27 Jan 2010

Nurturing my growing reader

Jemimah has learned to read. Woo Hoo! She is now what called variously, an 'emerging reader', a 'transitioning reader', a 'growing reader' and ' an in-between reader'. What ever she is labeled as, she is now ready for 'real books'.

Once, when Arnold Lobel was asked why so many characters in his easy-to-read books were neurotic, he said they didn't start out that way, but when you say the same thing over and over again in such brief command sentences, you tend to get neurotic very quickly. I suspect that if children read the same things over and over again that they tend to go the same way. You see, few stories especially written for emerging readers are particularly noteworthy for their literary excellence. They are not written to be masterpieces in most cases, either. Rather, the value of these books lies in their ability to make accessible the richer reading that lies ahead.

It is that time now for Jemimah. She's ready to read books of substance.

And now I must treadee treadee softlee, because the books that we present to a child transitioning to chapter books are highly important. This is often when a child becomes a 'reader' for life. We can make or break them right here.

The books must be interesting, not too long, and broken into shortish chapters that while forming part of the whole story, are episodic and stand alone unto themselves. Ideally they will contain plenty of action, considerable humour, and a little suspense. Any adults will be on the outskirts of the story, protecting but not interfering. Like all books written for children, these stories should be written to them and not down to them. Kids of all ages hate being patronised. They hate twaddle.

Books for growing readers need to look good too - especially for older kids, or reluctant readers who do not want their books to look like books for youngsters. They need to look like teenagers' books. Yep - even for eight year olds. They need clear, largish type with lots of white space and wide margins. They can't be too long, or the reader will despair of ever reaching the end. They should have quite short sentences too, since often a number of these words will be spelled out letter by letter, and it is easy to forget the beginning of the sentence by the time you reach the end otherwise. Illustrations are valuable for giving hints about the story's content, but also allowing a short reprieve from a difficult page. Line drawings are fine. These kids are no longer looking for a picture book -Come on, mum - they've outgrown those!!

It is important to consider that often all these children will have read until now will be formulaic phonics readers. Ugh! These books are mostly 'about nothing'! If you choose to teach your children to read using phonics, do attempt to get them away from these twaddly books as soon as possible, and don't forget to keep reading literature aloud to them in the mean time. This is the only way that they will know that reading can be fun - that it is worth persevering in the struggle to decipher those dreadful squiggles that swim around the pages like tadpoles in Grandpa's dam. This is critically important if your child is struggling to read and is taking longer to master the skill than his peers.

Older books of quality for emerging Aussie readers seem rare. Which made my recent discovery of Joan Phipson's It Happened One Summer (1957) all the more pleasing. Even more exciting is the fact that Jemimah adored it, and that is much more important than what I think of it, after all.

It is the story of young English girl's first Christmas in Australia, spent on her uncle's sheep station. Jennifer has a lot to learn. Life is new and strange, but she settles in well, and two gifts under the tree (as it were) help her to feel very much at home. The book is interesting, and Jennifer's life is exciting and active, but it is the approaching bushfire that makes the book very exciting indeed...

Jemimah loved reading this book over the same period that the book is set. Jennifer's Australia was hot, dusty and dry. So is Jemimah's. She swam. So did we. We liked that, especially over Christmas when our heads are packed full of the snow and ice and sleigh bells of the Northern Hemisphere festive season.

The book was a good choice for my young reader for many reasons. It is relevant. It is attractive with appealing line drawings by Margaret Horder that help illustrate the print. It is a good length, and is written in a clear style. The words are not too small. The characters are likable, and more importantly, believable. There is plenty of sustaining excitement throughout the book, and then you reach that climax. Oh my! Finally, everyone lives happily ever after. You want that in a book for kids.

It Happened One Summer is a great read for emerging Aussie readers - both boys and girls. Look out for it.

