Reading with Beginning Readers, Ages 6 & 9

In response to my first post, Jacqueline asks about the kinds of literacy curricula used in primary classrooms and how she might play a backup role when what's happening in her daughter's classroom is not what she hopes for. I'll try to keep this post both simple and helpful, and focus here on reading.

What can a parent look for?

* Instances of best practices in reading (the original organization of more/less comes from Zemelman, Daniels & Hyde, and also includes writing, math, and science). These lists can help you think about general increases and decreases i
n particular teaching practices over the last 10-15 years. We know, for instance, that asking children to read "round robin" (or sitting in a group reading one at a time) is less effective than pairs of students reading and talking together.
* A 90 minute literacy block. Kids might also be using reading and writing across the day, so consider this a general rule.
* A range of literacy materials, including different kinds of writing materials and pens/pencils. A large assortment of print materials, including picture books, big books, "just right" books, poetry, and nonfiction. Charts on the wall likely include ideas like how to choose the right book or what to do when you're reading and get stuck.

When I worked with fourth grader Nick, who started the
year reading much like a kindergartner, and when I worked with Maris to determine her strengths as a first grader, I used three kinds of reading engagements. Their moms also read aloud with them regularly, so I've added read aloud as a fourth engagement.

Look for these kinds of reading in the classroom, and if they're not yet in place, you can try them yourself at home. I'll list three characteristics of each one in the school setting, and then how they played out with Nick over many months and with Maris in 2 hours.

• Purposefully chosen texts.
• Read aloud, with feeling!
• Few interruptions so listeners keep the momentum of the reading. Read again and talk about your responses.

Both Nick's and Maris's families read aloud with their kids on a regular basis. This NCTE resource includes strategies and sure fire read aloud titles: Read Together: Parents & Teachers Working Together for Literacy. IRA also offers parent resources.

• Many kinds of print materials and genre available for students to read.
• The books keep the students engaged as readers--not too simple to disinterest the reader or too difficult for them to stick with the reading.
• In primary grades, students may read quietly aloud, alone or in partners.

The books I used with both of these readers are the Benchmark and Bridging books from the Dominie Reading & Writing Assessment Portfolio, by Diane DeFord (the kid books are available separately on a school purchase order), but there are many good options. Often called leveled readers, these books are organized by difficulty and allow one to predict a reader's approximate grade level. With beginning readers I read each book first, then invite the child to read it. With this support, Nick was quickly able to read first grade books, and within a month or two, books at the second grade level. We did this kind of reading for 20-30 minutes a day, and he read several of them repeatedly over 10-12 days before setting them aside.

Maris readily read one of the first grade books, giving me an indication of her ability as a reader. I recommend that interested parents ask to check out "just right" books from the school if they aren't currently available for homework reading. And if you're not
sure if a particular book is a good one for your child, read it aloud. If you enjoy it, it's likely your child will too. If not, enough said!

• Engaging texts that all readers can see and read together.
• Texts available for readers to later read independently or in small groups.
• Use to support readers as they participate in reading texts beyond their current ability.

This strategy--whether used with songs or poetry or chapter books--helps readers read texts along with you that they wouldn't be able to read alone. I used Roald Dahl's Enormous Crocodile with Nick, a slim chapter book with outrageous characters and absurd events. The story contains a lot of dialogue, and with me taking the role of narrator, he was soon able to chime in as one of the characters. I read quietly along with him if he got stuck, keeping the emphasis on the story and expressive reading. Reading short chapter books like this one helped Nick see that his skills were much closer to his peers than he might have believed.

Maris and I read Mouse Tales together. She really enjoyed the story and read her part with gusto, putting a smile on her mom's face. Books like these are readily available in school and public libraries. The Fox books by Edward and James Marshal are also favorites. This strategy is called Readers Theater if you invite a few other young readers to join you.

• Opportunities to study a topic of interest.
• Text sets of materials compiled to explore the topics and answer learners' questions.
• Opportunities for learners to study their topics firsthand (i.e. creating their own rocket, or observing birds at a bird feeder) and then to use the text sets to learn more.

Nick and I first explored books on soccer (he is a highly skilled soccer player) and then settled on studying crows together. We talked about what Nick knew (crows live in the neighborhood and chase other birds) and what he was interested in learning (what does 'caw caw' mean, where else do crows live), and then took our cameras to the beach to watch them in action. In two hours we took over 50 photos, watched a crow pecking the eyeball out of dead fish, and watched several flocks of crows feeding on the ground while a sentry looked out from a tree top.

