How Gifted Kids Learn to Read

June 17, 2009

One of my doctoral studies’ advisors specialized in how people learn to read. I paid little attention to that research at the time, and by the early 1990’s, my own understanding was still mostly anecdotal or from my own experiences. I had some personal family stories, taught school in a very intellectually diverse community, seen differences between generations and when they started to read, and watched my own three children’s learning paths.

When I was a little girl in the 1950’s, my mother read Dr. Spock’s baby book and anything else she could get her hands on to make sure she was doing all the “right things.” Parents were told not to push their children. This meant that many in my generation were not encouraged to read before starting school. “Don’t interfere with what the trained educators will teach your children,” our parents were told. So, I started school not knowing how to read, although I certainly knew how to sight read many signs, logos, record labels and book titles because I’d memorized their associations, e.g. we stop at the “stop” sign. When I started school, my mother was alarmed that I wasn’t learning to read. She made flash cards and taught me phonics. I remember the hardest word in the stack of flashcards for me was “baby.” How do you phonetically sound out “baby”? I kept saying “baa-bye,” which rhymes with rabbi. My mother was a yeller. This was not a good experience.

Then one day when I was about 7 years old, I simply started to read. The first book I read was Lassie Come Home by Erik Knight. One day I couldn’t read … and the next day I could literally read and understand anything. I see this with my client children all the time except that it usually happens when they are younger than I was. My own children’s father grew up a 1,000 miles away from me, but he experienced much the same reading delay as I had. He got very ill when he was in second grade—still not a reader—and the school sent a tutor to his home to work with him while he was recuperating. Same thing happened; he went from not reading to reading anything – in one day. What happened?

My mother, on the other hand, born in 1927, came from a generation that got to do what they were ready to do whenever that time arose. Grade skipping was common. If a child was ahead of age-mates, she got moved up a grade level or two to learn with older students. My mother was the fourth child in her family. One summer morning when she was four years old, she walked to the public library and wanted to take some books home. The librarian told her she needed a library card. “How do you get a library card?” she asked. “You have to know how to read,” came the answer. Mom ran home, confronted an older brother, and told him she needed to learn to read “right now!” She went back for her library card—and some books to bring home—that afternoon.

I currently tell parent clients that gifted kids learn to read after they develop their vocabularies and learn to know what should come next in a sentence. The brighter the children, the earlier they start absorbing verbal—language—information from their surroundings. Phonics is a useful tool later, but teaching smart children to read with phonics is very confusing to most of them and sometimes slows them down. Phonics works to teach “decoding” skills, but a child who knows how to decode still may not understand what he reads. Most really bright children appear to start reading almost spontaneously. Most parents of such children report that they aren’t sure how their children learned to read.

Bright kids learn to read when they are exposed to how the printed word gives information or tells a story. There are studies showing that the parents of poor children use fewer words with their children, read to them less, and have fewer books in their homes than do typical parents from higher socioeconomic status groups and even some specific racial and ethnic groups. But the big question is this: is it equally effective for all children—regardless of the intellectual abilities and overall interests that the children individually possess— for parents, teachers, and other adults to talk and read to them more? Our public school policy is largely driven by the assumption that all children learn to read the same way and with the same tools and approach. Will providing the same level of vocabulary, conversation, books in the home, and parents who read to them turn the vast majority of American children into capable, high-level readers? Right now the adult literacy rate in the United States is only about 86%. But even that number is misleading because regular reading for information or pleasure is done by only a very small percentage of our population.

It is precisely these questions that makes typical public school classes so problematic for so many gifted children and their parents. For example, research by McCoach & Reis at the University of Connecticut shows that gifted children learn more over the summer than during the school year. Although some interpret this as proof bright children come from stimulating rather than impoverished homes, I propose it is more often due to these smart children finally being freed to read and learn what they are ready to learn—at their own pace and in their own time. The No Child Left Behind school day is set for the majority of learners, not the brightest ones who are still required to be there with others their age who learn much differently and more slowly.

Studies consistently show that the brighter the child, the earlier in their lives they start to absorb vocabulary, normal sentence structure, and the nuances of language in general. When Sesame Street first aired, the goal was to give children in poverty the same early start as their higher socioeconomic counterparts. This is one reason I ask new clients when it was that their children started to pay attention to television, movies, and videos. How early in their lives did they begin to absorb language and verbal skills from their environment? The Sesame Street study uncovered the fact that there appears to be a difference not in how much parents from different socioeconomic groups use TV as a babysitter, but in what the preferred TV programs were for children from each group. Brighter children have an earlier ability to attend—pay attention to—educational programming than do less intelligent children regardless of whether they live in poverty or affluence. Gifted children start learning sooner than other children. They start school “better prepared” because their intellectual profile allows them to absorb sooner and more intensely from whatever environment they are in. Please note that the excellent article linked here—like most educational policy examinations—does not adequately address how intellectual level and profile affects readiness.

Because most children have no options except to attend public schools, it is imperative that those schools instruct all children appropriately–taking their abilities and readiness into account–if they are to learn. It is not true that “by third grade (or fourth grade) we can’t even tell who the early readers were.” It is an unacceptable excuse for keeping all children of the same age in the same classes for instruction. I’ll talk about the topic of gifted children and reading much more in future blogs.

