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Nurturing Appreciation of Reading
by Dr. Herb Katz



Some high-ability children may come to school already reading fluently and understanding what they read, but others may not yet be reading on their own. They may rapidly develop understanding of the relationship of sounds and symbols, and the value and enjoyment of reading to learn about the world. We must be careful though, because even though a child may be reading well at an early age, he or she may lose interest in reading and end up a non-reader. Good readers are usually good readers because they read a lot. High-ability children who easily gain control of their own reading but who are restrained by the slower pace and simplified instructional materials used with other readers may grow bored with reading. Thus, while they may be highly competent readers, they may turn their backs on reading.

Parental Goals in Nurturing Reading Competence

In light of the possibility that the gifted child will turn off to literacy due to boredom, a parent's main goal should be to keep the light of literacy shining brightly. Overcome boredom by establishing goals toward which to work with your child. First, aim to help the child increase his or her critical reading ability. Second, guide the child to a deeper appreciation of literature and literacy techniques. Third, broaden the child's understanding of sophisticated and specialized vocabulary and of the subtle differences between words. Finally, encourage and help the child develop positive attitudes toward writing, not only for communication, but also as a way of learning and for self-expression. In these ways, you can deepen your child's attachment to reading and ability to use literacy for delightful insight.

Five Things Parents Can Do to Encourage Reading

The following five activities will help you in working on these goals. Don't be afraid to adapt these activities to specific circumstances. Don't hesitate to modify or extend any of these suggestions. They are not written in stone!


Read to Your Child

The simple act of reading to your child is among the most powerful ways in which you can encourage literacy. This applies equally to young adolescents and to three-year-olds. I regularly read children's literature to my third and fourth year university students and to graduate students. They listen, enthralled, and if I should forget to read a story at the beginning of a class, they are certain to remind me for the next time. Read often. Three times each day is not too often. Read widely from different genres. My career as a reader received its initiating boost when, as an eight-year-old, I sat between the radiator and the bed in my parent's bedroom one snowy Saturday morning and read the Signature series biography of Crazy Horse. My eldest son Jacques is a professional engineer working on a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology. He is never parted from a science fiction novel. He says that they stimulate his imagination. Autobiography, mystery, poetry, persuasive literature, informational pieces, historical novels, time-slip fantasy, and travelogues (for example, the travel books of Paul Theroux) are all grist for the mind of the gifted child. Try author studies, genre series, or three or four books on the same topic. When you read five or six different versions of a fairy tale such as Little Red Riding Hood to your child, you alert him or her to subtleties of interpretation. You contribute to his or her bank of knowledge about the symbols, plots, and meanings that appear and reappear in stories, further enriching appreciation of literature. If you have a computer with the capability of handling video editing software (e.g., Final Cut Pro) consider the creative and higher level thinking that can develop around Readers' Theatre. Together with your child, choose a story. Re-write it as a script. You and your child, or your child alone, if he or she wishes, can act out and read the script. Your child can videotape it with a digital camcorder and do extensive revisions and edits of the script on the computer screen to create his or her own, new, and professional story. In this way, your child will learn much about reading and writing techniques and become a critical consumer of literature and other media.

