0;3) continued:
During these periods, in which he practised seeing/looking, he visually fixated the toys consistently, interrupted only by short moves of the head to look around. The hands were twitching slightly into the direction of the toys but couldn’t reach them.
The observer was under the impression that something was intended which could not yet be done for lack of motor skills.
And during this concentrated activity there were probably new neurons being grown at great pace in the brain along with algorithms forming to finally enable the child to purposely touch the toy.
One day later a first targeted grabbing (with one hand) could be observed. When successful (which at this stage were only few attempts) the baby smiled. These ‘grabbing exercises’ too, were repeated with the very same highly concentrated persistence. When torn away from this activity (picked up) the baby would be very annoyed and indignant.
In comparison to what other infants of the same age show, these performances demonstrate a remarkable intrinsic motivation and great persistence in (mentally) highly demanding activities on the cutting edge of present capability.
The great persistence results in much practice and consequently quick success. This comes as no surprise remembering the matter of fact (established by experience) that gifted children ages 3 – 4 years are some 2 years ahead of their peers with regard to their cognitive state of development.
Being able to grab and handle provides the child with a new method, a greater autonomy and independence in the acquisition of information.
The infant is not as dependent as before on having an adult hand him something, it can tend to its craving for information in a whole new way.
The child learns to move around and to sit up. Every child follows its own routine here. Some don’t crawl, they immediately go directly from commando crawling to the upright position on their legs. Some don’t commando crawl, they roll along their longitudinal axis in order to reach things they have seen. Some take their time to sit up for the first time, but are very adroit in handling things while lying on their backs …, any which way: the aim is to expand their horizon.
- – By sitting up or assuming an upright position on its legs the child gains a whole new overview of its surroundings (please try this yourself).
- – Mobility allows the child to autonomously approach things that have been detected by hearing or vision. These things now become accessible.
A revolution in the acquisition of information!
Very intelligent and socially gifted children do not only themselves move around, but have adults move around on behalf of their learning interests (by consequently addressing the reward centre in the adults’ brains: go, get me something new or at least position it within my reach, then I’ll calm down again).
These methods of
- – going / later driving to the things and
- – getting a better overview from a higher position
as important learning methods last a lifetime. Just think of schools, museums, journeys… and of watchtowers, exploration via plane, maps of landscapes and cities.
With the upright position and mobility the child learns new methods which in turn give it greater autonomy and independence in the effort to gather information.
Vocalisation slowly becomes an ever more important method of acquisition of information.
The child from the very beginning on engages joyfully in the possibilities of creating sounds with its ‘phonatory apparatus’. It gets used to the language(s) it hears in its surroundings and tries to imitate the sounds it hears.
It also detects more complex patterns in language (words, intonation, rhythms and combinations of sounds) and in communicating with the people around it the child identifies meaning and purpose of specific words, expressions and eventually of whole sentences.
From what it hears it filters information which seems important. It now disposes of elements with which it can start thinking and manipulating its surroundings through the spoken word, not only vocalizing but actually speaking.
Not only listening, but even actively asking become exciting new techniques of acquiring information. The idea emerges that for everything there are experts who can be turned to. This may at first be for example grandma, who knows all the songs, or the kindergarten teacher, who knows how to make paper planes. The child begins to build its own pool of experts.
Gifted children strive for perfection in acquiring information via vocalisation quickly. This is not only true for children who also have an extraordinary talent for language.
This is about the usage of a tool, and this may at first not be so very elegant and elaborate – as long as it’s effective!
Once three years old, when other children are still struggling with the rudiments of their mother tongue, gifted children have almost always made the use of vocalisation their main tool for satisfying their desire for new information. At this point the interest in telephoning may become stronger – not only because it’s nice to hear the voice of an absent mother, but in order to ask things the child wants to know.
Learn how to read.
It is nothing but consequent that gifted children want to be able to read. Reading puts you at an advantage, they understand this very soon. They realise: there are many, many books with all kinds of highly interesting contents.
Most picture books have texts, too – but often it seems to make sense to not only read them as they are, even if they are good texts. In accordance to the child’s comprehension and its previous knowledge one may amend the texts, discuss them with the child, ask questions, exchange opinions, welcome their ideas and the like. Only then picture books will fully unfold.
