Gifted? Highly Gifted? What’s the Difference?
Deborah L. Ruf, Ph.D., author of 5 Levels of Gifted


Many parents wonder how their children compare to other children. They may suspect their children are gifted (for example, their five-year-old is adding pupils and eyelashes to his drawings of people, or their three-year-old can read an “Exit” sign), but they’re not sure how to prove or disprove it. Proof about giftedness can be critical because it helps parents advocate for their children’s education and provide more opportunities for their kids’ increased growth, enjoyment, and success.

Certain childhood behaviors—called milestones—can tell us whether children are ahead of or behind others their age. Most charts on childhood development show the typical range of behaviors for each age group, and the average gifted child is generally about 30% ahead of these developmental milestones. If your child is developing ahead of those tables, it doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is slated to become the next Doogie Howser, M.D. Levels of giftedness range from those who are simply bright to those who are intellectually astonishing, and it is quite helpful—perhaps even essential—to understand the level of a child’s abilities.

Here’s an overview of the various levels of giftedness and milestones that are common—but not necessary—to each level. It is the overall “feel” of where the child fits that tells you the level. Here, also, are the numbers at each level of giftedness of children in that level that you are likely to find in an average elementary classroom of 28 children.

1. Level One

  • These children show interest in many things before they are even two years old, like colors, saying the numbers in order, and playing simple puzzles.
  • Most of them are good talkers by age three, and by four, many of them print letters and numbers, recognize simple signs and their name, and know most of alphabet.
  • By the time they are six years old, many read beginner books and type at the computer, and most read chapter books by age seven.
  • It is not unusual to find six to eight Level One children in an average classroom. These children are nearly always a few steps ahead of what the teacher is teaching the whole class.

2. Level Two

  • These bright children love looking at books and being read to, and they turn pages without ripping them by 15 months. Some shout out the name of familiar stores as you drive past.
  • Many of these children know lots of letters by 18 months and colors by 20 months, and between ages three and four, they can count small groups of objects, print some letters and numbers, and they very likely drive their parents crazy with all their questions.
  • They’ll sit for what seems like hours as you read advanced-level books, especially fiction and fantasy, to them, but they require a bit less of your time by age six because most of them read for pleasure and information on their own by then.
  • Level Two children usually find only one or two others in their classroom who are as advanced as they are, which starts to make it hard to find close friends.

3. Level Three

  • They’re born wide-eyed and alert, looking around the room, reacting to noises, voices, faces.
  • They know what adults are telling or asking them by six months. When you say the name of a toy, pet, or another person, they will look for it.
  • Everything Level Two children do by 15 months these kids do by 10 to 12 months, and they can get family members to do what they want before they are actually talking.
  • By two years, many like 35+ piece puzzles, memorize favorite books, and know the entire alphabet—in or out of order! 
  • By three years old, they talk constantly, can skip count, count backwards, and do simple adding and subtracting because they like to. They love to print letters and numbers, too.
  • They ask you to start easy readers before five years, and many figure out how to multiply, divide, and do some fractions by six years.
  • Most of these children are a full two to five years beyond grade level by age six and find school too slow for them.
  • There are only one or two Level Three children in every 100 in the average school. They are rarely in the same elementary class and can feel very, very lonely.

4. Level Four

  • Level Four babies love books, someone to read them, and they pay attention within a few months of their birth.
  • They are ahead of Level Three children by another 2 to 5 months when less than two years old. 
  • They have extensive, complex speaking by two years, and their vocabularies are huge!
  • Most of them read easy readers by 3½ to 4½ years, and then read for information and pleasure by age five, with comprehension for youth and adult-level books at about 6 to 6½ years.
  • There generally is only one per 200 children in the average school. Without special arrangements, they can feel very different from their typical classmates.

5. Level Five

  • Level Fives have talents in every possible area. Everything is sooner and more intense than other levels. 
  • They have favorite TV shows before 6 to 8 months, pick out letters and numbers by 10 to 14 months, and enjoy shape sorters before 11 months.
  • They print letters, numbers, words, and their names between 16 and 24 months and often use anything that is available to form these shapes and figures.
  • They show ability with 35+ piece puzzles by less than 15 months and interest in complex mazes before they are three.
  • Musical, dramatic, and artistic aptitudes usually start showing by 18 months.
  • Most speak with adult-level complexity by age two.
  • As two- and three-years-olds, they ask about how things work, and science—particularly biological and life and death questions—emerge.
  • They understand math concepts and basic math functions before age four.
  • They can play card and board games ages 12 and up by age 3½ to 4. 
  • They have high interest in pure facts, almanacs, and dictionaries by age 3½. 
  • Most read any level of book by 4¼ to 5 years.
  • They read six or more years beyond grade level with comprehension by six years and usually hit twelfth-grade level by age 7 or 8.
  • We know they occur more often than once in a million, and we know regular grade school does not work for them. Levels Three through Five score similarly on ability tests—very high.

Why does it matter? For one thing, different levels of gifted need quite different things in school. If they already know how to do something or already have knowledge and understanding of a subject area, they should not have to sit complacently waiting while other children learn the information or skill. Different levels of ability and achievement need lessons and school activities that match their abilities and interests.

Once you have a sense of your children’s abilities, and if the school does not offer any curriculum modifications, you can provide them with more activities and experiences that build on these strengths and take advantage of their talents. It has always been up to parents to provide for music, dance, or karate lessons apart from school. For some gifted children, these lessons or outside-of-school experiences may be the only time they experience challenge or get to follow their own interests.

Parents who have more than one child may notice that each child seems to have different interests and talents, even when we encourage them equally. This is because we don’t cause our children’s abilities; we can only recognize and nurture them. To do less is truly depriving them of chances to do what they are good at and what they enjoy. To do less for our children probably chips away at their potential, too, for how can we get good at the things we don’t get to try or practice?

My work with families of gifted children over the years indicates that there are many more potential geniuses—children who are remarkably intellectually different from their same-age classmates—than most people believe. Your child may well be one of them.

It is my hope that parents and teachers will learn more about the characteristics and behaviors of gifted children and will then “be on the lookout” for them to keep them interested and challenged in school. Some of these children will benefit from some type of acceleration, perhaps moving ahead in a single subject in which they excel. Others may benefit from a mentor relationship with an adult, or special tutoring in a subject that interests them. These gifted and talented children will need adults to provide guidance and opportunities for them to exercise their abilities.


ⓒ2009 by Deborah Ruf, Ph.D.

Deborah Ruf, Ph.D., Minneapolis, specialist in gifted assessment, test interpretation, and guidance for the gifted, served as the National Gifted Children Program Coordinator for American Mensa from 2003 to 2008. Having been a parent, teacher, and administrator in elementary through graduate education, she writes and speaks about school issues, social and emotional adjustment of gifted children, and affective policy for supporting the best educational fit for all students. Her award-winning book 5 Levels of Gifted (2005) summarizes levels of intelligence and highlights exceptionally to profoundly gifted children. See


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