Chapter 5 - How to Create a Gifted Reader

Copyright 2012, 2016 me 

How To Create A Gifted Reader 

I'm in the middle of revising the original content of this page. I think it's going to take me about 2 months. When I first created this page, I had spent 2 years working out a program to meet my goals and the program worked really well. With the Chicago Project, I'm back to early reading, and I think the presentation needs more clarity. Even more importantly, I'm also on the other end of the spectrum looking at the SAT (albeit with a 12 year old) and I see a clear path from the original skills we covered at age 4 all the way to question #8 on our practice SAT, which of the possible meanings did the author not intend with the term "perianthrotroph" in paragraph 72

But the main reason why this page needs revision is that we ended up way beyond my original goals (aka passing score on a GAT test that has a cutoff of 98.8%) and the investment paid off in a big way ever since. The best way to create a gifted reader is to make your child read 4 hours a day. I know children who read this much. Our GAT program is full of them. I have neighbors like this. The only problem is that we don't have 4 hours a day, not to mention my child doesn't want to read 4 hours today, not to mention by the time I figured out we need to read 4 hours a day we are already 3 years behind so we need to read 12 hours a day to catch up. 

To create a gifted reader, I would just have to figure out what the cognitive skills are behind reading, create a short, efficient course to teach these skills, and then have a reading program at home for practice. How hard could that be? 

It turns out it was even easier than I expected. It wasn't until recently that I bothered to determine what the cognitive skills are behind reading, and only because the SAT lists them out explicitly. I simply created a program that focuses on the core skills and uses reading as the back drop, and with the core skills any kid can teach himself anything. In fact, it's impossible not to learn the sub skills when your are learning the core skills if in fact the sub skills are naturally exercised in the material. This is true of both math and reading and any subject that uses both math and reading, like science, or a bit of math and a lot of reading, like social studies. 

What really impressed me about my program was all of the skills that accidentally appeared. It wasn't until I was explaining these in the introduction to the belated phonics book that I could see it was a daily skills practice in things that at the time I didn't think were important but 6 years later are really handy if you need 99% on the MAP or PARC, 99% on the COGAT, and straight A's in 7th grade to get into a high school in Chicago. 

Let me explain with one of my infamous awful analogies. Suppose your child runs every day. You would expect him to get better at running. To accelerate the process, you also work on flexibility and aerobic capacity and cardio strength improve running. He would get even better. Suppose you handed him a bag of grapes and a song sheet before he started his daily run and he ate grapes and sang Frozen while he was running. Then 6 years later you find out that the test to get into high school requires the child to run while eating grapes and singing 'Let It Go'. 

I would be satisfied that I accidentally stumbled on the secret formula, except that I see running, grapes, and Let It Go in everything we do.  To extract myself from the analogy, I targeted the cognitive skills behind the test, and found out that these are not only the secret to the test ('duh', it's called a cognitive skills test for a reason) but also the secret to academic success (again, 'duh', that's what the tests are designed to predict).

Your Starting Point 
The ideal starting point is of course birth. 

Very few of us have our act together at this point, but there's good news. There is nothing to preclude catching up at a later year. Catching up at age 4 is a great year, and this was my target for Pre-K Phonics. Catching up at age 8 is harder, but I also have a program for this as well. 12 is a great year, and by great, I mean it's not painful. When I say catching up, I mean catch up to the child who reads 4 hours a day. This child gets 99% on all things reading and/or verbal. 

I think it takes about 3 years to mold a legitimately gifted child out of an average or way behind child. It's one thing to take 6 to 12 months to learn the skills that a cognitive skills test measures. The skills these tests measure will predict a strong learner, not an actual performer. The 'performer' part takes about 2 or 3 more years beyond test prep. 

Fully half of my blog fits under the heading of cheating your child past a cognitive skills test and the other half is concerned with thriving in a GAT program. The original theme was "surviving the GAT program" where most of the kids read 4 hours a day, but after the material in this article resulted in way more than I expected, I upgraded it to "thriving" simply because "going from average to profoundly gifted as a brief stop on the way to genius" makes me seem less credible until you're see it first hand. 

