Why I Created This Kit:
My oldest started sounding out words at 3 ½ and was into early reader books around her 4th birthday. Within a few months, we were dipping into the early reader sections of three different libraries. She was just doing her thing, but I kind of panicked--there’s physically chasing your preschooler, and then there’s playing intellectual catch up. It’s been a wild ride. We’ve learned a lot by trial and error and also have benefitted from books on the subject and talks with a psychologist for the gifted. It’s an ongoing process, this parenting an “outlier”.
This is the first of a series of kits for families with young, gifted readers, what I prefer to call “precocious readers”. In this one, I’m aiming for readers under 5 who read books with a Lexile measure up to ~500L. This means intellectually challenging content that is suitable for a younger emotional age and smaller range of life experience. 500L rated books might be considered 2nd grade reading, but there are younger children reading at this level. At the same time, most four year old won’t be reading 500L books, and to be honest running so far ahead of grade level has unique challenges that inspired this series of kits.
General Info for Parents of Precocious Readers
I'm not a gifted specialist, I'm just a mom. I know three people who were reading fluently at age 4, my husband who started reading at 2 1/2, our daughter, and a boy 6 months older than our daughter.
The two books that have helped me the most are Living with Intensity by Daniels and Piechowski, eds. and Some of my Best Friends are Books, 3rd ed. by Halsted. From these, one of the ideas we were introduced to was asynchronous development.
Gifted children frequently do not develop their intellectual, social, emotional, and physical abilities in lockstep. So just because your 4 year old is reading at the 2nd grade level doesn't mean that he or she is a 2nd grader socially, emotionally, and physically. In fact, some of those areas can lag. While our daughter reads several years ahead of her age mates, her articulation of sounds lags by several years, and she's in speech therapy. That's asynchronous development.
Since we’re encountering this with our oldest child, we have no experience with a “normal” developmental course. But knowing about asynchronous development reminds us not to try to treat her as more grown up than she is just because she reads ahead of schedule. And it also helped us to be slightly less surprised when we were sent for speech and motor skills evaluations.
Suggested Book Series
At the beginning, we went through the “great hoovering” of books. She loved the early reader section of the library and all the series that were available. It was kind of a Pokemon-catch-them-all phase.
This kit introduces families to entire series for a few reasons. First, series are a great way to meet the initial desire to just read. One series can provide one or two dozen books to read. Second, I’m sure school-age kids benefit from the comfort of recurring characters, but I found this especially true with our young reader--the familiarity helped provide a stable, common thread along with incremental newness. Third, early reader books tend to be unmemorable partly because a good book is hard to write, generally speaking, and then early reader authors face the challenge of having to use very controlled vocabulary. These series are among the better ones we came across. They are appropriate for under 5s, and I provided a Lexile range so you can match your reader’s abilities to the book series:
Jon Scieszka--Ready-to-Read Trucktown books (mostly 150L-250L)
If you haven’t run into other Scieszka books, offbeat is the best way to describe them. I have a soft spot for his picture books in verse about science and math. These are his early reader books with wack-a-doodle, anthropomorphized trucks, doing zany things and using carefully controlled, beginner vocabulary. There’s even a Trucktown website with resources for parents and kids.
Alyssa Satin Capucilli--Biscuit (My First I Can Read Series) (mostly 80L-180L)
Delightful, cute books for the early, but not earliest stages of reading.
Mo Willems--Elephant and Piggie (mostly 80L-180L)
Many early reader books are something a parent must endure since it’s hard to write something interesting with tightly controlled vocabulary. Nevertheless Willems manages to tell stories of friendship in a frequently hysterical way.
Cynthia Rylant--Henry & Mudge, Annie & Snowball, Mr. Putter & Tabby (mostly 400L-500L)
These three series were staples for us when our daughter was reading at this level. Each series has many, many books so there’s more to look for on the next trip to the library. The relationships are very sweet. Rylant is a prolific children’s book author who writes at many different levels. So if you like these series, as your child grows in reading ability you might take a look at her more difficult books too.
Marjorie Weinman Sharmat--Nate the Great (mostly 250L-400L)
While the Lexile measure for the Nate the Great series is lower than the Rylant series, the Nate the Great books are significantly longer (80 pages vs 40-48 for Rylant’s) and the illustrations are black and white line drawings not colored. The Nate the Great books are also mysteries. So the cognitive challenge is different. It’s more taxing to read the denser text and to hold on to the story details for longer. But it’s really amazing how much story Sharmat tells with the controlled vocabulary.
Fun Beyond Books!Starfall Learning to Read
We used Starfall when it was a website and not yet an app. Their phonics section had catchy [ ] that made remembering the rules fun. Our kids have generally liked Starfall, but it was particularly useful to us for learning short and long vowels and the less obvious phonics rules. Unless they’ve updated their minibooks, the graphics have a World Wide Web 1996 quality about them. Didn’t prevent them from being useful and well loved, but you have been warned.
