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