Tag Archives: reading

Early Readers for Boys

I gave so much attention to all the chapter books that I’ve been digging around for BalletBoy, that I thought Mushroom’s reading efforts deserved a similar listy post.  One of the nice things about early readers is that, unlike chapter books, many of the best offerings are less stereotypically gender segregated.  After all, any kid can appreciate most of Dr. Seuss, Elephant and Piggie, and the like.  And girls can probably appreciate these too, but I think they’re especially good for boys.

The Commander Toad series by Jane Yolen
Commander Toad’s ship is the “Star Warts.”  On some level, that little piece of information sums up exactly what makes this series appealing.  Yolen tells the silly space epic story of toads in space with pretty much the same attitude as the old Muppet Show sketch “Pigs in Space.”  BalletBoy enjoyed these and soon Mushroom will be able to as well.

The Henry and Mudge series by Cynthia Rylant
All the Cynthia Rylant series are excellent, but this one is the sweetest.  Henry is a boy and Mudge is his oversized, slobbery dog.  The stories are very simple, but they have that depth that you want from a little story.  Rylant doesn’t ever condescend to her readers.

The Cat on the Mat is Flat and The Big Fat Cow That Goes Kapow by Andy Griffiths
This is a easy reader that was formatted like a chapter book.  Each volume contains several extremely easy, almost phonics-based stories full of rhymes.  They’re very silly.  The drawings look like Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants kids drew them.  The pages play with type by making the words bigger or smaller or even changing the font.  It’s an innovative little idea, obviously targeted to reluctant boy readers (though my less reluctant Mushroom still enjoyed it).  Basically, I really liked this new discovery.

The (early only!) Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain
You all know I loathe the new, moralistic Berenstain Bears, right?  But the really early readers like Bears in the Night and Inside, Outside, Upside Down are classics.  And the slightly harder titles like The Bear Scouts, The Bears’ Vacation, The Bears’ Picnic, and others are also amusing and funny.  Small Bear knows all while Papa makes mistakes.  The rhymes are cute, the language is simple, but the stories are actually pretty funny.  I think there’s something sort of boyish about all the trouble Papa Bear leads Small Bear into.  But watch out for the newer ones, which are not as well written.

The Fly Guy series by Tedd Arnold
These are super short, yet the stories are very amusing.  A boy named Buzz has an unusual pet, a housefly called Fly Guy, who can say the boy’s name (no surprise there!).  Together, they have adventures.  Both my boys like them well enough to read them over and over again.  Only Elephant and Piggie get more love in our house among the early readers.

Throwing Stuff at the Wall Until It Sticks

Does your 6 year old know the word "blot"?

Some things we learn about, such as science or history, are things that, if the kids don’t perfectly get it or remember it, it doesn’t really matter.  Obviously, it would be great if they remembered every detail of Norse mythology we read about in the last two weeks, but I’m not holding my breath.  If, in a couple years, they can see a reference to the Valkyries and know what that is, I’ll be thrilled.  If they don’t get it, no big deal, we just move on.  I’m not saying it’s not important, but the specific sort of aren’t.  The thing that matters is that we’re doing something.

However, other things have to be mastered, like math and reading.  With Mushroom these days, I feel like we’re just throwing things against the wall until it sticks for reading.  I have no doubt that he’ll get it.  Six and not devouring chapter books is hardly a late reader.  But we’ve had so many different starts.  Here’s some of the things I threw at the wall, so to speak.

Starfall.  Starfall really helped BalletBoy learn to read.  At least, I think it did.  I still don’t entirely understand how BalletBoy taught himself to read last year, but I think Starfall gets some credit.  I tried to get Mushroom to use it some more this year.  It’s fine, but he memorized most of the books and it’s not really doing anything for him anymore.

Explode the Code Online.  That didn’t stick.  It will go down in history as the first big waste of money in our homeschooling journey.  Mushroom quickly figured out how to play it like a video game, clicking things very fast and memorizing pictures.  Clicking things fast is weighed more heavily than getting it right.  He got nothing out of it.

The BOB books.  When he was smaller, he didn’t find these appealing.  Then a friend handed them down and he was willing to give them a try.  He has just never found any fluency with them though.  And they quickly got old.  We still use them, but they weren’t the thing that really got him reading.

The I See Sam Books.  He likes them.  They only cost is the time it takes to print them out and staple them together.  They’re actually really cute.  However, they suffer from some of the same problems as the BOB books for Mushroom.  They’re part of what we’re using, but they haven’t totally made it just click for him.

Explode the Code workbooks.  This is working much better for us than the online program.  There are still some strange words (“Mama, what’s a crag?” or “Mama, what do they mean the pop spills?  What’s pop?”) and some strange pictures that take me awhile to decipher.  However, it’s working, at least a little.  This program, by the way, is going excellently for BalletBoy as a way to shore up his phonics.  It’s just not as good for Mushroom.

