A ton of dinosaur books and a spoonful of peas: How to engage bright, young readers

It’s a joy for a child when letters first become words and words become sentences, and reading becomes a way to learn and play. But for students whose reading abilities develop more quickly than their peers, this joy can be lost if their love of reading is not nurtured and appropriate reading materials are not provided.

At Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY), we identify and teach K-12 students whose math and verbal abilities are above their grade level. And we recognize that academically advanced kids, including advanced readers, are not all the same: their abilities, maturity, and interests vary. Some precocious students don’t even enjoy reading.

For voracious advanced young readers, finding enough appropriate material can be a challenge, especially when they can read books beyond their experience and maturity levels. “For kids who can ‘read up,’ a lot of times they can read the material, but they don’t have the context for it,” says Donna Neutze, a CTY curriculum developer.

Some parents select books for their children by reading them first — but this, obviously, is a lot of work for busy parents. Neutze suggests consulting the child’s teacher and school or local librarian.

Lists of children’s book award winners are also a great resource, Neutze says. In addition to the time-honored awards such as the Caldecott and Newbery, the National Book Awards includes an award for Young People’s Literature, and many associations, such as the National Science Teachers Association, host book awards for specific content areas.

And let’s not forget non-fiction. Got a kid who is interested in dinosaurs? Then find a book — or ton of books — about them. Nonfiction books can fuel students’ interests, often helping them “read up.”

But not all kids with high verbal skills want to read. This can happen when what they read in school is beneath their ability and they lose interest. Or perhaps they have other more entertaining activities vying for their attention. “Some students test as advanced readers but prefer to spend their free time playing Candy Crush or texting,” notes Kathy Thurlow, a CTY program manager.

Remember that novels are only one form of reading material. Newspapers, magazines, and graphic novels can also get a child interested in the written word.

It’s also important to make reading part of a child’s surroundings, Thurlow says. Having books at home and talking about reading at the kitchen table and in the car can help, as can asking the student about what they are reading. “Ask their advice,” she says. “Ask them if they would recommend what they’re reading.”

Thurlow says that online book clubs can be helpful for advanced readers. She also recommends encouraging — but not forcing — students to read outside their genre or comfort zone. And if a student isn’t interested in a recommended book, ask them to read just the first page, the literary equivalent of trying just one bite of peas.

In in her CTY courses, Thurlow encourages students to think and write about books. “You can ask them to pretend they are a talk show host interviewing a character,” she says. “Or ask them to make a pitch to a movie studio to make a book into a movie. What would make it a good movie — the characters? The setting?”

Moreover, it’s okay for advanced readers to read easy books if they are also reading other material. “It’s okay to read Nancy Drew and Don Quixote at the same time,” says Thurlow. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Kristi Birch