Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Precocious Readers: Case Studies of Spontaneous Learning, Self-Regulation and Social Support in the Early Years

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posted on 2021-11-07, 20:25 authored by Margrain, Valerie Gail

This thesis reports 11 case studies of 4-year-old children with precocious reading ability in New Zealand. Precocious readers are an important cohort of learners because they "are able to read fluently and with understanding at an unusually young age before attending school and without having received any direct instruction in reading" (Stainthorp & Hughes, 2004, p. 107). The range in the children's ages was 4:01 to 4:10. Three perspectives informed the study: social constructivism, cognitive constructivism and the bioecological perspective. The mixed-method case studies included observations of children in early childhood centres and schools, interviews with parents and teachers, a range of standardised assessments, and the collection of a range of children's writing and art. Four of the children were tracked as they transitioned to school on their fifth birthday. The case studies illustrate four key findings. Firstly, exceptional early reading abilities of precocious readers are validated. Secondly, the role of adults in supporting the children is shown to be necessary but not sufficient to create precocious reading ability. Thirdly, the case studies illustrate the complexity of learning. Finally, parent, teacher and peer expectations for the children and responses to their special abilities are reported. The data support three types of learning: socially supported, self-regulative and "spontaneous". Spontaneous learning experiences were described by parents as occurring when their children learned without having been taught, and without deliberate metacognitive self-teaching. Theoretical links can be made to other studies that consider "implicit", "induced", "intrinsic", "unconscious" and "non-conscious' learning. Results of literacy assessments, using the Neale Analysis of Reading and the Burt Word Reading Test include reading abilities 7:0 to 12:0 years, comprehension in the range 6:03 to 8:03, and fluency between 7 and more than 13 years. Receptive language ability was more varied, with percentiles ranging from 58 to 99. The children were highly motivated and passionate readers. They persisted with tasks and enjoyed challenge and competition. Learning dispositions of this particular group of children are discussed within the framework of Te Whà riki, New Zealand's early childhood curriculum. The children capitalised on a range of support and resources. Computers were a common factor mentioned as an important influence on literacy. Parents and grandparents provided positive support for the children, but the children and families experienced social negativity. Beyond the family, there was strong pressure on the children to conform and act "like a 4-year old". Many early childhood and school teachers had expectations of the children's potential that were significantly lower than their ability. The study suggests that the cognitive needs of young children with advanced academic abilities are not being met due to this social pressure on children to "normalise".


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

Institute for Early Childhood Studies


May, Helen; Podmore, Val; Thompson, Brian