Bob Seeney on Books

Reading and the Gifted Reader –
The Role of Young Adult Literature

September, 2016

For this column, I have been asked to share the “philosophical” aspects of my approach to reading for gifted readers, including those who are twice exceptional. These thoughts and concepts have been developed over a lifetime of reading and a long career in gifted education. My thoughts and my approach have been influenced by many scholars in the field, too many to be listed and perhaps some too far in the past to be remembered. However, a few who have made a major impact on my thinking should be mentioned: Louise Rosenblatt, Richard Abrahamson, Kenneth Donelson, Judith Halsted, Robert Probst, Nancy Atwell, and Teri Lesesne.

Since the mid-1980’s, I have been presenting a session at NAGC, and at state GT conferences, that I call What’s New in Young Adult Literature. In these sessions, I build a rationale for using young adult literature with gifted learners, share classroom strategies, and review a new list of current literature each year. I will again be presenting this session at NAGC in Orlando this Fall.

I was first introduced to young adult literature when I was teaching an eighth-grade language arts class for identified gifted learners. As part of our curriculum, we read and studied William Sleator’s House of Stairs (1975).  I was hooked! (This novel is now available from Puffin Books in a 1991 reissue.)

About the same time, I “took” a class in young adult literature from Richard Abrahamson, University of Houston. This class was being taught in an area adjacent to where I was taking one of my first classes for my doctoral program. By strategically placing myself, I had a good view and was well in listening range to hear Dick’s lectures and discussions. It was much more interesting that the class I was taking — which to be honest, I can’t remember! Later, I was able officially to take a class from Dr. Abrahamson, an experience that prompted a long-time love affair with YA lit and the study of the instruction of reading, especially for gifted learners.

Characteristics of Gifted Readers

As I began to develop my “program” of reading, I investigated the gifted characteristics most related to reading. Judith Halsted offers a list of verbal characteristics in the first edition of her book, Guiding Gifted Readers (1988), which has since been retitled Some of My Best Friends Are Books, (2009, Great Potential Press) and is now in its third edition. According to Halsted, gifted children:

  • Possess a large vocabulary and use advanced terminology correctly
  • Often read early; may be self-taught; and read enthusiastically and widely, often above grade level
  • Select their reading materials purposefully
  • Understand language subtleties and use language for humor
  • Write words and sentences early and produce superior creative writing
  • Display verbal ability in self-expression, choice of colorful and descriptive phrasing, and easily learn a second language.

From these characteristics comes the importance of challenging the verbal abilities of gifted students by doing the following:

  • Insuring that they use their full vocabulary and develop it further with intellectual peers
  • Providing books at an appropriate intellectual and emotional level
  • Introducing books that present a variety of literary conventions and styles that use language gracefully and creatively
  • Insuring that they express ideas verbally and in-depth by writing or speaking with others who challenge their ideas (Adapted from Halsted, 2009).

With this in mind, I reviewed the literature to see what the authorities have said about the characteristics of gifted readers. I found that these readers: 

  • Have a passion for reading
  • Learn to read earlier, often spontaneously in preschool
  • Learn to read independently soon after classroom instruction begins
  • Have advanced reading abilities and read at a faster rate
  • Read materials beyond the norm for their age
  • Have an advanced and large vocabulary
  • Require less drill — if any — to master techniques of the reading process
  • Read longer and a greater variety of literature
  • Have reading interests that differ considerably from their age group
  • Are more likely to branch out from realistic fiction to fantasy, historical fiction, and biography
  • Continue to be voracious readers into adulthood.

This list of characteristics was developed from my quick review of the literature (Halsted, 2009; Gross, 1994; Hawkins, 1983; Whitehead, 1984). More recent studies continue to support these characteristics (Reis, 2011).

Books that Appeal to Gifted Readers

If these are our readers, then we must guide them to appropriate literature that reflects who they are. Again, Halsted (2009) has been more than helpful. Through her research and experience, she has provided a list of characteristics of books best suited to gifted readers. These books:

  • Use a high level of language and vocabulary
  • Have pronunciation guides, maps, and glossaries (“notes” at the end)
  • Use the full array of literary devices and descriptive words that stimulate strong visual images
  • Are written by authors who delight in the use of language and the expression of nuance
  • Provide language patterns and vocabularies from other times and places
  • Have structures that put the mind to work
  • Have settings that evoke an experience of other lifestyles
  • Present unresolved problems that let readers draw their own conclusions (Halsted, 2009).

