Let me begin by stating that not every gifted child is an early reader, and that not every early reader is a gifted child. A bright and motivated, but not gifted four year old may crack the code with a little support. A highly gifted seven year old may not yet be interested in learning to read, or he may have a learning disability or visual issue that has prevented him from learning. That being said, most kids who can fluently before age five are actually gifted. No matter what age she begins, a gifted child tends to progress very rapidly from beginning readers to chapter books once she is able to decode. It is not unusual for a gifted child to make the leap from reading Bob books to Magic Treehouse chapter books, or even more challenging material, in only six or eight months.
Right now we're going to concentrate on the most precocious readers. Children under one year have been known to read individual words. I've heard many stories of early readers and have firsthand experience with my own children as well. Once these youngsters start pointing out familiar words on signs and in books, and can identify at least some letters of the alphabet, they may be ready for some reading games. It is important to follow the child's lead with this, as the child will not grow to love reading very readily if it is forced upon him. Does your child get excited about recognizing his name? Does she enjoy listening to books read aloud? Try introducing a game and see how your child responds. If she is enthusiastic, you can play regularly. If she appears distracted or unhappy, wait a few months and try again.
This game is tons of fun for little ones. It takes only a small amount of preparation. You write clues on paper or index cards, and direct the child from one object or area to another. The most basic clues can simply have one or two words, such as, “JOE'S BED”. Once the child reads the clue and goes to his bed, he can pick up the next clue, which might say, “BACK DOOR”. The clue taped to the door will send him in yet another direction. This hunt can end with either a small prize or a familiar stuffed friend or favorite object. As the child becomes more capable, clues can be made more challenging. At my most inspired, I made the clues in the form of rhyming couplets ala' Dr. Suess. We even used a treasure hunt for a 4th birthday party, and the guests followed the clues to a treasure chest full of gold coins and gaudy beads.
This is a very simple game, but emergent readers tend to love it, especially if they are not yet writing letters. You write a word in the middle of a page, and surround it by other words, some of which match the center word. For instance, the word APPLE is surrounded by the words, ORANGE, BANANA, FRUIT, and PLUM, in addition to APPLE written three times in various places. Ask the child to circle all the apples. It's a great way to reinforce sight words and also introduce the idea of sorting and classifying.
No, this has nothing to do with gambling! Kids love to read books that they made themselves. You can either staple or punch holes in regular paper and use yarn to tie the sheets together. If you want to get fancy, you can use a blank book or have the child's story professionally bound. Children can illustrate their own books, or the parent can do the illustrating while the child dictates the words. You can also paste photos or magazine clippings into the book. My daughter's first book made at age two was all about her family. She dictated to me, “ This is my brother, ___. He goes to cub scouts.” and I drew a little line drawing of her brother to accompany it. She had something special to say about each member of the family, and the book ended with, “I love my family!” It's very empowering for a young child to be able to read a book full of her own words.