Boys and Troubles in School

April 28, 2009

Most schools are not boy-friendly places and they haven’t been for a long time. I graduated from high school in 1967, so I was part of the first generation to have the rug pulled out from under us by women’s liberation. All the rules changed and we no longer knew what was “right.”We were told that men and women, boys and girls, were actually alike except for socialization practices that rigidly guided us to fill gender roles.

One of my first graduate school classes, one I needed to take for continuing certification as an elementary school teacher, was called “Sex Role Stereotyping.” Not yet a mother, I learned how the majority of differences between boys and girls were caused by society’s [unfair] sex role stereotyping. The premise was that girls could grow into women who could do anything a man could do—and girls would want to be more like men—and boys would grow into sensitive, nurturing men who were gentle and fair to women and children, took time to smell the roses, and all of us would be far better off.

Well, I’m all for equal opportunity; I really am. But, experience shows me that we simply are not all the same.

I remember when I was in 4th grade in Northeastern Ohio and my brother, Tom, was in 3rd grade right across the hall from me. He was a very active little boy, very smart, and always in trouble. I found out years later that our IQs were both very high and basically the same. I did great in school—a Little Miss Goody Two Shoes kind of girl. He got paddled almost every day and then I’d go home and “tell on” him so he got in trouble at home, too. Needless to say, this had a number of negative effects on him over the years. I had no trouble sitting in my seat with hands folded while he simply could not sit still. Even though I, like my brother,  found the work repetitive and boring, I figured out how to impress my teacher and parents with my excellent work. I used the time I saved being so quick at everything so that I could, basically, run the school. My poor brother—who taught himself to read and play chess by the time he was in kindergarten—was not considered a good student and didn’t qualify for high level grouping (something most schools had in the past and don’t anymore; but that’s another story).

Then I taught school in Northern Virginia, 4th – 6th grade. For my seating plan, I found I used girls to keep boys apart. Girls seldom did anything to cause harm or disruption. At one point I realized that I’d moved almost all the boys’ desks so close to my own—so I could better supervise and engage them—that there was no more room if anyone else got out of order! Boys were simply the ones who most often got in trouble! I remember one very bright boy in particular, Tim, whose mother volunteered to help with the slower learners so that I might have more time available to work with the faster learners like her son. My position was that until he finished the grade level work I’d assigned, he hadn’t earned the opportunity to work at a more challenging—and interesting—level. Not even his mother appeared to disagree with my reasoning. Looking back, I now understand that we were wrong to take that approach.

So, what’s going on here? A growing number of people are taking notice of an education crisis among boys. This education crisis is particularly and painfully true for many of our smartest boys. The number of boys deciding to go on to and then finish college is dropping compared to girls.

I have to admit that it wasn’t my brother’s school experiences, or my own as a teacher, that initially opened my eyes to this boys-and-schools problem. It was being the mother of three boys myself. I got a dose of reality about the nature of boys compared to girls—one that hit home enough to make me question what I’d learned in my sex role stereotyping class. As I sat on the sofa of my home in Fargo, ND, watching half a dozen little boys tumble and cavort and run around at my 4 year old’s birthday party, three little girls sat with me on the sofa. Four years old! They were like this; no one told them to sit demurely. Over the years I noticed, too, that I perpetually played the role of [bored] audience while my sons played video games at home or in the lobby of the movie theater or the arcade or [horrors!] Chuck E. Cheese. I could have played, too, but I didn’t want to. I hardly ever saw a girl play. Not because they were excluded but because they weren’t interested. And they weren’t interested from a very early age, before anyone could tell them they were or weren’t “good enough” to play boys’ games.

Between the time I taught school in the early ‘70’s and the time my own children started school, the three reading groups and three math groups concept, the ability grouping and tracking approach systems, had largely been dismantled. It was widely believed that were it not for lack of opportunity, all children would pretty be much be “on the same page” academically if teachers were trained properly. It became widely accepted that when children are ability grouped or tracked, we arbitrarily limit their potential and possibilities. Well, that’s simply not true. When girls are ahead or bored in school, they adapt to the situation by using it to their advantage. When boys are ahead (or very behind), they become bored, restless and often act out. This is simply, as it turns out, in the nature of most girls and boys.

In my own professional work now, I have learned that personality profiles make a difference in how a student will react to inappropriate pace and instruction at school, but it still boils down to this: boys in general are not as flexible, adaptive, or malleable as girls and they are more overtly harmed by the way we “do school” than girls are.

Yet the myth persists that girls need help and support in school and boys get all the advantages.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009 – Thoughts on Our Educational System and the Increase in Eating Disorders

February 10, 2009

I’ve been meaning to start a blog for a long time, but where to start? I have so many thoughts and ideas about what is wrong with our current approach to education — what could be changed to help most students — here in the USA, but also in many other parts of the developed world, that I’ve become passionate about getting more people to understand what is wrong and why we need to make changes. Just this morning I watched a segment on teenage American girls on the Today Show. It talked about how in these days-when there are so many more opportunities for our brightest young women-so many of our girls are stressed, depressed, and harming themselves with cutting and eating disorders. This particular story comes from a new book called The Triple Bind by Steven Hinshaw, but I have been hearing for years that eating disorders, anorexia, for example, and “cutting” are on the rise in teenage girls. Well, I have a theory.