In my studies and experience with gifted readers, I have found that young adult literature provides a rich resource for their reading. In studying the characteristics of this genre, I noted that young adult literature met and spoke directly to characteristics of gifted readers and books most appropriate for them. The characteristics of this literature have been defined by several scholars. Perhaps the classic in the field is Literature for Today’s Young Adults, now in its ninth edition (2012, Pearson). This book features this widely accepted list of characteristics of young adult literature:

  • Authors write from the view point of young people.
  • Adults often don’t play an important role in the development of the plot.
  • The literature is fast-paced.
  • The literature includes a variety of genres and subjects.
  • The body of work includes stories about characters from different ethnic and cultural groups.
  • The books are basically optimistic with characters making worthy accomplishments.
  • Successful young adult novels deal with emotions that are important to young adults
    (Adapted from Donelson and Nilsen, 2005).

Other lists have been created as well. I am especially partial to Monseau and Salvner’s 1992 list, Elements Displayed by YA Lit Today, which certainly reflects Donelson’s list but updates it as well. These authors begin by saying:

Young adult novels have come of age because they have demonstrated the same skillful craftsmanship employed in all good literature and because they have translated to the world of the young adult the same conflicts and issues with which all humans struggle. (Monseau & Salvner, 1992)

The elements they list are:

  • Complex characters that seek to resolve conflicts of tremendous consequence to themselves and the world
  • Vividly drawn minor characters that not only create texture but also advance the actions of the stories and serve as meaningful foils and allies for protagonists
  • Vivid settings — both real and imaginary
  • Plots that hold the reader through deft pacing, skillful use of suspense, and the use of flashbacks and other manipulations of time sequence
  • Experimentation with various points of view from which the stories are told
  • Treatment of thematic issues that matter not only to teens but to all of us: the quest for justice, the savagery of war and hatred, and the struggles for love acceptance, and understanding
    (Adapted from Monseau & Salvner, 1992).

In short, these are thesame elements we find in all masterfully crafted works of fiction!

Making a Match

My basic premise is that when you compare the characteristics of gifted readers — especially their verbal characteristics, the characteristics of books most suited for gifted learners, and the characteristics of young adult literature, you have an almost perfect match. This leads me to the conclusion that young adult literature is highly appropriate for gifted learners, a conclusion that will guide us in making the match between readers and books. This approach has indeed led many gifted readers into positive reading experiences.

When dealing with twice-exceptional learners, then, the process is even more acute, especially if the problem is reading. Whatever the situation, we teach to their strengths to support and strengthen problem areas of learning. At Liberty School in Durango, Colorado, a school for dyslexic, gifted, and twice-exceptional learners, the reading program relies heavily upon young adult literature and we have had some rather excellent success. This genre provides the high-level interest and the appropriate challenge that these students need. Because some special learners, especially older ones, are turned off by “baby” books, the selection of books and literature for these readers becomes even more specialized.

In Conclusion

I have found that young adult literature is a very rich resource, and I conclude with my suggestions for making selections from this genre for gifted and 2e readers. First, know your literature as you help make the match. Remember that YA lit ranges in level from about 8th grade through high school, and the content of some books may be inappropriate for younger gifted readers. Second, consider the interests of the students for whom you are selecting books and be guided by the basic criteria of appropriateness and challenge. Finally, consider the importance of personal choice in determining what a young person will read. (This, in itself, is the topic for another article!)

I think we can readily agree that our goal should be to help gifted and 2e readers — and all other readers — become skilled, passionate, habitual, critical, and creative readers. To do this, we must guide our students into positive reading experiences, taking into consideration their interests and abilities, appropriate challenge levels, and appropriate content.


  • Donelson, K. & Nilsen, A. P. (2008). Literature for today’s young adults, 8th Ed. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
  • Halsted, J. (1988). Guiding gifted readers: from preschool through high school: A handbook for parents, teachers, counselors and librarians. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio Psychology Press (Now Gr
  • Halsted, J. (2009). Some of my best friends are books: Guiding gifted readers from pre-school to high school, 3rd Ed. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
  • Monseau, V. R. & Salvner, G.M. (Eds.). (1992). Reading their world: The young adult novel in the classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Reis, Sally (2011). Schoolwide enrichment model — reading.          

Other Books I Recommend

  • A twell, N. (2007). The reading zone: How to help kids become skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers. New York: Scholastic.
  • Johnsen, S. & Kendrick, J. (Eds.). (2005). Language arts for gifted students. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press, Inc.
  • Lesesne, T. (2003). Making the match. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
  • Monseau, V. (1996). Responding to young adult literature. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.
  • Monseau,V. R. & Salvner, G. M. (Eds.). (2000). Reading their world: The young adult novel in the classroom., 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.
  • Nilsen, A. P., Blasingame, J., Donelson, K., & Nilsen, D. (2012). Literature for today’s young adults,
    9th Ed
    . Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
  • Probst, R. (2004). Response and analysis: Teaching literature in the secondary school, 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Bob Seney

Professor Emeritus Bob Seney is retired from teaching in the Masters of Gifted Studies Program at Mississippi University for Women. He has been 2e Newsletter's children's book columnist since 2007. Reach him at

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