10-21-11: Beyond Hop on Pop

October 21, 2011 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

"Jack and the Box" by Art Spiegelman tops Paula's pile of beginning reader books. Photo by Stephanie Hughes.


Educators say that there is now more pressure than ever before to teach kids to read as early as possible.  Baltimore City and County Public Schools have an academic kindergarten curriculum, which means that kindergartners are expected to learn to read.

When a child is ready to read, there’s no doubt that her family will play a major role in that process.  Choices for beginning readers have come a long way since the McGuffy Reader and Dr. Suess.  Tom talks about the options with Paula Willey, a librarian at the Towson Branch of the Baltimore County Public Library.  She’s also writes about books for children and young adults at her blog, Pink Me.

Paula says that reading of any kind is beneficial. Reading to the kid, reading together, even reading to yourself in the general vicinity of a child. Board games that involve reading, a grocery list on the fridge, books and magazines on the coffee table. And then every day, you want to sit down and read together – the more the better.

A few of the techniques she recommends:

There’s taking turns, or reading dialogue. A good book for this is I Love My New Toy by Mo Willems

There’s echo reading. Try out The Cat on the Mat is Flat by Andy Griffiths

We tend to think of “sounding it out” as the primary way to gain access to an unfamiliar word, but if you think about the way that you, as an adult, read, sounding it out is only one tactic.

  • Hints based on context.
  • Or the illustrations.
  • You can prepare to read the book by doing cued reading. EXAMPLE: Boy, Bird, and Dog by David McPhail
  • Giving the kid the word is not cheating.
  • None of this is cheating.

How about picking out books? What do you look for in a Beginning Reader?

When you get to the Beginning Reader section at the library, you’ll notice that the books seem a bit formulaic. These books are brief – no more than seven words per line – no more than 13 lines per page, and no more than 200 to 300 lines per book. Rhyme and repetition strengthen associations, so frankly, they can be a little mind-numbing.

I always look for a book that has interesting, colorful pictures – even if the text has to be simple, the pictures can still be great.

EXAMPLE: Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin.

What about reading level? Some of these books seem to have a letter or a number, or they’re color coded as to difficulty.

Each publisher has a different system for coding their Easy Readers. DK, Scholastic, and Random House. Can be difficult to keep them straight, and sometimes you can get locked in to a mindset – “Oh, he’s a 2.”

It can be more efficient to ignore the “level” of a book and instead try to match the kind of book the child likes – exciting, or funny, or about animals, a mystery, or a book about friends – and then open the book and see if the kid is up to it. If she’s really struggling to get through a line, it’s no big deal to put the book back and say, “We’ll try this one again next month.” Or if she insists, because the interest level is there, go ahead and take the book, but be sure to take a couple more that will be a walk in the park.

What about when a kid has memorized his favorite book, and isn’t really reading it, but just saying the words he knows are there?

Still not cheating. Every time he says those words with the page open in front of him, it is reinforcing the relationship between the word he’s saying and the word he sees. Keep your finger following on the text, or encourage him to. Boosts confidence too.

Are there advantages and disadvantages to certain types of Easy Readers?

  • Funny books offer a big laugh as the payoff for all the hard work of reading. The Cat On the Mat is Flat has a sequel, The Big Fat Cow that Goes Kapow! The Elephant and Piggie books always have a little freakout in the middle, for blowing off steam. I also recommend the Fly Guy books by Tedd Arnold, Minnie and Moo by Denys Cazet, and my new favorite, Stinky by eleanor Davis.
  • But there are gentler, less slapstick Beginning Readers that are good for bedtime reading. I start with Little Bear and then recommend Iris and Walter by Elissa Haden Guest. Bink & Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, the Dodsworth books by Tim Egan, and Ling & Ting by Grace Lin are all totally charming.
  • Olivia, Fancy Nancy, Little Critter – these are picture book characters who also appear in Beginning Readers. This is a nice segue for little kids – they can begin reading about a character they already know and love.

Licensed characters

Barbie, Thomas the Tank Engine, SpongeBob, Scooby-Doo – these licensed characters all have their Beginning Reader books. A lot of parents find these books kind of tedious and unoriginal, but stories about familiar characters can be very comforting to kids entering the reading world.

I often recommend that parents use these books as incentive for solo reading. I stole this idea from a friend of mine – after her son gained a little expertise, she very nicely explained that the Pokemon books were just not her taste. She encouraged him to pick some of them out to take home, but she said he was going to have to read them on his own. Then they would pick out a bunch of other books that they both would enjoy.

I like this for a couple of reasons – some kids need a little push to admit that they can read whole books on their own, and then they’re so proud when they do. And I think it’s an expression of respect to tell a kid, “This is what you like, you have your own taste, and it’s different from mine.”

Paula’s Recommendations
Shared reading should be something that you both can look back on with pleasure. Pick books that are easy and fun, and find a technique – or a mix of techniques – that works for you. Any time spent with words is time well spent, especially at a young age.

Here are some fun, friendly books to try:

Arnold, Tedd. Fly Guy (funny series)

Becker, Bonny. A Birthday for Bear (picture book crossover)

Cazet, Denys. Minnie and Moo (funny animal series)

Cushman, Doug. Dirk Bones (mystery series)

Griffiths, Andy. The Cat on the Mat is Flat and its sequel, The Big Fat Cow that Goes Kapow!

Guest, Elissa Haden. Iris and Walter (sweet series about friendship)

Hoff, Syd. Syd Hoff (Danny and the Dinosaur, Grizzwold) wrote many classic Easy Readers, all very appealing.

Kann, Victoria. Pinkalicious. These extremely popular picture books cross over to Beginning Reader.

Kolar, Bob. Astroblast: Code Blue. Clever visual puzzles give this book extra added value.

Lin, Grace. Ling & Ting: Not exactly the same!

Litwin, Eric. Pete the Cat. Many picture books have simple enough text to be used as Easy Readers. The Pete the Cat books are so repetitive and and have such good visual cues that extremely young children can “read” them.

Lobel, Arnold. All of Lobel’s books, like the Frog and Toad books, are lovely and gentle.
Manushkin, Fran. Katie Woo (series – friendship)

You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You. This series solves the problem of “how do you have a story if it can only have 22 lines?” by alternating super-simple text on one page with longer passages on the facing page.

McPhail. Boy, Bird, and Dog. Very sweet, for very early readers.

Minarik, Elsie Holmes. The Little Bear books are perfect bedtime books.

O’Connor, Jane. The immensely popular Fancy Nancy stars in Easy Readers too.

Rylant, Cynthia. Henry and Mudge (funny series about a boy and his dog)

Sharmat, Nick. Nate the Great. (mystery series)

Spiegelman, Art. Jack and the Box. Short, slapstick graphic novel for early readers.

Suen, Anastasia. Robot and Rico (funny series about friendship)

Willems, Mo. Cat the Cat. Mo’s series for the earliest reader.

Willems, Mo. Piggie & Elephant. These books are written in dialogue – they’re very funny, they usually have a freak-out in the middle for blowing off steam during the hard work of reading, and they’re drawn with an expressive economy.

Entry filed under: Books, Education, On Air. Tags: , , .

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