Then comes a point in the development of a child, and gifted children may get there as early as the beginning of their 4 th year when they understand, that behind the letters on the page lies a text which contains information. It is then that they want you to read out what the text says .
This is how the initial interest for the characters as symbols, which often interest the child in its 3 rd year and which are learnt quickly, changes into the idea that texts hold much more information than just the names of the letters.
Reading increasingly appears as a valuable ability.
It frees the child of its dependence on the adult, who most of the time has neither the time nor the desire to read out loud for the child – at least not to the extent a child who is craving for knowledge would wish for and consider appropriate.
Furthermore the child discovers that outside of books it is expedient to know reading, too: on signs, on packaging and so forth. The child striving for autonomy recognises reading as an important means of orientation in its environment.
What a pity that children experience so little understanding for their learning desire and rarely receive unreserved and active support!
Some children are intelligent enough and are so intrinsically motivated as to teach themselves how to read and write (between the ages of 4 to 6 years). The others have to wait until they enrol at school, unless they get help.
In the many years I have been counselling parents I met very few parents who were willing to teach their children how to read before they went to school. Most of those who were willing to do so happened to be foreigners.
Many parents and kindergarten teachers find it immediately liberating when offered the following argument:
Swimming is not part of the curriculum before the 5 th year at school; yet, it would hardly occur to a physical education teacher to reproach parents silently or directly with having taught their physically gifted child swimming when it was 4 or 5 years old.
Once reading has been mastered and the gifted children have integrated this skill into their everyday lives a new tool comes into focus.
What do adults do, when the information they need is not in their own heads, nor in the heads of people around them nor in books they have at hand?
They go to the internet.
Five-year-olds are able to ask Google if you let them and help them (just like you did when they learned riding a bike or when they learned to speak). Most certainly parents should stand by when a child surfs the internet, even when surfing the internet has technically been mastered. Internet research is not only precarious with regard to the protection of minors, but it can also be very frustrating if one gets lost in the multitude of information of the giant net and doesn’t find the desired answers.
Here too, children need practical support and encouragement.
Summary: How does the child access information?
The active acquisition of information is an important basis for cognitive development. The child becomes increasingly independent in this endeavour. This process takes place in three steps. The child keeps practising intensely until a new method of acquiring information has been learned. Gifted children pass through all these stages earlier and quicker.
The child processes sensory data from the immediate surroundings (even inside the womb). As a newborn child it still needs to be directed towards interesting parts of the environment. It learns to focus its attention and it practises the use of its senses, especially vision.
The growing eye-hand-coordination increases autonomy and expands possibilities of acquiring information.
Sitting up autonomously broadens the important visual horizon. The newly acquired techniques of mobility (rolling around, commando crawling, crawling, walking) allow the child to reach interesting things and examine them.
Vocalisation (passive or active) allows the child to actively make use of other people’s knowledge and experience: listening, asking questions. Oftentimes gifted children will have fully developed these skills by the age of three.
Reading can be a ‘giant leap’, it multiplies possibilities of targeted information gathering. Children who have an extraordinary craving for knowledge therefore strive to learn how to read early on.
Skilful use of the internet again multiplies the possibilities of targeted information gathering.
A child who disposes of good strategies of gathering information (for example in the attempt to solve a problem) will integrate all these and make use of the emerging synergies.
So now, how do you go about supporting children who want to learn how to read?
Certainly it is a difficult task to teach children how to read who do not yet have the slightest interest and motivation to deal with written language or who have visual or aural problems or who are of lesser intelligence. But:
It is easy to teach gifted children how to read.
Before school attendance became the law many parents or grandparents, aunts or siblings taught interested children how to read.
There is hardly anything that can go wrong. There is no ‘wrong’ way of learning how to read. Only if the person teaching the child is extremely unskilful, the child may temporarily drop out of the learning process.
For this reason, here are a few hints which are being elucidated a little further down:
In order to read you don’t have to be able to write letters. Learning how to write is a process of its own, which doesn’t necessarily have to be connected to learning how to read.