When we returned home, Nick browsed bird books with enthusiasm. Over the next month we created a PowerPoint presentation with text, photos and video footage to document everything we'd learned. Studying crows was an engaging inquiry for both of us.

In preparing for my session with Maris, I gathered books on several topics that I predicted would interest a first grader, and I had guessed right. She chose two books on big cats (one was a Zoobook and the other a 30 page "show me book" for young readers from the Dominie materials). I offered each of us post-its and asked her to mark three interesting pages from the book she preferred. After a few minutes we shared. She chose each of her pages with photos because they were "cute." I then shared mine: a page that showed 8-9 different big cats, as I can still confuse ocelots and jaguars; a picture that showed a Siberian tiger, with a caption that stated that each tiger has a unique striping pattern; and a picture of a mother lion licking her cub (I admit it--I told her I chose that one because it was cute!). When we met with mom, I asked Maris to share both of our marked pages, and she surprised us by reading the italicized caption about tiger striping patterns. It seemed likely to me that Maris had not yet been asked to use her developing literacy skills to learn about the world around her. I was happy to report to mom that she was well on her way as a reader.

Finally, I advocate for such a range of reading engagements from the beginning, as without them, young readers are offered the most simplistic and meaningless texts, e.g. Dan can fan the man. Can the man fan Dan? The man can fan Dan. (The actual words from a book I used early in my career!) One guideline is that books should always sound like real language. A second is that it's never too early to learn through reading!

I know this is a lot of information, but there is nothing I would love more than to hear from parents who give one or more of these reading engagements a try!

If you would like academic information on learning to read, you might be interested in a position paper on the topic from NCTE's Commission on Reading.



Most young kids come to school eager to read and write and learn. If all goes well, teachers tap into the knowledge that kids have developed during their first years of life--about literacy and the world in general--and provide the rich experiences that launch these fledgling learners into the world of schooling.

But we all know kids that haven't connected easily with school, and the reasons vary. Do you recognize stories like these?

1. Scott was a kid who struggled with the simplistic reading books used in his first grade classroom, yet loved planes and would sketch jets and browse books about them by the hour. He came to my multi-age primary classroom as a second grader, and a beginning reader who had few literacy skills. He lacked confidence as a learner in school.

2. Tyler was reading when he started kindergarten, and there was a clear mismatch between the curriculum that focused on learning letters and sounds and his literacy skills. His teacher viewed kindergarten as a place to teach beginning readers and said she wasn't able to teach him within that context. A year later, he entered a 1st-3rd grade multi-age classroom as one of the youngest students, as a very experienced reader, yet disengaged from school.

3. Anne was the mother of a quiet and deliberative six-year old daughter. Anne volunteered in the classroom twice a week, and was unsure if her daughter was on target as a first grader. What could help her know?

4. Phil was a business owner who reported that he struggled to read the materials that could help him advance his work. His perceptions of himself as a reader were shaped in his first years of school, and were further defined by being the only sibling in his family without a college degree. His view of his reading skills was a mismatch with the thoughtful adult I spoke with who reads the New Yorker for enjoyment.

5. Nick was entering the fourth grade reading like a beginning reader. Based on the school's recommendation he had attended two years of remedial tutoring and summer school. Although he was bright in many ways, his literacy skills had not developed despite the suggested help. It was getting harder and harder for his mother to get him up for school.

This blog is dedicated to ending the frustration that kids and families feel when there's a mismatch between kids' learning and the experience of school. This forum allows us to think through the issues and to problem solve together.

Learners "struggle" for a reason. The reason usually becomes clear when we spend time with them and pay close attention. The problem is rarely that there is something wrong with a reader. Usually, they become confused about reading, often because of their experiences in learning to read and write. Clearing up their confusions is the first step toward successful learning.

One final point: I haven't found it helpful to label children. Referring to learners as lazy or learning disabled or at-risk (the latter two relate to funding categories) hasn't been helpful to me in teaching children to read. What we can do instead is listen to children and learn from them. I am committed to helping you do the same, whether you are the parent, grandparent, teacher, or foster parent of a kid whose learning is not yet on track.