[The rest of this article is my notes which I'm gradually expanding. I've got about 50 more pages on my computer that I need to shrink down and incorporate here, but you'll have to wade through my notes until it's a finished product.] 

Before We Begin
Regardless of your age, reading is a good place to discuss the importance of vocabulary because a strong vocabulary usually results from lots of reading.   In my take-no-chances education program, vocabulary is addressed directly in addition to reading.

75% of a cognitive skills test is vocabulary.  It doesn't matter which section (except for quantitative and folding, obviously) vocabulary is behind the results.   The official psychology research explanation is that a vocabulary test has 75% of the predictive power of a full cognitive skills test. Armed with this simple results, I can pick apart the non-verbal section and demonstrate how math vocabulary determines the difference between a correct and an incorrect answer.  Vocabulary is a thread that runs through the test.   Because of this, vocabulary is a major theme of Shape Size Color Count, which is the Math Phonics partner of Pre-K Phonics.  

For the verbal section, it's not just vocabulary, it's more than vocabulary.  It's conceptual vocabulary, vocabulary that carries additional content and more of a cognitive load (e.g., more thinking).   Take a simple word like 'grasp'.  For a young child, grasp is hold, but hold tightly, because you don't want to drop it or someone wants to take it.   If you have to act out, tell a story, or explain the subtle meaning of a word to distinguish it from a synonym, you've got conceptual vocabulary.  On the verbal section of a cognitive skills test, there is going to be conceptual vocabulary, and the child is going to think through relationships and synonyms or opposites to solve a puzzle.

After a thorough analysis of all words that could be candidates for a cognitive skills test, I'm leaning toward ruling out opposites.  They just don't hold enough cognitive load.  Children pick up opposites pretty quickly.  It's a great starter exercise on the way to the 50th percentile.

There is an out of print book that had to top 60 words (supposedly) that a child needs to know to pass the test.  The price of this book was $99.  Either the authors knew which 60 words were on the test and had to remove the book from Amazon because of copyright violations, or more likely everyone, including me, scoffed at paying $1.50 per word.

Ages 2 and 3 

The amount of vocabulary in a house on a daily basis is highly corrected with early reading ability, not to mention later reading ability. While it may be true that baby talk plays a role in language development, that role outlived it's usefulness by age 2 and it's time for long complicated sentences and continual narratives on everything. 

Welcome to Your Child's Brain, which is a good book in general, has an extremely important chapter detailing a study of language usage in the home and it's impact. The speed in which your child learns to read depends greatly by their experience working with the language via their ears. 

When both my children were young, we spent a great deal of time together building things. There was more building than talking. I'm more of a builder and a writer than a talker. The solution to this gap is reading to the child. I may not be able to provide a continual narrative as is prescribed by Welcome To Your Child's Brain, but I can read to my child for an hour, and I can provide questions and commentary as I go. If both of my opinionated children end up choosing talk shows as their career, you know who to blame, but at least we achieved a high degree of verbosity in our house. 

Jim Trelease is the expert on Read To, and I highly recommend The Read Aloud Handbook. Our daily reading process taught me how to talk to kids at the A level. Books took longer to get through but there was more payback with each book. 

If your child is 4 or older, then you are going to read this material about a 2 year old and end up with the same take-away that I did. You weren't as verbose as you should have been at age 2, so you'll make a mental note to be more verbose from that point on. Maybe you're not good at verbosity. I certainly was not. There are many ways I permanently incorporated verbosity into what follows, but I did it in such a way that it also meets our goals for cognitive skills and for vocabulary. These methods will be covered below. 

When we do math (which is defined as all things not reading) I would not dare to cheat my child out of a learning experience by telling him something even if it means he'll spend the next 2 weeks on a problem.  When we read (which is defined as all things not math) I will do most of the talking, or at least start a discussion, in order to present the structure of language not to mention a blizzard of ideas, concepts, new words, definitions, how things work, or whatever else interests me.  If my child asks a question, he'll get an answer or more.  I ask a lot of questions to. 

Age 4 

The big story at this age is learning to read. It can happen at 3.5 years old or 4.3 years old or somewhere in between. The timing most likely depends on the preceding two years. To gauge my child's reading readiness, we worked with letter blocks starting with 'C'. I had high expectations for reading, so 'C', 'A', and 'T' were the first 3 blocks he memorized. By the time he had memorized all of the letter sounds, we started phonics. 