Let Your Child Participate in Choosing Books to Read

Parents usually assume that it is their responsibility to choose what they read to their children, or what their children read independently. Who makes important decisions about the reading activity is central to developing ownership. By allowing your child to participate in important decisions such as what book to buy or to read, you give your child the opportunity to take ownership of reading. This encourages and motivates the high-ability child who, in any event, will probably have quickly developed a sense of the kind of reading that he or she wants to do. As an adolescent, I received $1.00 each week for an allowance. Saturday mornings I was on the bus early to the local bookstore where I spent the better part of the day sifting through the then new phenomenon of paperback books, trying to decide which one to buy. I decided what I would read. I believe that the greater part of my career as a reader is built on that experience. Parents may step in with guidance when and if the children's decisions restrict wide exposure to different genres. Seek to expose your child to a wide range of sources of literature. Frequent the bookstores in your area; wander the isles of your local library. Stop at garage sales where books are being sold. Trade books with friends. Subscribe to a children's book club. Take your child to book signings and readings at local bookstores (with the spread of large "chain" bookstores, they are now becoming places of entertainment as well as places to buy books). Introduce your child to the book review section of your local newspaper. There are often a few pages devoted to children's books. Your child can use this section to learn about new books, about how people have differing opinions about books, that books embody ideas and experiences, and that he or she can use this information together with personal taste to make book-buying decisions. Encourage eclectic and risky book choices. Currently in our city, the teaching of Of Mice and Men, in schools is being challenged. What an opportunity to get your child involved in the public life of reading and to engage him or her in discussion about important issues. These will provide excitement and exposure to a variety of stimulating literature from and through which the gifted child will acquire booklore and the skills and strategies of effective choice from among the tens of millions of works available.

Consider Your Questions

Guide your child in becoming a critical, thoughtful reader by being careful about the questions you pose. Most parents (and teachers!) ask questions that are well meaning but limiting, usually of the recall variety. If, for example, we are reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears, we may ask the child what Goldilocks found in the bears' house. Deeper reading requires that we respond in a more considered way to the narrative or informational text unfolding before us. Pose questions that extend beyond the literal, recall variety. First, ask questions that demand inferential thinking. For example, in the case of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, you might ask, "How do you think the father bear felt when he saw his bowl of porridge eaten?" Second, at the applied level, encourage the child to search for the meaning of the text and then relate it to understanding his or her world and experience. For example, you might ask: "Do you believe that there are people like Goldilocks in our city?" "What would you do if you met someone like this?" or "What do you think the author was thinking about when he/she created this story?"

Give the High-Ability Child a Chance to Write

When we write, we communicate ideas to the world. Writing has other purposes as well. For the able child writing can be a medium of learning, self-knowledge and self-expression. Especially for parents, children's writing, and particularly the writing of young readers and writers, is an irresistible target for judgment. Spelling, grammar, and conventions become objects of evaluation. Remember, young children, especially the gifted, often experiment with print. They learn through their approximations and approach conventional spelling and syntax in a series of stages that must be nurtured by practice and appropriate praise and guidance. Rather than weighing the child's attempts at writing and finding them wanting, why not try to look for what the child can do? Then, help the child to extend his or her skills and strategies to new areas. Two forms of writing can be particularly valuable in helping gifted children gain an appreciation of the range of uses for writing. One is the response journal. Allowing a child the privilege of writing as he or she wishes, to express feelings and ideas in a journal, encourages in-depth thoughtfulness about print and text. Your child can decide if he or she will allow you to read and respond to the journal writing. In making this decision, your child exercises ownership of the writing process. Poetry is another form of writing that has great potential for the gifted child. The many dimensions of poetry give us leave to explore the elasticity of the English language. There is no better way for your child to learn the joy of literacy than to realize through poetry writing that he or she commands the language, and not vice versa.

