Mommy I Can READ: Teaching Your Emergent Reader

Confession. In my 9 years of teaching in the classroom I never taught a child to read…at least not from scratch. By the time my 2nd and 3rd grade students reached my class, the foundations of reading had already been instilled in them by their wonderful preschool, kindergarten and first grade teachers. They arrived at my classroom door already knowing their letters, sounds, sight words and how to put them together into meaningful sentences- my job was to perfect and refine those skills, to build confidence and comprehension. Even my students who spoke only Spanish came to me with reading skills in their own language upon which I could build. All of that being said, this whole “teaching a young child to read” thing is completely new- and wonderful and exciting- to me. I have learned so much and I wanted to write a blog about it so that maybe I can help you along your journey too!

First- the very foundation of reading is the alphabet. Before you start any reading instruction with your child, they should know most- if not all- of their letter sounds and names. Otherwise you’re just going to end up with a frustrated kiddo (and probably a frustrated parent!) and the process won’t be enjoyable. Kids are ready to read at different ages and that is ok and normal! I repeat- it’s NORMAL! From what I’ve read, most littles are ready between the ages of 5 and 6. In fact, they don’t even need to be reading before kindergarten, but if they’re ready, why not give it a go! Ok so back to letters- I incorporate letter practice into my weekly lesson plans in ways that are hands on and fun, and also go over letters that my little is still mastering during our calendar time. During calendar I keep our letter practice fluid- for example, my little was into flashcards for awhile, so we used them as a tool to practice letter names and sounds, but after a few months he got tired of them so we switched it up to doing a more focused “letter of the week”. Whatever learning style your little is in to- run with it! If learning is fun and meaningful, they’re going to be more willing participants and will probably learn more too! As your child is working on letter mastery, it’s completely perfect and 100% appropriate to read aloud to them (actually, I encourage reading aloud to your little as long as they find it enjoyable! It builds oral vocabulary and fluency, and opens the world of books beyond their reading level to their little imaginations- plus it’s a great way to spend quality time together!) Make reading together something fun, cozy, enjoyable and daily.

Once your preschooler has learned most of their letters, you can try introducing simple, repetitive books to them in order to teach them to read. Now this is where I hit a bit of a snafu and had to do some research…and where I got the inspiration for this blog post! Many of the “early reader” books like Biscuit and Mittens are simple- but still WAY too wordy for an emergent reader (teacher talk for a child who is just starting to learn to read). I thought it might be helpful if I shared the books I’ve found (and we were successful with) for the very beginnings of reading instruction just beyond learning the alphabet. These books are the simplest of the simple- think 0-4 words per page…yes I said zero…let me explain!

First, it may be helpful to start with books that have no words at all. Many children’s books have wonderful pictures that help tell the story, and pictures are an important tool your little can and should be taught to turn to when he or she gets stuck as a reader- either on a word, or in the comprehension of a story. Books like “Good Dog Carl” (there are a few of these- all by Alexandra Day), “Fossil” by Bill Thomson and “Flashlight”by Lizi Boyd all tell the story in pictures with very few, if any, words. To use these books, explain to your little that today THEY are going to be a reader, but that they will be reading a very special book- one with ONLY pictures! Explain to them that pictures are very important because they help tell the story, and sometimes even give extra details that the words don’t tell you! If you’d like to model the first few pictures of the story you’re reading to show your little how to “read the pictures”, that would probably be helpful so they know what you’re talking about. To read the pictures, just describe all the things you see happening in the illustration. Then have your little give it a try. If they get stuck, you can always ask them prompting questions, or point out parts of the picture and ask them to describe what they see happening. It doesn’t have to sound like you’re telling a story- just discussing what the illustrations show is fine. Make sure to excitedly praise your little for a great job reading when they’re through.

Next, we dove into books with one word- honestly these books were so well drawn they were both adorable and fun to read even though they were so sparse in text! We picked up “Ball” by Mary Sullivan and “Hug” by Jez Alborough from the library and I told my little he was going to be the reader today! We started with “Ball” because the pictures are hilarious- if you’ve ever owned a dog obsessed with fetching, you’ll love this! I had my little sound out “ball” by saying each letter sound for him as I pointed to it on the cover, and since that’s the only word in the book, once he had read it once he was successful throughout the whole story. We did the same with “Hug”, and I helped him sound out “mommy” and “Bobo” at the end of the story. “Mama” and “Dada” by Jimmy Fallon and “Orange, Pear, Apple, Bear” are great follow up beginning stories- like “Ball” they catch the reader’s attention with comedy, and are repetitive enough that emergent readers will have great success with them. The Jimmy Fallon ones do have new words on every page, but the pictures will help your little easily figure out what they are- for example in “Dada” all the new words are animal sounds. In “Orange, Pear, Apple, Bear” those 4 words are repeated, just in a different order on each page. These books are amazing for building confidence in a child who has never read before! They’re so simple- but they’re engaging and fun and your child will actually be reading words, which is so exciting for them (and you!)

Once your child has some confidence with 1-2 word books, you can move on to longer books that rely on repetition to tell the story. Although your little may have to sound some words out or use the pictures to help them, the repetition will help them be successful with reading the longer text. “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” by Eric Carle is a great one, along with “Cat the Cat Who Is That?” by Mo Willems and any of the books from the Usborne “Touchy-Feely Books” series. I also found a set by Scholastic called “First Little Readers: Guided Reading Level A” that have 25 books with simple words and repetitive sentences (think: “I can hide in a dress. I can hide in a mess.” and so on) that will help your reader navigate the text with more ease. They’re a little dry compared to the trade books I recommended above, but I was excited to find them because I know they’ll be easy enough for my little to have success with independently. Since these books have longer sentences, I start by reading it to my little, then we read it together, then I let my little try it alone (the “I do, we do, you do” strategy). The Scholastic set also has level B, C, D and so on, so you can let the reading fun continue as your little becomes more confident and learns more words!

I hope this post and this list of books was helpful to you! It took me awhile to compile a set of TRUE emergent reader books, so I wanted to save you all the time and energy it took me if you’re at the threshold of teaching your own little how to read! And if your child isn’t ready, please remember- that’s ok! I mean at 4 and a half, my own little is still working on fully mastering letter names- I just thought I’d jump into reading instruction since he’s got all but 3 of the sounds down (and honestly, sounds are more integrated than the names of letters when it comes to decoding text). MOST importantly, please, please, please read aloud to your little every day- and keep working on those letter names and sounds in a fun and engaging way! Happy reading!

Edited: I didn’t know how to sneak this in the above post because it’s not exactly about books, but it IS about early reading and I thought was worth mentioning as I continue my “teaching my beginning reader” journey…and that is word work! Now that my little is almost 5 (but still missed the cut off for Kindergarten) we will be incorporating a “word of the week” into our daily learning time. We’ll practice writing the word, thinking of other words in that same word family (ie. rhymes), using it in a sentence, as well as finding and reading it in real text. I also found this word work practice packet on Teachers Pay Teachers that we’ll be using as well. Repetition is key, and I figure the more practice, the more chance he’ll remember it! At the end of the week, I’ll be posting each word to our “word wall” in the classroom where it can be used for spelling and future reference!

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