Pigeon Presents Mo...On the Go
Mo Willems as an app. How fun! All kids should be encouraged to be creative, but for a number of reasons, this is particularly beneficial pursuit for gifted children. This app takes the characters from Willems’ books and allows children to manipulate them to choreograph a dance or make monsters or drive the bus. Not an education-oriented app, it still has value as a space for imagination and play.
I Got Two Dogs by John Lithgow
I picked this song because first, it’s a lot of fun. And at some point in the panic of having blooming reader, it’s good to slow down and be silly and revel in all the lovely, goodness of life with a 4 year old. Second, this is a song that’s been made into a book that your new reader can probably read. And third, all parents should know that John Lithgow writes children’s books and songs. This is probably his lowest level picture book. We really liked his book Micawber which had great illustrations, a fun rhyming story, with crazy SAT words littered about. So look for other Lithgow books at the library and enjoy!
Take Questions Seriously
Somedays I feel like all I’m doing is answering question after question. They are never-ending (and usually asked while I’m on the road and trying to merge across three lanes). Since there are so many questions, I tend to give merely sufficient answers because I know another one is coming soon. (Merely sufficient includes, "I don't know," and "Remind me to look that up when we get home.") But every so often, I take a question seriously, and we hunt for a more thorough answer.
For example, a recent question was “Does the moon grow like I do?” My daughter had noticed that the moon waxes and wanes. We have a growth chart hanging up, so we went and looked at that. That was how she grows. Then, because my husband is a space nerd, he drew pictures of the sun shining on the moon relative to the earth as the moon moves around the earth. And they talked about how the moon would look to someone on earth. But we also could, and probably will look for a book on the topic in the library. And then we’ll try a flashlight activity to double check dad’s explanation.
Pick any one of your child’s questions that interests you even if you don’t know the answer because your child doesn’t know the answer either.
Search the internet for an explanation to the question. You might want to search without your child alongside initially. Otherwise, a subscription to the Encyclopedia Brittanica site geared toward children might be useful.
Give the initial answerYou may wish to write down a simple answer.
Take a trip to the library and check out non-fiction picture books on your subject. Libraries are great for everyone, but with our precocious reader, it’s been a particularly helpful resource. Not only does the library provide more books for her to go through than I could hope or want to purchase, it’s juvenile non-fiction section let’s her explore topics of interest at a greater depth but still at her level.
If applicable, ask a librarian (or your personal expert at Zoobean, ahem) to help you find fiction books that also cover the topic. For example, if the question is a history question, are there historical fiction books that cover that time period and are suitable for independent reading or as a read-aloud? (Side note: if you’re lucky enough to have a children’s collection librarian, introduce yourself and your child to this valuable source of knowledge. Ours was just recently hired and has been helping us find age-appropriate books that are both interesting and challenging)
How much more seriously can a question be taken than to physically quest for the answer? If you’re working on a question that could be answered at a museum, farm, planetarium, riverside, or historical reenactment, go there!
Document the answer. This can be as simple as one sheet of paper with the question at the top and an answer at the bottom. I like taking dictation from my child. It allows her to see her words in print. But she also likes to draw. So we could make a little illustrated booklet where I write the words and she illustrates. For the more technologically savvy families, a video book report to send to the grandparents could be fun.
About Andrea M.
Andrea Mates isn't just a heavy-hitting academic; she’s a knitting and crocheting, sourdough bread–baking power lifter, whose fitness goal this summer is to bench press 135 lbs., squat 225 lbs., and deadlift 275 lbs. The linguist, who holds a Ph.D in applied linguistics, and an MA in applied linguistics and TESL from UCLA, likes to be “secretly strong.”
Andrea has taught language and gender studies at UCLA, and researched neuroscientific connections with language acquisition, mental illness, and dementia, subjects in which she has conducted extensive ethnographic studies and published numerous scholarly papers.
The multilingual mom—she’s fluent in two Chinese dialects and Russian—is a builder, too: recently she’s constructed an outdoor bench from upcycled fence posts, a TV stand she later repurposed as a kids' stool, and utility garage shelves. Soon Andrea will serve as academic advisor to the innovative nonprofit “Cooking Up Cultures,” which rotates through different sites in Austin, Texas teaching language through cooking classes. She’s gone gluten-free, so taste-testing her myriad kitchen concoctions is often relegated to her husband; she confesses she sometimes longs for thick, crusty pizza and an extra stout beer, a penchant she developed during a summer in England.
Active in and mindful of her faith, Andrea seeks truth and beauty in her everyday path, and strives to manifest those values in all she does; she’s currently developing a women’s mentoring program for her church, and often writes on the intersection of theology and parenting. At Zoobean, she curates books primarily for the under-five set; she delights in the beautiful illustrations she often finds there. Andrea resides in Austin with husband Nathan, a video game programmer; and five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son, who are lucky beneficiaries of the many sweater vests, stuffed animals, scarves, hats, mittens she knits and crochets. “I really enjoy making little things for little people.”