Can I Take That Book Home?

What could be more fun than to be a literacy learning geek who gets to hang out with our four year old grandson. Talk about observing early reading up close! Morgan was here last week, and asked to take a book home with him for the very first time. That inspired this post.

I've written before about texts for beginning readers, but this time I think I'll write out excerpts from the books Morgan most enjoys and think aloud on the topic. I'll follow these with an excerpt from a phonics-based (or decodable reader) so we can all see/hear the differences. To get the full benefit, you will want to read the excerpts aloud.

I advocate that from the earliest ages, readers experience a range of reading engagements--a structure I worked out over months of reading with Nick. I've simplified these to three (beyond reading aloud), to help teachers and parents try their own hand at them.

In addition to hearing books read aloud, readers benefit from 1) independent reading from books they read on their own after hearing them read aloud several times. In school these are often called "just right books" or leveled readers. Next, readers benefit from 2) shared reading experiences, where they read along with a more experienced reader, taking a part or chiming in as they are able. Finally, readers should 3) read books about topics of keen interest. At early ages, this might mean reading the pictures, or reading captions, or asking someone to read pages that most interest them.

Here is how my suggestion plays out with four year old Morgan.

Independent Reading
Morgan's favorite book to read independently is the one he asked to take home. I read it to him several times before he started chiming in on the second or third page. Now he reads it on his own, using his memory of the predicable pattern and the pictures to read the text.

Before I Go to School

Before I go to school
I make my bed

Before I go to school
I put on my clothes

Before I go to school
I eat my breakfast

Before I go to school
I wash my face

Before I go to school
I brush my teeth

Before I go to school
I put on my backpack

Now I'm ready to go to school!

While these "just right books" for early readers offer simple stories, the language patterns that are easy to reread invite young readers to pick them up again and again. I have 10-12 of these kind of books on hand to read with Morgan, yet this is the first one that he has asked to take home. All readers have preferences, and it's amazing how early they kick in!

(This book was a sample from a collection of "leveled" books at school, and is the most difficult for parents to find for purchase. I"ll do some research on this issue and post suggestions soon.)

Shared Reading
Morgan chimes along with many books, but these are two favorites. The first is David Shannon's popular, NO, David!

David's mom always said, No David!
No, David! (as he reaches for the cookie jar)
No, David, no! (as he tracks mud in the house)
No! No! No! (as the bathtub water overflows)
Come back here, David! (as he runs down the street in the nude)
DAVID! BE QUIET! (as he bangs on a pan)
Don't play with your food!
That's enough, David! (as he chews with his mouth open)

This book is compelling to Morgan, and although it's longer and more complex than Before I Go to School, it's also more supportive of his emerging letter/sound knowledge. He focuses on the name David ("like Daddy"), and the word NO, and looks more closely at the actual print than he does in Before I Go to School. Yet, my guess is that he asked to take Before I Go to School home because he currently relates to it (he goes to preschool three days a week) and he feels most successful reading it.

Another favorite shared reading is Pig Pig Grows Up, by David McPhail.

Pig Pig was the baby of the family. His brothers and sisters had grown up and left home long ago. But Pig Pig refused to grow up. (picture of Pig Pig in the sandbox)

He still wore his sleep suit, though it was too tight, and he continued to sleep in his crib, even though his feet hung over the end. (picture of a very big pig squeezed into a crib)

At breakfast, Pig Pig sat in his high chair. He ate Pablum and strained fruit.
Pig Pig's mother grew tired of it. "You're a big pig now, Pig Pig," she said. "You've got to grow up."

But when she took away his old blanket and bought him a real bed, he sobbed like a baby all night long.

On this last page above, I read "his old blanket and his binky ..." as Morgan gave up his binky last summer. He scrutinizes the illustrations in this longer text, and asks to hear it at least once a day.

Reading about a keen interest
Morgan's favorite nonfiction book these days is Trains. This is hardly a surprise, as trains have been his most intense interest for two years. He's happy to hear the text read aloud, or to look at the pictures and to name the different kinds of trains: passenger train, locomotive, freight train, bullet train. He recognizes the Amtrak train he rode to Portland, and after hearing the term "sleeper cars," asks, "How do you sleep there?" He is most verbal when reading this book.

What makes these texts successful?
No doubt your predictions are similar to mine: These books focus on topics from his life, topics of interest, and topics that pique his curiosity. The language is also rich, and and he can figure out new concepts (sleep suit, pablum, sleeper car) based on the illustrations and his own experiences.

Reading theory suggests that Morgan is able to use all three cueing systems as he reads along with me: 1) grapho-phonemic, or letter/sound knowledge (what people often call phonics), 2) syntax (grammar system), or how language sounds, and 3) semantics, or the meaning of the text. Taken together, these three systems at play fully support readers. This complex support frees him to zero in on NO, or David ("like Daddy"), or to repeat lines that stay with him in other contexts ("Just this once!" he recently said to me, quoting the title and repetitious refrain from another of his favorite books).
In contrast ...
There are other educators who advocate for a simpler theory of early reading that focuses on just one of the cueing systems, phonics. It begins with individual sounds that are taught and combined (sounded out) to make simple words. These are paired with a short list of sight words (words that can't be sounded out and that are memorized) to create decodable readers. Here is an example:

The Wig

Tag is a pup.
Kit is a cat.
Kit ran to get Tag. (an outline of a cat scampering after a dog)

Peg has a wig.
The wig is wet. (an outline of a girl with a dripping wig on a wig stand)

Peg set the wig on a big log.
The log is in the sun.
It is hot in the sun.

The log got wet.
Peg ran to get a rag.

Tag ran up to the log.
The pup can get the wig.

Reading a text like this one is an exercise. I can't imagine curling up in bed to read it, or what connections Morgan might possibly make. When it crossed my mind to try it out on him, I realized I wouldn't even waste the time it would take to do that. Too many books, too little time!

An invitation
I'll end this post with an invitation to try your hand at any of these reading engagements with the young readers in your life, or to share an experience that came to mind as you read. I would love to hear from you!

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