Morphogen gradients expose cells to different signal concentrations and induce target genes with different ranges of expression. To determine how the Nodal morphogen gradient induces distinct gene expression patterns during zebrafish embryogenesis, we measured the activation dynamics of the signal transducer Smad2 and the expression kinetics of long- and short-range target genes. We found that threshold models based on ligand concentration are insufficient to predict the response of target genes. Instead, morphogen interpretation is shaped by the kinetics of target gene induction: the higher the rate of transcription and the earlier the onset of induction, the greater the spatial range of expression. Thus, the timing and magnitude of target gene expression can be used to modulate the range of expression and diversify the response to morphogen gradients.