By the way, 'CAT' was still not cat and wouldn't be for a long time. It was just 'C', 'A', and 'T', pronounced correctly, but individually with a pause in between. We started at 3.9 years old. Perhaps if I had read Welcome To Your Child's Brain before my 2nd child was 3, it might have happened earlier.  
Being an experienced parent, I know a secret about learning to read. The secret is that all children learn to read. It happens quite naturally on its own schedule and all the parent has to do is provide the material and the support. But I also know that after children have learned to read, some of them score above 99% on early cognitive skills tests and some of them don't. I therefore concluded that I didn't have to worry about the mechanics of reading, but I had to worry about all of the other skills that were more important that we might miss. 

In terms of skills, it has been well known since the beginning of the 20th century that the process of learning to read exercises the entire cognitive skill set. These skills won't be present as a complete group again, although it's possible some courses like Organic Chemistry are going to use them all, and gifted math and science programs come pretty close to using the complete list. 

In order to appreciate what we're up against, I'm going to introduce two families from my neighborhood. 2 blocks north of me live the Rivals. Mr. Rival built shelves to line the front half of his house. These shelves contain about 4,000 books that he picked up at 2nd hand shops at a few dollars a box. You can imagine the extent of reading that takes place in this home. All three of his children are in the same highly selective gifted and talented program, which is a rare feat. 1 block west of me live the Readers. I think the readers might actually read more than the Rivals. Any time I run into the Readers on the street or at some children's function, they all have books, and the youngest approaches me with a stack and demands that I read to her until it's time to leave. Their children are so smart that they never even bothered to look into gifted and talented programs because the programs would provide no benefit to their children's education. 

By the way, Mrs. Rival teaches AP math at one of the areas best high schools, and Mr. Reader has a doctorate in history from the University of Chicago  Not that the spouses aren't brilliant, but look what I'm up against. I finally decided that I would tap all 4 as mentors and just compete quietly on the side as fiercely as I can, which, as you will see below, is pretty fierce. 

Phonics greatly accelerates reading and is a key to a smooth transition to chapter books and beyond. As I mentioned above, this also happens to an important time to focus on a range of cognitive skills. 

And, of course, actually reading a lot is critical to the whole endeavor.  Phonics provides the tool set, but it has to be practiced during reading.   

Reading to read is important, obviously, but reading to build a love of reading will go a long way to avoiding that dry reading spell that hits many children in between 2nd and 6th grade if you don't happen to have 4,000 books in your family room. 

This time period is the most popular time to get serious about education.  It is also the most popular time to prepare for testing for gifted and talented programs, because testing for gifted and talented programs begins in many school districts in Pre-K for Kindergarten programs.   In our case, this was the warm up test because the program we wanted started in 1st grade.

Here we are at age 4 and I've got 6 challenges to tackle.  Phonics, reading for practice, reading for learning to love reading, cognitive skills, and vocabulary.  That's 5.  The other one is catching the Rivals and the Readers, and I've got about 9 months to do it.  If you throw in the need for more verbosity in my house, I've got 7 goals.

Our starting point for learning to read was an old copy of Hooked On Phonics that one of my early mentors leant me. This course cost $250. I see that Hooked On Phonics still costs hundreds of dollars, but they hide it on Amazon by splitting the course up into lots of $10 books that make up phonics from one end to the other. The problem with Hooked On Phonics is that this course targets the 50th percentile.  Neither of these issues are a problem for the publishers, of course, because who else is going to get the majority of the country on their way to reading?   They should win awards annually.

What made this course inappropriate for my use is the opportunity wasted. At the same time we started reading, I had a growing stack of test prep material for cognitive skills tests. I think it was 2 feet high at that point, and would quickly grow to about 5 or 6 feet tall before I was satisfied with my survey of skills. It would have been much easier if someone just identified each of these skill and the smallest curriculum, because I wouldn't have had to create this website. As we went through the phonics course, I saw the potential on each page, but had to spend many hours each week writing my own worksheets to achieve broader goals. 