Gifted children in most cases do not want to form letters out of putty, tinker and colour them or let alone ‘dance’ letters. They grasp the abstract form well without such preparation and may tend to react with irritation to such unmotivated detours to the fulfilment of being able to read.
Learning how to read happens in several steps. In order for the child to go to the next step certain requirements must be met.
A motivated child shouldn’t have to wait until other children have caught up.
Elucidations on 1.- 4.:
Some gifted children are able and do want to learn both at the same time – reading and writing. As far as their fine motor skills are sufficiently developed so that a sense of achievement will easily be attained there is nothing to be said against it. Often it is the writing part that interests little children first and they learn how to read on the side. These are often little girls.
However, children (frequently boys, but also 3-4 years old girls) whose fine motor skills are not up to par, experience a harsh setback when learning how to read is supposed to come after learning how to write letters.
Even though they have all the necessary prerequisites to go right about learning how to read (and to enjoy the advantages of that skill) they don’t manage to draw the letters, they drop out and conclude they’re still too young to learn how to read.
It entirely evades me why in our learning culture children are being kept away from reading, writing and arithmetic for the first six years of their lives and then, suddenly, upon enrolment at school are supposed to learn all at once: for many less talented children this is asking way too much and they experience plenty of failures and disappointments right at the start in their first year at school.
Gifted children, if managing their learning process autonomously, often go about it with much greater expedience: some start by looking into arithmetic and the basic principles of calculation before they move on to learning the letters. Others begin with written language. They are interested in letters and inquire about them as early as in their 3 rd or 4 th year.
For young children who read fluently and frequently it is comparably easy to learn how to write. Given, the fine motor skills still have to be trained (but at a point when they are further developed already) – but the question of correct spelling doesn’t represent a major problem to them: once you’ve seen the word ‘and’ for a thousand times you just know it ends on a ‘d’. The same goes for many other frequent words.
It is always a good method to visualise things and to address all the senses in learning.
Written language is a highly abstract system: symbols (letters and punctuation marks) being combined by specific rules stand for an infinite number of phenomena in the world and for another infinitude of more or less abstract generalisations (like ‘buildings’, ‘animal kingdom’, ‘food’) and constructs (like ‘friendship’, ‘meanness’, ‘courage’, ‘cleanliness’).
Many children will only find their way into the system, understand and memorize it if they are being introduced to it with caution – if different senses are being addressed and the letters are being connected with something beautiful. Thus it is good if there are colourful 3-dimensional letters in kindergarten which are nice to look at and whose shape can be experienced tactically.
The making of letters is not only great fun for many children but the actual doing, the making of letters, helps them memorize and internalize the letters playfully. Cutting out letters, forming them with putty, writing letters on each other’s back with their fingers and many other techniques are popular among children and help them.
Gifted children, however, are oftentimes fascinated by just the abstract forms, also they have often long understood that it is these very (abstract) symbols which written language is made of. It is therefore not surprising that they take all those games, stories and handicraft works around the issue of reading/writing as an annoying distraction. They don’t understand what good all this is going to do them in the process of learning how to read. Children who are not great at drawing, tinkering and colouring will get to be unnerved if things “never get going for real” (quotation of a gifted 5-year-old).
Other gifted children who enjoy drawing, tinkering and colouring will joyfully participate but wonder why all these detours are being taken.
It has therefore proven useful to avoid the detours and just simply (!) teach the child how to read as demonstrated in the next chapter.
First learning step:
Learn a few important letters and safely recognise them.
Gifted children often begin to be seriously interested in letters around the age of three. Some are content with knowing and being able to name them, others want to be able to write them, too. Both schemes should be accepted and supported.
So, in a first step it should be determined which letters the child already knows and which are yet to be learned. A simple method is described in the article Reading and Writing in Kindergarten .
A methodological suggestion on the basis of that article would be this:
In a small group of children who are interested in letters one letter be chosen. The children who already know it get one as a sample for their collection. Those who are still not sure about it take one (made of cardboard or a print-out on paper) home and learn it. Once the child is sure about that letter it brings it back to kindergarten.
