Understanding Self-Taught Reading

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If your toddler or preschooler has started reading books on their own with very little instruction from you—aside from reading to them regularly—you may have a self-taught reader. Self-taught reading, also known as spontaneous reading, is when a child figures out how to read without any formal reading instruction.

This can be a sign of giftedness or of neurodivergence, but not always. Self-taught readers have broken the reading code (the alphabet as a symbol system of sounds and words). But they still need your guidance and encouragement to enjoy a lifetime of reading.

Self-Taught Reading and Giftedness

When learning to read, a child must first realize that letters represent sounds and that together letters represent words. Self-taught readers figure out this symbol system on their own, sometimes with little more to go on than a video or online game about the alphabet or simply being exposed to a lot of books and print.

While it's not always a sign of giftedness, early reading is one indicator that a child may have advanced language skills. Learning to speak is a natural skill for most children, but learning to read usually has to be taught. That's why children who learn the relationship between letters, words, and communication very early are sometimes regarded as remarkable. 

A reader must be able to remember what they read at the beginning of a sentence before reaching the end of a sentence, as well as what they read at the beginning of a paragraph before reaching the end, and so on.

If a child is reading fluently before the age of 5, it suggests they are advanced, since their brain has reached a sufficient level of maturity for that age range. And, if they taught themselves how to read before receiving formal instruction, the chances are strong that that child is gifted.

Self-Taught Reading and Hyperlexia

Sometimes an early fascination with letters and words can indicate something other than giftedness. Early readers who lack comprehension skills may have hyperlexia. These children excel in recognizing letters, words, and sounds but may not understand what they are reading.

Hyperlexia is often characterized by four features: having advanced reading skills, being a self-taught reader, displaying a strong preference for letters and books, and having an accompanying neuro-developmental disorder.

If you suspect that your self-taught reader may have hyperlexia, talk to your child's pediatrician. Sometimes hyperlexia can be a sign of autism spectrum disorder (ASD); 84% of kids with hyperlexia are also on the autism spectrum. But only 6% to 14% of kids diagnosed with autism have hyperlexia.

Signs of Hyperlexia

  • Expressive and receptive language deficit
  • Excellent memory
  • Fascination with letters and the alphabet
  • Delayed language skills
  • Echolalia or repeating sounds over and over
  • Difficulty understanding verbal contexts
  • Lack of comprehension skills

How to Support Your Self-Taught Reader

Fostering an interest in books and reading at an early age helps prepare children for future success. Becoming familiar with books and comfortable with the practice of reading is key to encouraging children to read themselves (spontaneously or not).

Some self-taught readers may not enjoy being read to until they have started to break the code. When they realize that letters on a page represent language, they want to be read to in order to learn more about that symbol system.

These children may ask the person reading to them to point to words as they are being read. If they aren't yet talking, they may grab the reader's finger and move it to each word as it is being read. If you see these signs in your young child, try to encourage that curiosity about reading and books. 

How to Boost Reading Skills

Reading with your child consistently is one of the best ways to promote early reading skills. As you read together, you can support learning by pointing to the words as you read, using different voices for different characters, and asking your child to name what they see in pictures.

You can also invite your child to join in as you read, or repeat phrases after you. Strengthen their vocabulary and comprehension skills by drawing a connection between books and real life, answering your child's questions about books, and asking your child to tell you what happened in a book. It's also valuable to continue to read together even after your child learns to read independently.

A Word From Verywell

If your child is reading at a very young age, this does not automatically mean they are gifted or that they have hyperlexia or autism spectrum disorder. But if you have questions or concerns, talk to a healthcare provider. They can evaluate your child and provide a recommendation for additional testing if needed.

In the meantime, continue to support your child's love for books and reading. Regardless of where their fascination comes from, reading is an important life skill that will benefit your child for years to come. Help build a love of reading and books by giving your child access to books and reading with them often. It is one of the best ways to build a foundation for your child's future academic endeavors.

8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Carol Bainbridge
Carol Bainbridge has provided advice to parents of gifted children for decades, and was a member of the Indiana Association for the Gifted.