At one point, I wrote a computer program that derived all combinations of words 5 letters or less and eliminated any word that is only found in a scrabble dictionary then I engineered the words for maximum cognitive impact, subject to the constraint that the child has to read first. The result was Pre-K Phonics Conceptual Vocabulary and Thinking. In many ways, this is a phonics course for engineers, and not because I'm an engineer with a math background. It is engineered to catch the Readers and the Rivals, to make up for the time we spent building things and over emphasizing math at the expense of reading because, because I'm more of a builder and thinker than a talker. It is a blatant attempt for my child to emerge by age 5 with a skill set so strong that he can compete at the highest levels despite cheating his way there. 

I added a comprehensive list of math words that a child would need to not only prepare for Kindergarten math, but to prepare for cognitive thinking workbooks as well in our ongoing quest to cheat our way to the top. 

As mentioned previously, vocabulary is highly correlated with success on tests of all kinds and performance in school.  Somewhere in Pre-K Phonics Conceptual Vocabulary and Thinking are 1,000 words to teach phonemes, and the other 1,600 practice words contain the 400 words I think a child should know going into the test. I'm not going to reveal whether or not I included any words that I actually know are on tests, but they're certainly would not be  highlighted in any fashion in this book. Ethics are ethics.   2,600 words is overkill for phonics, and probably overkill for vocabulary as well. It's not that I like overkill, but every child will be OK with 10 words and not know 2.  Since I don't know which 2 to put on the Word Board for my own child a priori, let alone yours, they're all in the book with recommendations in each lesson for which words to elevate to the status of vocabulary words.

And on that note, Pre-K Phonics Conceptual Vocabulary and Thinking was designed to be the only phonics books that a child needs outside of school, and contains all the site words through 2nd grade level, which the child will need because 2nd grade reading is going to approach rapidly after this course.  

In addition to math words through 2nd grade that aren't obvious, I added site words through 2nd grade.   The clusters themselves go up to about 2nd grade, but only to introduce conceptual vocabulary, not because I would expect a 4 year old to master the difference between 'ie' and 'ei'.  In other words, a phonics book that the publisher assigned a price of $23.95 that is also the only comprehensive test prep book for the verbal part of tests (before 1st grade) that was the only phonics book we needed.  Not bad. 

When I published this book it showed up on Amazon surrounded by dozens of Hooked On Phonics books.  I laughed, glad that I have a full time job.  Who's going to buy a phonics book with a graduate level title?  We when completed this course, we ended up right in the middle of Building Thinking Skills Grades 2 & 3 and thereafter saw 99% on everything for the next 4 years with no further intervention.   I suppose determined, committed parents who are desperate to get past the COGAT might be interested.

The reading program and the Word Board are 2 important pillars of success, in addition to phonics.  I describe the reading program in a very old page entitled GAT Reading Program.  I have a bit to add to that page, but it's adequate as an overview for now.  The Word Board is going to require it's own page some day, but for now I plan to write about it below because it's usage varies little between age 4 and age 10.

With both the reading program and the Word Board, my goals were met.  You do something daily, you get good at it.  In both cases, the unexpected happened, which is why I shared the silly running-grape-singing analogy.

Age 5 

Starting at age 4 and continuing forever is a strong reading program at home. A good starting point is The Well Trained mind, originally by Jessie Wise and subsequently adopted by Susan Wise Bauer. Most of it is a recipe for home schooling the classical education, but the first 30 pages describe her approach to reading and it is very inspiring. Inspiring is not going to get you from zero to reading especially if you don't teach English at William and Mary. I refined the reading program to a science.

My goal for a reading program is a controlled reading program.  No such thing exists until Pathway readers.  Pathway readers start at the 1st grade level.  They are one step shy of chapter books.  On every page, a new word is introduced.  It's a carefully chosen word that is then used again and again. By the end of a 100 page book, the child is now standing on 100 little building blocks.  

For controlled reading we have leveled readers.  Since I complain about these so much elsewhere, I'm just going to state that the level on a reader is just a random letter or number as far as your child is concerned.  At first, I thought this was simply due to the fact that the readers were leveled with a sample and the sample is not actually a child, let alone my child.  After going through all the leveled readers for all publishers, I am certain that leveled readers were put together by the marketing department of big publishers and were in fact stamped with a random letter or number.

