As children who have been introduced to reading through board books and pictures books (How Children Learn to Read Part 1: SIT) get older, they reach a point where they want to do it themselves. I call this stage STAND. And as delightful as picture books are, many are too difficult to be read by children who are just learning how to read. Welcome to a genre called “early readers” or “beginning readers.” The most well-known early readers are the old Dick and Jane books, replaced, thankfully, by the creative Dr. Seuss and all those who followed in his footsteps.
Part 2: STAND
Children learn to read by using two methods: sight words and phonetics. They use these methods singly or, more commonly, they learn both methods. Sight words are short, frequently used words to be recognized on sight. Examples are: the, of, and, you, etc. In our house, we made sight words into magnets, which we stuck to the side of a file cabinet. Every day I arranged words into a silly sentence for my son to read. The drawback of learning only by sight is that children can only read words they have already memorized.
Phonetic reading involves learning the sounds of the letters and how to put them together. Children “sound out words” by making one letter sound at a time and running them together to figure out the word. The first sounds learned are consonants and soft vowels, which are combined into three-letter words called CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant). Examples are: cat, hat, pin, etc. The phonetic method might be a little slower at first, especially in English which is not always phonetic, but children learning to read phonetically can build their skills until they can read almost anything. (Note: Spanish is almost entirely phonetic, so children learning to read Spanish work through one lesson book to learn the sounds and then they can read anything. Must be nice.)
Written as reading primers for children, the Dick and Jane books, first published in 1927, used the method of adding only one new word at a time. This method is designed for children learning sight words. The Dick and Jane books are now remembered for sentences like, “See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.”
Dick and Jane books were regarded by some to be ineffective and boring, so when Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was given a list of acceptable words and asked to write something more entertaining, his debut early reader, The Cat in the Hat (1957) was immediately popular. The story goes that Geisel whined so much about the limited number of words he was allowed to use (there are only 236 distinct words in the book), that his publisher bet him he couldn’t write a book using only 50. Geisel answered the bet by writing Green Eggs and Ham.
When children first learn to read, they are very slow readers. Therefore, the easiest early reader books have only a few words on each page, usually in very large print. As the difficulty increases, the number of words on a page also increases and the font size decreases. The difficulty of the words also increases. Early readers at all levels have tons of illustrations which are much more than simply cosmetic – they also give children important clues about the words to be read.
The Cat in the Hat forever changed the world of children’s reading primers, but you still have to be a little careful when choosing books for a new reader. There are several major publishers who have sets of graded early readers, and unfortunately there is no consistency in the reading levels from one publisher to the next. A Level 2 Step into Reading is a different level than an I Can Read Level 2 or a DK Level 2 or a National Geographic Level 2. For example, the hardest words in one publisher’s Level 2 book might be “tomorrow” or “window.” A different publisher’s Level 2 might use words like “predator” and “turtle” while a third publisher considers “communicate” and “intelligent” to be Level 2 words. It’s kind of crazy. Just because you write “Millenium” or “Falcon” in a really large font doesn’t make it a Level 2 word.
The only way to judge whether an early reader is an appropriate reading level for a child is to know how well the child reads and take a look through the reader. Or, you can check out the Lexile level. Lexile is a measuring tool that helps parents and teachers determine appropriate reading materials for young readers. The best range for a child to read is a little under to a little over their current level. If you have a book that your child enjoys reading, you can look up the Lexile level for that book and that will give you a good starting place. (If you want to know more, check out my post: Understanding Lexile Levels for a more detailed explanation of Lexile levels and look at the online tools at https://lexile.com/.)
The most important thing, though, is that the child get lots of practice reading at the early readers level. Practice counts even if the books are on the easy side of the child’s reading ability. What they are doing is building up reading speed, and speed is important before the child tackles longer books (the WALK stage). So don’t rush the early reader stage (STAND). Make use of school and public libraries to provide opportunities for the newly reading child to read lots and lots and lots of early readers.
Next up: How Children Learn to Read Part 3: WALK