Create Independent Learning Centers in Your Home

By creating independent learning centers, you allow your child to exercise his or her talents, set conditions for autonomy, and provide potential for linking reading and writing with the real world. You can use centers to give free rein to your child's creative impulses and ideas. Centers at home can be appropriate for many ages, from six to eight to young teenagers. Here are some ideas for centers that you might set up at home. Think minimally. You don't always need tables or chairs. The more left to the imagination, the more the imagination will be used. A Restaurant Center can include a tablecloth, dishes, glasses (plastic), cutlery (plastic), napkins, menus, trays, order pad and pencil, and apron and vest for waiters or waitresses. Children play at being patrons and servers, reading menus and writing orders. Outfit a Travel Center with travel posters, brochures, maps, tickets, wallet with play money and "credit cards," cash box, and suitcase. The child takes the role of agent and customer and organizes trips using the print material listed above. Fill the Veterinarian's Office with stuffed animals, medical bag, medicine bottles, facsimile prescription labels, posters of different dogs, cats, and so on, with names attached. Children take roles of vet and animal owner, discuss pet problems, and read posters and labels to help animals become healthy. Stock the Banking Center with passbooks, checks, play money, deposit slips, signs, ads, and receipts. The child plays at depositing and withdrawing money, setting up accounts, and buying securities. All of these activities involve writing in different forms relevant to everyday life. Inventory the Supermarket with food packets and boxes, plastic fruit and artificial food, price stickers, play money, grocery bags, marking pens, ads, and coupons. Children buy food (be sure to include healthy alternatives among your boxes), tally costs, and check out and pay. At the Hairdresser's, we find brushes, combs, a mirror, empty shampoo and conditioner bottles, hairstyle posters, hairdryer, curling iron (with electrical wiring removed for young children), appointment book, open and closed sign, and hours-of-operation sign. Let the child play at booking appointments. Among my favorites is the Explore It Center. This center is a backpack filled with interesting and related materials. For example, in autumn, some branches, leaves turned yellow, a thermometer, and a pumpkin seed can be a tantalizing entry into "research" on the effects of cooling weather on plants and animals. A backpack with a moldering apple slice in a plastic bag and a crushed old styrofoam cup may lead to a major exploration of the phenomenon of garbage. The centers you create are limited only by your joint imaginations. The Message Center can encourage the use of writing to communicate information and feelings. This center may be a corner of the kitchen or the telephone table stacked with Post-it® notes, message pads, and a clipboard and vocabulary lists of interesting words. Messages can be notes to mom about what the child wants for lunch tomorrow, or, letters-to-the-editor of the local newspaper or anything between. A center with interesting potential for learning about writing techniques is the Illustration Center. Children's and young adolescent's literature is a cornucopia of variously and beautifully illustrated stories (Look for groups of books illustrated by Eric Carle, Leo Leoni, or Ed Young, among others). An illustration center helps gifted young readers explore the way book illustrations are created and how they function to enhance (and sometimes detract from) texts. Make sure that there are enough colored pencils, markers, watercolor paints, charcoals, crayons, pieces of paper, and copies of different, and differently illustrated stories to encourage your child to get involved in this center. With this material, your child explores the effectiveness and use of different media. First, the child copies styles or subjects. Later, the gifted child probes and explores, extending styles or media and creating sequels to books on hand.

Summary

High potential is not a guarantee of a level of interest and competence in reading that will support the school success or life satisfaction of a talented child. Consider the value of turning your high-potential child on to literacy by building on his or her strengths to develop more advanced skills and strategies for dealing with stories and information (e.g. textbooks). Critical literacy, appreciation of literary techniques and the power of words, and writing for learning and self-expression are at the intersection of giftedness and literacy. You can guide your able children toward these goals by encouraging wide reading, permitting book choice decisions, carefully modeling questions, ensuring ample time to write, and creating centers as doors into independent inquiry. In these ways, you can have a direct hand in helping your gifted child engage literacy with vigor, purposefulness, and thoughtfulness.

Books and Articles about Gifted Readers

Baskin, B. H. & Harris, K. H. (1980). Books for the Gifted Child. NY: R. R. Bowker

Carr, K. S. (1984). What gifted readers need from reading instruction. The Reading Teacher, 38:2, 144-146.

Dooley, C. (1993). The challenge: Meeting the needs of gifted readers. The Reading Teacher, 46:7, 546-551.

Lukasevich, A. (1983). Three dozen useful information sources on reading for the gifted. The Reading Teacher, 36:6, 542-548.

Master, D. L. (1983). Writing and the gifted child. Gifted Child Quarterly, 27:4, 162-168.

Polette, N. & Hamlin, M. (1980). Exploring Books with Gifted Children. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

Polette, N. (1982). 3R's for the Gifted - Reading, Writing, and Research. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

Dr. Herb Katz is Assistant Professor in the B.Ed. Program at the University of Winnipeg. Previously, he was the Director of the Reading and Language Clinic at the University of Alberta. Currently, he is conducting research into the long-term effectiveness of early intervention programs for at-risk readers.