But we're stuck with leveled readers.  The books that came with the phonics course I mentioned above were really boring.   They hit 9 out of 10 on the Lame-O-Meter.  Plus, they were hard.  I think the phonics course is for Kindergarten or later and not paced for the insane parent trying to do this in Pre-K.   And they were inefficient.   I want something that imparts skills on a pace of once or twice a week, but these had to be studied daily for impact, and they were too lame.  It made reading really boring and painful.

I went to the publisher website and wrote down all of the books.  Then I went to our library's website and search for all of the books, crossing out the ones that are not available.   Then I started putting holds on these books.  Once or twice a week, I went to the library with a big bag and filled my bag with anything I found on the shelves that might be interesting, plus anything that was sitting on the hold shelf.  If I brought home a dozen books, I would usually have 3 books that were worth reading twice, and one or two books that would have at least a few words to build reading skills.   As time went by, I did progressively less reading with the reading series and my child did progressively more.

Many times a level A book was actually level C so I would just mark the list and we would get the book again after we were finished with level B.   At the very beginning, I started to grab stacks of all levels just so I could figure out which ones had what content at what level.  I picked up a book that had "purple underpants" in the book.  Red something, yellow something and purple underpants.  It was a level C or D.  We both laughed a lot and took it home and read it a lot.

We mostly read books like Olivia or Piggy and Elephant, and I did most of the reading.   It turns out that we had a medium sized stuffed elephant, and a medium sized pig puppet, so we acted out Piggy and Elephant and then put on our own plays.  When we began our Ad Hoc Controlled Reading program, my child had about 1 or 2 minutes of reading per day, consisting of reading 'cat' every time it appeared in Pete The Cat, and the rest of the time I did the reading.   By the end, my child was in charge of reading all 50 words in a Level A book and his work was complete, the rest of evening reading consisted of fun books.

If you remove all of the leveled reading books from the library, which I ended up doing over time, and you remove all of the books that are suitable for young readers to experience like Elephant and Piggy and Dr. Seuss, you're left with thousands of random books by random authors who just had an idea and wrote a book.  The theme and level of vocabulary is all over the place with these books.  We at least tried them all, and my child was exposed to themes and vocabulary that were all over the place.  Go back to the section above for 2 year olds, and this is were we caught up.

There is one more big bucket in the library consisting of nonfiction.  My favorite non-fiction books were any DK book and any Magic School Bus book.  At one time or another, we brought home all of these.  It's like reading the dictionary, only a lot more fun.  Like leveled readers, some worked, some didn't, and in many cases I made a note that I just found a great book for reading in 6 or 12 months, at which time I would get it again.

When the leveled readers were finished, and I made my child struggle through all of them, A to D and 1 to 4, we started the Pathway series.  Many kids love these books.  I find them a bit dull.  So we continued bringing home random books and reading these together just for fun.

Age 6

The random books turned out to be more than just for fun when I discovered obscure illustrators who had won obscure awards.  Looking back, they were famous illustrators winning famous awards, but I didn't know that at the time.  I found lists of award winners on Wiki stretching back to the 50's, looked up their books in the library catalog, made another list, and proceeded to place hundreds of holds and interlibrary loans over the next two years.

The illustrator themed reading program is probably the gem of my whole innovative, slightly insane approach to reading.  We read or viewed works by obscure German illustrators from the 1950's, subject to library availability, and just continued on year by year to the present.   To say that that themes in these illustrations made one think is an understatement.  It's more like genius training in terms of thinking.   Eventually, we came across illustrators like Quentin Blake, who works with award winning authors, and came across a treasure trove of amazing books for Read To or future reading that just happen to have really good illustrations.   Roald Dahl, for example, fell into our lap this way.

At the time I didn't have a cognitive skills program to deal with the flood of thinking exposure during our illustrators program.  I still don't.  It's just a hurricane of exposure to weird, creepy, wonderful, breath taking concepts one amazing picture at a time.   There are many books that are just all pictures, and we had the fortune of discovering these and sitting there in amazed silence trying to solve the mystery in the layers of puzzle hiding in what we are seeing.  Even better, we discovered these works before discovering the DVD and just being spoon fed the outcome.