The loss of the old junior high school concept and the ability grouping practice of “tracking” students by tested intellectual ability play a large role in the increasing numbers of stress and lowered self-esteem in so many of our most able and promising American girls. How can this be and why did we make these changes?

In the “olden days,” the days before women’s liberation and Johnson’s Great Society, before the 1970’s, American schools typically had three reading and three math groups throughout the elementary school years, and – more importantly, they had junior high schools instead of today’s middle schools. In fact, the biggest change when middle schools were introduced was that “tracking” was largely eliminated in an attempt to “level the playing field” and give all students-girls and boys, children from different races and socio-economic backgrounds-the same education. The focus of such changes was to reduce the chances that prejudice or poverty would relegate some students to lower “tracks,” a situation many believed was behind lower achievement levels for some groups of students. More recently, as pointed out so aptly in Susan Rakow‘s book, Educating Gifted Students in Middle School, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), has added to this effect and left gifted students in inappropriate classroom assignments possibly more than any other group of students.

The effect on students of all ability levels is that the whole range of students is now grouped together for the first eight to ten years of their education instead of only six to eight. Almost all classes, all lessons, and all activities are with people your own age but from an immense range of intellectual abilities. This was always hard on the brightest students who found it difficult to find classmates who really understood them or got their jokes, which is discussed in great detail in my doctoral dissertation, but the old junior high set-up gave relief early enough to save many of them. By junior high, students were grouped with others with whom they could truly compete, and while some no longer needed to wait for others to catch up – others, the slower learners, no longer felt like the ones holding up the rest of the class – and the chances to feel like you belonged finally occurred for both of these groups. Junior highs provided a two to three year period of more teacher support than high school while giving students “practice” in being more independent and moving from class to class for their different subjects.

For bright girls, elementary school is so easy that they have plenty of time to be “good students,” impress their parents and teachers with their good work and cooperation, and time left over to help the teacher, work on extra (impressive) projects, and basically run the school. They start to believe that they are what they do; people admire them because of how well they do everything. Their interpretation of their own value is that their ability to juggle so many different things at once and still get good grades is why they matter, why they are important, and why they are loved.

When junior highs were transformed into middles schools, the scaffolding affect of gradually moving to ability-grouped, tracked classes – much like a typical high school – was lost. School work is still too easy for bright girls as they move fluidly through middle school. They get no practice-no experience-with anything that is challenging or too difficult. Also lost with the middle years academic school configuration change, and less well-recognized, was student’s ability to finally be with true peers rather than just “age-mates.” Thus, the bright pubescent girl is still one of the smartest in her classes because the others who are like her are at the top of other classes in the same building but not grouped with each other for fear of having “elitist” tracking or ability grouping. Her sense that being perfect, quick, capable, and on top of an ever-growing schedule of activities, practices, and obligations is what makes her who she is … sets her up for a fall when she enters ability grouped advanced classes in 9th or 10th grade. Many such girls simply do not know what hit them!

She gradually feels herself losing ground and burning the candle at both ends just to keep up! She used to have her whole world under her control and now she seems to have lost her grip, lost that which made her so special and admired. She feels a tremendous loss of self and searches for ways to regain control, to have some say over her life, her body, and her image. The result, I believe, frequently shows itself in the mental illness of an eating disorder or other form of self-harm.

She doesn’t know how to get it all under control because she’s had no experience with intellectual struggle or competition. She didn’t need either study or organizational skills for class-work that was well below her own ability level for the past nine years. In fact, most people have no idea how different the ability levels are within a typical classroom. We call a typical classroom a “same-aged mixed-ability” configuration. A little background may help here:

David Lohman of the University of Iowa, and part of the Iowa Testing Programs, says that by 1st grade the typical same-aged mixed-ability classroom already has 12 grade equivalencies of achievement in it. Brighter children absorb more from their environments than lower ability children, so regardless of their preschool environment, brighter kids will know a great deal more than low ability children by the time they reach 1st grade. Environment is an extremely important factor in someone’s development, but it does not change whether or not someone is very bright or very slow. On the typical standardized IQ scale of 50 to 150, a child whose IQ is 120 could finish the typical elementary curriculum in about 4½ years, not six. A child whose IQ is 130 could finish it in less than three years. Above 140 needs only one year, but in most cases they are required to stay all six and go at the pace of everyone else their age. You can see how this would impact a bright girl’s sense of who she is. She spends very little of her school time with others who are like her or able to think, reason, and perform at her level. It warps her viewpoint of who she is and where she actually fits.

Basically, when we treat all children the same during their school years, we cannot possibly serve all of them well. Many unintended and unforeseen consequences occur, and I believe that our growing number of emotionally struggling teenage girls is just one sign of how our educational system has gotten off track.