Terms and Concepts Related to Language and Reading

Three Year Old More Interested in Books Than Toyss
Three Year Old More Interested in Books Than Toys in a Museum Gift Shop. Carol Bainbridge

One of the defining characteristics of giftedness is verbal ability. That doesn't mean that all gifted children are verbally gifted. It means that if a child has advanced verbal abilities, it's a good sign that the child is gifted. There are good reasons that advanced language skills are a mark of giftedness. Language skills depend on brain development. And a brain develops at its own rate. When we talk about the advanced development of gifted children, we are including the advanced development of the brain.

A good way to understand how advanced verbal skills are a sign of giftedness is to learn about the way children learn language and what the brain must be able to do in before a child can read. Understanding terms that come up when talking with people (like teachers) about children learning to read can help.

Language Learning and Learning to Read

Learning to speak a language is something most linguists believe is hard wired in us. That means that we are born with the ability to learn language and we learn it pretty much automatically.  No one has to teach a child to speak. No one has to teach a child the sounds or grammar of a language. Children just pick it up on their own. But the brain does have to be sufficiently developed. Learning language happens in stages, each stage taking place as the brain is ready.

Learning to read, on the other hand, is a skill that must be taught. It is based on several different skills that must be developed and can't be developed until the brain is ready.

In most cases, the brain is ready by the time a child is six, but sometimes the brain isn't ready until a child is eight. Sometimes it's ready much earlier, which is why some gifted children begin reading when they are as young as two.

Meaning of Reading

We think we know what reading is. But after having talked to a first grade teacher once, I admit I was puzzled. My son was five and tests indicated he was reading at a third grade level. I asked the teacher what was done for children who start school knowing how to read. (I was still new to all this.) She told me that children that age *can't* read. I knew he could read. He wasn't just mimicking or memorizing stories. I said to the teacher, "Well, he can recognize some words by sight, sound out new words, and understand and remember what he's read."  Her response?  A heavy sigh followed by the comment, "There's more to reading than that."  So perhaps it's a good idea to understand just what reading is. What is involved in reading and what makes a reader fluent?

Getting Ready to Read

When kids learn to speak a language, they have to learn the sound system, which means they have to learn which sounds in a language are meaningful.

Meaningful sounds are the sounds that are part of a language. We can make all kinds of sounds, but they aren't all part of the language we learn to speak. For example, we can make clicking sounds with our tongue, but those clicks aren't part of every language as they are with the Khoisan languages of southern Africa. Children first learn those meaningful sounds (phonemes) as they learn language, but then they need to learn the graphic representation of those sounds (the alphabet) in order to learn to read. Another way children get ready to read is through environmental print. They begin to connect a graphic representation (a picture) of a word with the spoken word.

Developmental and Emotional Issues

Another way to understand the significance of advanced verbal abilities and reading as an indication of giftedness is to understand the intensity of the interest in letters and words that many, if not most, verbally gifted children exhibit. It's true that very young children can be taught to recognize words and may appear to be reading. However, they are just saying each word out loud. They aren't putting the words together to get any meaning; they don't understand what the sentences mean.  In some cases, young children may have managed to learn to read with lots of instruction and practice. They not only recognize each individual word, they also get the meaning of the sentences. These are the children, however, who tend to lose any advantages they had as early readers, generally by third grade. Because some children can be taught to read, many people don't see reading as a sign of giftedness.

However, when a child under five years old manages to teach him or herself to read, it is hard to deny that such early reading is a sign of advanced development. Not only has such a child managed to "break the code" of the written word, but he or she has managed to do it with little or no help.

Another sign is the intense interest these children have in letters and words as toddlers. They are often more interested in letters and words than anything else around them and for that reason, parents may worry that their child has hyperlexia, a form of autism.

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