Leveled Early Readers: Valuable Tool or Marketing Ploy?

The number of early readers being published has exploded. On one hand, this trend is great. Kids learning to read today have many more options to choose from than they have had in the past. They are more likely to be able to find an early reader on a topic that excites them and motivates them to read, such as Toy Story, Pinkalicious or Fly Guy. Furthermore, these new early readers tend to be affordable.

On the other hand, in their rush to churn out early readers, publishers are publishing many early readers that are certain to frustrate your children. Many of the books being marketed as early readers look like early readers, with their standard 6.5″ x 9″ dimensions, size 18 font and ample white space. However, if you hand one of these books to the typical first grader, they are likely to throw up their hands a page or two into the book, and you are likely to end up wondering whether your child is stupid, lazy or both.

Leveled Early Readers: Valuable Tool or Marketing Ploy?

I assure you that your child is neither stupid nor lazy. Many of these early readers — sometime referred to as “easy” readers — are not easy. Take, for example, Best Dad in the Sea, an enticing looking book featuring one of our family’s favorite movie characters: Nemo. Best Dad in the Sea is billed as a Step Into Reading Level 1 book intended for preK and K. Yet, this book includes very challenging multiple-syllable words such as “different,” “careful” and “caught.”

The Berenstein Bears Level 1 early readers (part of the I Can Read! series) include words like “neighborhood,” “wizard” and “knocked.” The Pete the Cat “My First” early readers (also part of the I Can Read! series) throw in words like “lunchtime,” “sandwich,” and “castle.”

What world do the authors and publishers of these books live in? The first graders I know are not learning how to read words like “caught,” “neighborhood” or “castle.” My first grade daughter is learning to sight read words like “to” and “what” and sound out words like “bed” and “zoo.”

In contrast, well-written early readers go to great lengths to help your child read. Learning to read is no easy task. It requires a great deal of effort on your child’s part. Well-written early readers meet your child half-way. They offer your child opportunities to practice newly emerging skills and just enough challenge to teach but not discourage.

High quality early readers feature:

1. A limited vocabulary that matches the developmental level of their intended audience;

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Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss

The very first early reader was published in 1957: The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. In From Cover to Cover, Kathleen T. Horning explains that Dr. Seuss was the first author to write an entertaining book for children with a limited vocabulary. “He acquired a limited vocabulary list from the textbook division at Houghton Mifflin and spent more than a year shaping just 237 easy-to-read words into a story.” (Horning, pg. 115).

2. Short sentences, or, for more advanced readers, a few longer sentences interspersed in a book that consists primarily of short sentences;

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Biscuit Wants to Play by Alyssa Satin Capucilli

3. Repetition; and

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Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same the Same! by Grace Lin

4. Illustrations that help tell the story and give readers breaks from sounding out words.

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Penny and Her Song by Kevin Henkes

Well-written early readers vary in complexity from the very easiest early readers (e.g. Biscuit books by Alyssa Satin Capucilli) to more challenging early readers (e.g. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss) to books for kids who are starting to get the hang of this reading thing (e.g. Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel). But, all of these early readers have certain things in common. They do a lot with a limited vocabulary, avoid long sentences, include repetition and incorporate illustrations thoughtfully and intentionally into the story.

As I first mentioned, the explosion in early readers published is not entirely a bad thing. There are more affordable early readers available today than ever before. It is important for parents, teachers and librarians to help children sift through and select good early readers that match that emerging reader’s developmental level. The levels assigned to books by publishers are generally unhelpful in this regard.

Excellent Early Readers

I recommend my favorite books for early readers in these two posts:

20 Fantastic Books for Kids Learning to Read – This booklist features books that are great for teaching emergent readers skills, such as letter recognitions, phonics and prediction. These books are great for preschoolers, kindergarteners and older children working on these skills.

15 More Fantastic Books for Kids Learning to Read – This booklist includes books for kids learning conventional reading skills. Books are arranged by how challenging they are: start here (for typical kindergarten and 1st graders), next up (for typical 1st and 2nd graders) and getting rolling (for typical 2nd and 3rd graders).

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12 Responses to Leveled Early Readers: Valuable Tool or Marketing Ploy?

  1. Ann says:

    The best books for beginning readers are sold on the educational market. Of course my favorites are the ones I wrote (Handprints, Educators Publishing Service), but I also like the leveled readers from Rigby and Pioneer Valley Educational Press. I am a reading specialist and have used these books to teach hundreds of 1st graders how to read.

  2. Well said! I’ve always found publishers suggested leveling to be inconsistent, misleading and confusing. It makes it very challenging for parents and teachers to find easy readers for our youngest readers.

  3. Jocelyn Sams says:

    I think they’re a little bit of both – good for children and good for marketers. I love the variety of leveled readers today because I think it makes children that much more interested in picking that book up. At least they’ll know some of the words in the leveled readers, as opposed to the same character books they try to pick up that are WAY above their level.

    In my opinion, it all goes back to parental involvement. To get the most benefit out of reading any book, a beginning reader needs help.

  4. Robin says:

    Have you looked at the lists of Geisel Award winners? Most (but not all) are excellent examples of books that new readers can read all by themselves.

  5. Tien says:

    Thanks for the post! My little one will be 4 next month and I’ve had a look at those ‘easy reader’ books at the library just to see what’s around to help him in future and they look difficult!

    We’ve got Green Eggs & Ham at home so I might start on that, cheers! :)

  6. kristin says:

    Limited vocabulary with one or two “new” words. One of the best ways to convince my (now) second grader to tackle tougher words was to slip them into the book. There’s a fine line there though.

  7. Jennifer says:

    I slap stickers on our easy readers – red, green, and blue for levels 1, 2, and 3. I just go by whatever number the publisher has on them, so it’s really only a general guide. However, I am started to pull some things – like all the tv tie-in early readers, which I am now buying in paperback and throwing in our tubs. The vocabulary is ridiculous – easy reader format doth not an easy reader make! I’m also pushing to integrate our easy readers with picture books b/c there are sooooo many popular picture book characters being made into easy readers and so many picture books appropriate for younger readers. My most-asked easy reader question is “where are the books with just a few words?” Your post definitely gives me the impetus to look a little more closely before I sticker!

    • Amy says:

      Yes! Many of the best books for early readers — the books with just a few words — can be found in the picture book bins. My 20 fantastic books… list reflects this. Most of these books for the very earliest readers are picture books.

  8. Monica says:

    I just finally convinced our cataloger that I have to look at our readers to level them, for this very reason. We used to have a reading teacher on staff who came up with an excellent leveling system based on vocabulary, repetition, and length for this very reason.

    • Amy says:

      I think that’s great. In Chapter 6 of Cover to Cover, Kathleen Horning suggests criteria for leveling early readers. She uses three levels. I have also seen libraries adopt more than three levels.

      While I am skeptical about the new emphasis being placed on leveling books for older kids (i.e. w- lexile numbers and such), I think accurate leveling can be very valuable for new readers.

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