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Early Reading Instruction

I decided that my older daughter was ready for more formal reading instruction when she started picking out common words in our stories and asking more questions about the texts themselves. She seemed to be initiating a move toward more independent reading, and I wanted to support and encourage her efforts appropriately. The resources I provide here represent what I found useful in helping my elder child start reading independently. I can imagine a different list of resources for a different child, but this post covers a lot of basic principles that early readers need to master in order to achieve independent literacy.

We started by building on PHONEMIC AWARENESS, the ability to isolate individual sounds within a word. Here’s what we used: Meet the Phonics! (Letter Sounds, Blends, and Digraphs) from the Preschool Prep Company. They can be played in full or broken in to lessons, and they helped my daughter connect her visual understanding of letters to the many sounds they can make, alone and in combinations. The animation is helpful and the sounds are instructive as well as cute.

From there, we moved to Meet the Sight Words! (also from the Preschool Prep Company). This series covered words commonly appearing in children’s picture books. Many of the words are not phonetic, so memorizing them as SIGHT WORDS (words that a reader recognizes instantly, by sight) is useful. The sheer volume of sight words also gave my daughter confidence that she could look at a page in her picture book and already know many of the words.

Once my daughter had a large repertoire of sight words, we worked on RHYMES. We made lists starting with a common sight word (like “at”) and added letters (“cat, bat, mat,” etc.). We practiced this with written lists and letter magnets, and I saw the way it built my daughter’s confidence to branch out from the sight words. It also gave us the chance to talk about words that contain sight words but change the sound (like “one, bone, gone”). Getting accustomed to those shifts takes awareness of the context and lots of repetition, just like so many other skills. For books that highlight rhymes and building on sight words, we turned to a lot of Dr. Seuss books, and the series of Bright and Early Books and Beginner Books.

Knowledge of sight words also helps with a skill I call CHUNKING, where my daughter can break up a longer, more daunting word into its parts. This works well for compound words (like “daytime”) and longer ones like “bringing” where she can sound out the digraph and the double “ing.” Strong readers always have multiple strategies for approaching a text, and phonemic awareness, sight words, chunking, and things like visual cues that children use even as pre-readers can work together to strengthen literacy skills. We used these skills at first with simple board books and books with only a few words (like Jez Alborough’s Hug, Tall, and Yes or Peggy Rathman’s classic Goodnight Gorilla). The idea of reading entire books on her own gave my daughter a sense of pride and accomplishment.

As she has advanced, we’ve worked with the I Can Read! Series that provides books at different levels depending on a reader’s ability, and my elder child especially likes the silliness of the Elephant and Piggie series, another great option for early readers. I also returned to a lot of board books that we haven’t read in years to balance books that push my daughter’s abilities and books that build her confidence. I encouraged her to sit down with copies of Little Bear and Frog and Toad, which we own in print and audio format; her task was to keep up with the audio version while following the printed text. Since she already has many of these stories memorized, the process reinforced the connection between phonemes and graphemes (the sound of the word and the written word); it also encourages FLUENCY, because she had to keep up with an expressive, experienced reader. We also love Barefoot Books story and CD combinations for the same emphasis on great stories with great storytelling for fluent, expressive reading. We also co-read with her and read aloud to her ourselves to demonstrate expression and fluency, not to mention our familial love of stories. We still regularly read aloud from books well beyond her own reading level (like chapter books) because, for most people, auditory comprehension is strongest and she can enjoy many levels of stories this way.

To further enhance the link between auditory language that she’s been learning since the womb and the world of print, we watched familiar movies with captions on. We also enjoyed Scholastic’s Storybook Treasures series that features a read along option, and lots of sing-alongs from Disney that show the word-by-word connections in some of their favorite songs. We have also co-written a lot of stories together, where my daughter dictates and I type, or she writes and draws. Using her own language and “publishing” her own books strengthens the relationship between her own reading, writing, and awareness of print.

For more information about the academic research behind a lot of these concepts, see Dr. Bonnie Armbruster’s “Research-Based Instruction in Reading.” As I write about this process, everything seems quite orderly and sequential, but I want to stress that learning to read is not always (or even often) linear and regularly involves doubling back. My daughter started to read long before we began working on phonemic awareness or even learning the alphabet, and her journey will continue long past sounding out words. My greatest desire is to instill in her a love of learning, to foster her creativity and curiosity, and to facilitate her entrance into worlds of wonder as she opens each book; this most recent adventure is one step along that path.


Reading Empathy

There are many reasons to read; typically, literacy education emphasizes young children learning to read so that later in their scholastic careers they can read to learn. Information retrieval is a significant feat, and one, it turns out, that most students aren’t that good at. I think reading for pleasure—or, more to the point—joy, is at least as important as reading for fact-finding.

It turns out that reading fiction in particular can also develop audiences’ empathy. Dr. Keith Oatley finds that the more readers are moved by fictional characters, the more those same readers are likely to help others in the real world. I’m not surprised by his results, since fiction helps transport us to other cultures and often, through narrative choices, gives us the perspective of characters we’d otherwise never encounter.

In response to Oatley’s study, I’ve devised some interesting reading experiments for my preschooler. We start with a fairytale or folktale in an “authoritative” edition (though by no means does that mean that the story is without history or history of revisions) and then read multiple revisions of the same story. So, one trajectory looks something like this:

  1. Read Paul Galdone’s The Three Little Pigs, in which a mother pig sends her offspring out into the world and only the clever piglet survives the wily wolf.
  2. Read The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieska and Lane Smith. Here, a genteel wolf explains that the classic folktale is really a colossal misunderstanding. In his defense, it all started with granny’s birthday cake.
  3. Read The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury. The title makes the role reversal clear here, but the ending provides less trickery, less conspiracy theorizing, and more compassion. These wolves are serious about security, and they’re imaginative builders too.
  4. Read Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Walls for a loosely-inspired (if that) but excellent story about a girl and a pig puppet who outsmart a houseful of wolves.
  5. Watch Silly Symphony’s “The Three Little Pigs” for a distinctly historicized glimpse of Walt Disney cartoons from the 1930’s. Using music to propel the narrative and provide characterization, this story provides a less fatal but perhaps more cruel rendition of the classic tale.
  6. Listen to Lucienne Vernay’s song “Le Grand Méchant Loup,” which provides a French version of the little pigs’ story. Her music is charming, vibrant, and memorable—and it illustrates how this story, like so many, changes in each retelling.

These stories can inspire empathy, evoke joy, and change us in each retelling, too. By highlighting narrative shifts in perspective, this experiment allows readers to see each character in multiple ways. It reminds us that there’s more than one side to every story, that stories and their characters are complex, and that sometimes, perspective is everything.

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