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.


  1. Kathy,

    The parents and kids in Seattle are lucky to have you in their back yard. I wish you were still in mine!! :) I was informed by Shelby's teacher last night that she has assessed her at a 3rd grade reading level (Shelby is in 5th grade). I don't doubt this assessment, but I find it so frustrating that the teacher offers this assessment without many helpful suggestions for how we can help boost her up to grade level. I am confident that her problems lie in a lack of decoding skills and a lack of strategies for figuring out words that she doesn't know. I listen to Shelby read aloud daily and she repeatedly makes up gibberish for words she doesn't know and just keeps on going. I ask "Did that make sense?" or "What just happened?" and she often has no idea. She also often claims to "forget" what she just read. I am trying to help her focus on breaking words down to the root to make it easier for her to figure out, as well as thinking about what would make sense, questioning if what she just read made sense, looking it up if she has to... And then summarizing/retelling what happened at the end of a chapter. All of this creates more frustration for her because she doesn't want to read and wants to get it over with as soon as possible. So she is mad at me for making her read with me, but this is the only certain individual help she is receiving. Her teacher claims to listen to her read on occasion but I'm not seeing proof of individual instruction. She offered to do further assessment to see if she could benefit from some computer program the school has--I assume this is a phonics skill/drill type of software but not really sure. I certainly don't have expertise in teaching reading, and I haven't had luck finding someone to work with her individually. So we keep plugging away. :(

  2. Hi Leslie,
    Here's a hint I learned from working with lots of struggling readers as a Title I teacher: Tell the child in advance that you are going to ask, "Did that make sense?" and that you might ask it at times when the reading DID make seense, or maybe it didn't. Then do so. This encourages the child to anticipate your quesiton and therefore to get in the habit of monitoring whether their reading does make sense. (If you only ask, "Did that make sense?" when apparently it didn't, the child just sees the question as a marker of a mistake, not as an encouragement to pay attention to meaning.

    Good luck!

  3. Kathy,
    I just read your suggestion and realize that in fact I almost only ask her if what she read makes sense when it DIDN'T. And she is smart enough to know this. That is certainly something to change!! She HATES reading. Absolutely hates it. And hates me for making her do it. She just finished reading Rules by Cynthia Lord. It's a good story--a girl about Shelby's age who has an autistic brother and tries really really hard to have a 'normal' life w/ friends etc but struggles with being embarrassed about her brother being 'different.' It has some good humor and the girl likes a lot of the things Shelby likes--art, hanging w/ friends, music. I listen to her read and occassionally jump in and read a page here or there to give her a break. And we discuss at the end of each chapter. Should be a good experience but she dreads having to do it and I can't blame her. She is so focused on trying to read the words that she can't just relax and enjoy the story. Of course comprehension is key to being able to recall events in order to pass the dreaded AR tests. I'm happy to report that she passed the Rules test with flying colors, but I know this is a direct result of the intense support I'm providing.

    Here is the latest. My sister in law is a reading covery trained teacher and reading specialist (unfortantely she lives a couple hours away and we don't see her often). She did a basic reading assessment with Shelby to try to pinpoint what we need to focus on. Her decoding is very weak, which I'd already figured out on my own. My sister in law feels that we need to find someone to work with Shelby using a multi-sensory approach (she mentioned SLANT or Wilson's). She isn't a believe in focusing heavily on phonics instruction but thinks this is the root of Shelby's issue. Of course Shelby's teacher can't provide this type of support and heck if I know how. So I'm on the hunt for someone who can work with her but not having much luck. So the frustration continues!

  4. Thinking about establishing an independent reading program this year? Learn how to match reading levels of texts to reading levels of your students without time-consuming assessments. Also, learn how much independent reading is needed to make grade to grade progress. Check out How to Choose the Right Book.