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Mind the Gap: Engaging Gifted Readers


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 [email protected] 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!


You have certainly expanded my understanding of giftedness here, Donalyn. I'd never even thought about what it must be like to be gifted and challenged in the same area.

I love these ideas for gifted readers. My only suggestion to parents would be to remember to offer poetry to your kids. Oh, and make sure you include graphic novels. My son is a gifted reader but had very rigid parameters within which he would read. He expanded his horizons more once he discovered graphic novels. Somehow, Gaiman led him to Kerouac!

I really enjoyed your post. I have a student in my middle school reading class that is reading on a 12th grade level. She currently has over 400 Accelerated Reader points already this school year. Our library is running out of books to offer her. I am looking for ways to challenge her in my classroom. She meets all of your criteria as a "gift reader". I feel I am letting her down as her teacher.

It looks like I will revisit your blog again. Thanks for the information.

Thanks for tackling the issue of gifted students. As a parent and as a K-8 school librarian, I try to advocate for these kids. I often find that teachers love to have them in class if they are docile (willing to do dull, easy work sheets, behave nicely, raise hand, etc.) but not if they challenge the teacher. I also find that those same docile kids will really let go and have fun if they can "play" with books with fellow gifted kids.

Keep up the good work and thanks for the list.

Great post, Donalyn! I especially like the recommended titles by category. Thanks for kicking off Share a Story - Shape a Future in such a positive fashion! I'll look forward to your Wednesday post.

This is a great post! Too often, in an effort to support gifted readers, we often give children books that they are not emotionally ready for. This list gives teachers and parents other ways to think about challenging gifted readers when selecting books. Thanks!

Thank you, Donalyn! As I read this valuable post I wished so I had known these things about engaging gifted readers when I started teaching 35+ years ago. This information will be valuable for us to have at RIF when we get questions; thank you again for kicking off Share a Story - Shape a Future in such great fashion!

Dear Donalyn,

I so appreciate your comments which parallel many of the things I learned from my gifted child as he grew up. He reads everyday still as a 19 year old man in college and allowing him to read a broad scope of materials kept the fire burning. We never told him "no, you cannot read that book". I know that gift will stay with him long after I am dust.

Thanks for great ideas, Donalyn. My daughter (7) is both a gifted reader (2 grade levels above) and autistic (not one of the "docile" students you describe. Engaging her as a reader isn't easy. She needs more challenging text, but still wants to count pages so she doesn't have to read "too much." Your explanation about fantasy/science fiction really hit home. Now I understand why she always wants elaborate stories with lots of magical elements.

Thank you for the booklist! What a great look beyond the general themes. Thank you.

Thanks so much for an intriguing list of books - those categories are unusual and thought-provoking ("ambiguous endings" - very nifty!).

Thanks for this great post! I'm going to try some of them with my gifted thirteen year old who hates to read!

Thanks for this very interesting post. This topic was of particular interest to me, and I am so glad to have spent my time reading your thoughts on this. It was time well spent!

Also, I am glad to see you have shared a booklist. I love book lists and love it when others freely share them!

Whew--reading the list--I have two gifted readers for sure. My son is 4 1/2 (entering K this next school year) and is reading as well or better as many kids will be at the end of K. I want to be sure I will engage him. And yes, he did sort of teach himself to read! Of course I started reinforcing that emerging behavior.

And my daughter is a young 5th grader (still 10) who wasn't a particularly early reader, but who is voracious and definitely reads 3 to 4 times more than her peers.

I am thankful for her school and her librarian who provide lots of independent reading time at a time when even though she does love to read -- other activities and schoolwork could start to compete for that time.

I had seen your book on amazon Vine and now I'm kicking myself for not requesting it, so I'm going to hunt down a copy anyway.

Great post! Thanks for the suggestions.I know my eight year old daughter who is a gifted reader frequently asks adults she admires, teachers, aunts, uncles, etc... what books they loved when they were younger in order to find good titles.

I'm so glad you mentioned gifted students with learning disabilities. It's so hard for some to see beyond the "LD" label.

Do you have a similar book list for younger GT students? I work with a 6-year-old who reads independently into 4th grade material so I struggle to find books that are sophisticated enough yet will interest him.

All too often, gifted students are overlooked. Unfortunately, this can hold true when examining the available reading materials in classroom collections as well as school libraries. Some gifted learners may "get by" if left alone, but image the possibilities if they are given the tools to thrive. Having reading materials available at the appropriate reading level is a great place to start - it is a wise investment that does not require hours of professional development for differentiation, special grouping methods, compacted curriculum, etc. What it does require is an educator willing to put in the hours to examine a collection, look for books that will strengthen it for the gifted reader and then add those books to the collection. My goal as a future teacher-librarian is to have a rich collection of books that will offer something to each reader, including the gifted reader.

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Recent Comments

  • kristina: All too often, gifted students are overlooked. Unfortunately, this can read more
  • Isa: Do you have a similar book list for younger GT read more
  • Anastasia Suen: I'm so glad you mentioned gifted students with learning disabilities. read more
  • Christine: Great post! Thanks for the suggestions.I know my eight year read more
  • Jennifer, Snapshot: Whew--reading the list--I have two gifted readers for sure. My read more



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