It must, however, be pointed out to the child that each letter has a name, for example (spoken) ‘tee’ for ‘t’, but that in reading it is spoken as the pure sound ‘t’ and the ‘name’ only serves to speak of the letter as opposed to reading the letter as part of a word. Otherwise this distinction may easily cause confusion and frustration for the child.
It is wise to start with the letters that are most common in the respective language. In German these would be the vowels E, A, I, O and U and the consonants N, R, S, H, K, L, T, W. Knowing these letters enables a person to read quite a few German words.
Therefore the second learning step may follow even while the child is still learning the remaining letters.
Prerequisites for mastering the second step are:
- The motivation to learn letters
- The visual ability to distinguish the characters from another
- The mnemonic capacity to memorize the letters permanently
Second learning step:
Contracting sounds into a word (reading).
Gifted children are quick to understand that (in German) we read from left to right and that an empty space separates one word from another.
Next comes the decisive step: The contracting of single sounds into a word. The child has to listen closely while recognising the letter and articulating the sound. In most instances this is too much even for gifted 3-year-olds but they usually get to that point around the age of four.
Once the child has mastered this step it knows how to read . Everything else is just embellishment (further letters) and practice.
We can assist the child by working with learning materials (or even making them ourselves) which adhere to the principle of going from easy to difficult. This is the case with reading primers. They bring on the more difficult words (long words, diphthongs like the German ‘eu’ or ‘äu’ 1 or the ‘sch’) later, when the children are already able to read easy words. This principle is vital for clearness and for fostering the child’s motivation.
In German both indiscriminately pronounced like the ‘oi’ in English ‘boil’.
For young children it may be helpful to narrow down the set of letters to only the upper case block letters; as a matter of experience most gifted children will acquire the lower case letters by themselves, for example by making use of a table with the upper and lower case letters next to each other.
In my experience it is a good thing to write small texts (jokes, riddles, letters). That is how over time a little collection of texts all in upper case letters has been created, which the children can use for exercising when they are just at that point in the learning process, where they’re struggling with sounds-to-word-contraction.
Prerequisites for mastering this learning hurdle:
- A good phonological awareness, which means, the child has to be able to distinguish the sounds consciously and hearing-wise. The point is reached when children are interested in rhymes and can hear/recognise which letter a word begins with.
- A sufficient feel for rhythm allowing the child to clap the beat of a song or the syllables of a word.
- The cognitive ability to convert the visual appearance of the character into the respective sound and to store the sequence of sounds in memory long enough until the word as a whole has been pronounced.
- The cognitive ability to recognise the meaning of what is heard, which is done by running it by once more internally and listening again. This internal listening is necessary until reading has become an automated subroutine.
Third learning step:
Autonomous reading practice and thus exploring ever more complex sound-sequences, longer words and sentences.
Increasing reading speed.
Here the proper assistance is simply in providing exciting, interesting and fun books which are conducive to the child’s joy of reading. The books available in book stores are not entirely suitable as the stories sometimes go beyond the very young reader’s life experience and interests. This should be checked.
I had positive experiences with transcribing texts (not too long) from popular books by typing them in upper case letters, making print-outs and putting these pages into the books or (if you can get yourself to, as I do) gluing them into the books on the respective pages.
At this learning stage one should be alert and open to helping the child get over a learning hurdle at any time. (“I don’t get this word!”)
Prerequisites for mastering this learning step:
- Having mastered the first two steps and sharing the happiness about the newly acquired reading ability.
- It is also important the child feels assured that one will continue to read out to the child. The shared activity of looking at a book together is of very special communicative and emotional qualities which the child is not ready to give up at this point.
A motivated child shouldn’t have to wait for other children to catch up. Developmental states of children in a kindergarten group differ greatly, certainly with regard to reading.
Some children recognise their names in writing and single letters and will be content with just that for a while. If they are in a “reading” group with a gifted child among them, even if it is much younger than the others, it may be that this gifted child is be the only one who wants to learn quickly and without any detours, ready to take the next step.
This is when we should support that child actively, since (just to remind you):
See also: Reading and Writing in Kindergarten
Date of publication in German: June 2011
Translation: Arno Zucknick
Copyright © Hanna Vock, see Imprint .
Brigitte Gudat, Eschweiler.