There's something that I need to be aware of at this time as I select books for Jemimah, and I want to share it with you as well:

Don't push too hard. Allow your child to consolidate their skills before moving them on to harder and harder titles. Easy books help with reading fluency too, and helps him learn that reading can be fun. The world begins to open up. Remember Ruth Beechick's five word rule:
To determine whether a book is too hard, count off a section of 100 words and ask the child to read it to you. If he is unable to read more than five of the words, the book is on his frustration level...If the child misses from three to five words on your 100 word sample, you may consider the book to be on his instruction level. It is just right. Never assume that the harder a book is, the more a child can learn from it. A book that stretches and challenges, but does not frustrate, is the best choice for teaching.

Ruth Beechick, A Home Start in Reading.
When Norman Lindsay was asked for memories of his earliest reading he replied:
I assume that the intellectual labour of deciphering the written word debilitated and memory of the subject matter.

Oh dear.

Do continue to encourage your transitioning readers - whatever their ages - by continuing to read aloud to them. For some time after they have learned to read they still need to listen to stories and be read to. Only in this way will they absorb the feeling of the fine rich language of the best of children's literature. Only in this way will they experience the voice of the storyteller - the expression, the tone, the subtle nuance. Only this way will the learn to love reading because in this way reading comes alive. And only this way will their reading experiences be shared experiences. Warm, comforting and happy. The things golden childhood memories are made of.

Reading to your children is just the best. I realise that one day Jemimah may choose to exert her newly acquired reading independence and want to read alone, but I hope it doesn't come too soon, because if it does I shall be a very sad mummy indeed.


  1. woohoo for Jemimah!
    great post! we are a little behind you but great advice, thanks!

  2. Yippee for Jemimah. I am embarrassed to say Ditz skipped this step in it's entirety. Ditz went straight from phonics readers to The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe in grade 2. Her choice. It took her 12 months to read it but read it she did. Every last word. And she enjoyed it. She read other things as well but she shocked me ~ who expected the transitionary stage you speak of. Still is still capable of reading well above grade level those things that interest & amuse her. On the other hand one of my sons was still in the transitionary stage well into high school. We don't do things by halves round here & every child is different.

  3. My kids skipped this step, too. It left me a little sad, and struggling for appropriate things for them to read. WHAT do you give a 4 and a half year old boy to read when he zips through Frog and Toad and even Magic Treehouse in no time and comes asking for more?!?! Thankfully, he finally decided that non-fiction was his interest and now he happily loses himself in insect guides and books about animals.

  4. No matter her level, I have a feeling Jemimah will be enjoying read-alouds with mummy for a very long time indeed.

  5. Jeanne, What a lovely post! I have to tell you how much I enjoy your musings on children's literature -- a subject very near to my heart. And you are right ; it is difficult to find books of substance for the emerging reader! As to you reading aloud to your daughter, if she is anything like mine, she will continue to enjoy it even when she is fully able to read herself. My eldest just finished _The Princess and the Goblin_ and is on to _Alice's Adventures in Wonderland_, but still loves for me to read aloud to her. In her excellent book _Honey for a Child's Heart_, Gladys Hunt makes a wonderful case for the value and importance of families reading aloud, even when the children are teenagers. I so look forward to many years of reading with my daughters.

  6. Thank you Jeanne, for sharing your knowledge with your readers. I really glean from all that you write!

    Well done Jemimah! xxx

  7. yay Jemimah! my Bria is not far behind and reading this makes me look very much forward to her getting there :)

  8. Excellent work, Jemima! How about the Littles http://www.amazon.com/Littles-John-Peterson/dp/0590462253/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1264694527&sr=8-1 OR the Penderwicks http://www.amazon.com/Penderwicks-Sisters-Rabbits-Interesting-Quality/dp/0440420474/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1264694553&sr=1-1 or Pippi Longstocking or Marguerite Henry's books [pick any of them!] or or or or [zillions more!]

  9. Phew! I needed to hear all of this. My 8 year old twins are in the same category and while my daughter has taken off reading anything and everything that she picks or I place before her my son is very reluctant. He actually reads better than his sister but has very little confidence do to a perfectionist personality, so gets discouraged easily. I'm still searching for the right book that gets his motor going so I appreciate your comments and reminders.


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