The illustrator program would go on for a few more years before it produced another payoff.

In the meantime, we inched our way to Magic Tree House.  The best thing about Magic Tree House is that I could retire my charts and lists because I just had to get the next one.  What's an academic coach going to do so far away from retirement?

I discovered Vocabulary Workshop.   As you might guess from my comment above on the 6 foot stack of workbooks, the act of discovery is me buying all of the options, trying them all, and picking the best one.

Kids love Vocabulary Workshop for good reason, and I've recommended it many times over the years.  My children wanted to zoom through it, because it's fun, and I want them to go slow because a) they have to actually know the vocabulary before they move on and b) there are only so many of these and I can't afford to waste them because I've got nothing else this good.

We used the Word Board for phonics, but I perfected it for Vocabulary Workshop.  I had one kid 3 years ahead, so we had the Word Board in place for a year with the older one before the younger one needed it with phonics.   I could put this section in the Age 4 section, but I'm introducing it at Age 6 not just so I don't have to repeat myself, but because at Age 6 or 7 the unexpected benefits started to appear, the grape and the singing from my awful analogy that I'm about to explain.

A few times a week, I dragged each child to the Word Board.  The child read each word, followed by an age appropriate definition.  If it was testing season, I may add 3 or 4 synonyms.  If I thought the word was important, I'd ask for alternate definitions or nuances of meaning.  For example, the child put 'rare' on the board from the vocab workshop book grade 2.  I'll add 'shortage' or 'dearth' and ask for the differences.  Of course, the child doesn't know the differences or what 'dearth' means, so we'll discuss these, but he'll know that next week there are 2 more words to explain.

The Word Board exercise gave my children photographic memories.  That was purely accidental. What I was striving for was an ability to articulate under pressure.  Their goal is to take as many words down as possible.  The longer a word stays up, the greater the likelihood that a synonym will appear.   In order to meet this goal, the child has to state an acceptable verbal definition and answer all of my questions, many of which are unexpected because I make them up as I go.  The pressure doesn't come from me, the adoring parent, who doesn't expect right answers or care about wrong answers.   The pressure comes from the number of  words on the Word Board that need to come down and the tendency for synonyms to appear over time.  If we had a crisis situation in this country, I would want my kids running the command center.

Age 7 to 10

After about 3 or 4 years of vocabulary workshop and the Word Board we retired this part of our At Home Schooling.  My kids face about the same thing in a rigorous accelerated program, so I can do other things at home with our valuable time.

The amount of literature available to children is astounding.   There are three types of literature.  The first is a series.  After magic treehouse, the series literature includes lame fairy stories, and lame dragon stories.  These are very broad headings that include anything written for little boys (the dragon category) and, I'm assuming, written for little girls.  


  1. Dr. Seuss is my favorite. I believe my kids cultivated the love of learning because of him. I love his illustrations and his word juggle.

    1. I didn't have a reply months ago, but here I am responding to the next comment and I realize I do. Roald Dahl had the same impact at a later age on us. We found an accent coach on youtube that teaches English accents, and then we reread Danny Champion of the World like a play. I think that officially makes us geeks.

  2. Hi, just got your phonics book for my 3 year old. We're going to wait until 3.5 to dig in, but I had some prep questions. Do you include workbook time in the hour of daily reading, or is that in addition to workbook reading? Do you put advanced vocabulary on the word board for comprehension purposes, even if it's too advanced to spell? For example, while reading picture books I defined insurmountable, devastated, distraught, and leer for my son. I don't expect him to spell these, but I'd like him to be able to act them out and commit them to memory.


    1. These questions are so good that I need to start an FAQ page for phonics, which will appear on the right as Chapter 5b shortly.

  3. Excuse me, who is the German illustrator you referenced? Would love to check their works out. Thank you!

  4. I thought this would be an easy question to answer, but I found him on a European illustrator award list. It's going to take some research but I'll find his name. We had to get intea library loans to complete his works and we getting about a dozen books a week at that time. Never thought to write his name down.