Blend Phonics.  It’s free and it has the kind of word lists I wanted in order to play games.  We made cards, we played sounding out games, we used the whiteboard a whole bunch.  I think it helped.  At least a little.

Progressive Phonics.  It’s free too.  We haven’t been doing the worksheets (I thought they looked far too easy).  However, we’ve been trying the readers.  In a way, they’re too easy.  Sounding out one word, when you isolate it, is much easier than a long string of words.  By word number five, Mushroom is worn out and starts mixing up sounds or guessing.  However, it’s a confidence builder to have him doing some of the basic books.

I’m sure if you ask me in another couple of weeks, I’ll be throwing something else against the wall to see if it sticks and I’ll have another resource we’ve tried.  Like I said, I know it’ll come.  I’m just waiting.  Trying new things, circling back to old ones.  Working on it a little every day.  CVC words, blends, silent E.  CVC words, blends, silent E.  Okay, back to CVC words…

In the Reading Box

It’s a constant quest to get the books organized and reorganized around here.  They’re constantly changing.  Here, I made a reading box with some of the current titles the kids can pick up and read independently.  Facing front are BalletBoy’s books and facing sideways (mostly) are Mushroom’s.

In Mushroom’s reading pile: BOB books, I See Sam Books, a couple of Real Kids Phonics readers, Ten Apples Up On Top, See Pip Point, and Polo and the Runaway Book.

In BalletBoy’s reading pile at the moment: a couple Nate the Greats, a couple Tashis, Frog and Toad are Friends, Poppleton Everyday, a Magic Treehouse, Commander Toad and the Voyage Home, Way Out West with Pirate Pete and Pirate Joe, and Angelina on Stage, which is sticking up in back along with the Polo book.

On the one hand, you want the books to stay where they should so they’re not scattered all over the house.  On the other hand, you don’t.

Reading Treasure Hunt!

Starting when Mushroom and BalletBoy were about three, we started doing treasure hunts around the house for fun.  I began with simple pictures – a box, a rug, a toy, etc. Sometimes I would get creative and draw a picture of something complicated, like the Tibetan mandala on the living room wall.  Each clue leads to another clue until you get to the prize.  By the time they were four, I would occasionally add in a word, like “TV” or “pot.”  By the time they were five, BalletBoy could read all the words with ease and was ready for simple sentences like, “Look under the sofa.”  I had to split up the treasure hunting at that point and make two sets of clues according to reading ability.

The prize at the end of the hunt is usually pretty small – a couple chocolate chips or maybe some cookies they would have gotten for dessert anyway.  However, this has been one of our most enduring games over the years.  I used to use cut up scraps of paper, but I recently started using tiny sticky notes.  BalletBoy begs for a hunt nearly every day and suggests elaborate, usually time consuming ways to improve them.  In order to keep his clues challenging, I’ve begun writing couplets: “Look in the place that keeps things cold.  Food won’t spoil or get old.”  Okay, really lame couplets.  Maybe I need to reread A Suitable Boy and fall in love with rhyming couplets again so I can improve the quality of my couplet writing.

This simple game’s a painless way
To practice reading every day

No, that was still lame.  I’ll stick to blogging and fiction and avoid the poetry.

Let Them Read Crap

Many of my parent friends have laughed at me over the years because they think I have too many rules for reading books to kids.  If I’ve literally just read the book, I won’t read it again.  If it’s a comic book or something that requires doing voices, I won’t read it in front of adults (I’m self-conscious!).  Most importantly, I refuse to read crap.

Mind you, everyone has their own definition of crap.  I try to set the bar pretty low.  Mostly, I won’t read books involving the majority of licensed characters.  There are exceptions.  Many of the Sesame Street books are outright classics and I’m always happy to read a Charlie and Lola.  However, I’ve found egregious grammatical errors in Dora books and Scooby Doo stories.  I cannot read them.  When I read them, I adopt an increasingly sarcastic tone until by the end, I’m not just rolling my eyes, I’m giving nasty asides about the so-called “author.”

However, when it comes time for my kids to pick their own books, I say, let them read crap.  Let them read the junk on the shelf if they want to.  Let them read Scooby Doo, Pokemon, Captain Underpants, Animorphs, Warriors, the Twilight saga and every other piece of brainless junk.

And guess what?  Studies show that’s the way to create better readers.  In this piece in The New York Times, they talked about a study where kids who picked their own books picked exactly the sort of horrible books we all cringe at.  The most popular title was a biography of Brittney Spears.  Those books still helped the kids’ reading abilities.  I especially loved this quote from one of the study authors:

“Teachers and middle-class parents undervalue kids’ preferences, but I think we need to give up being so uptight about children’s choices in books.”

So while it makes me cringe, and while I’ll still offer Frog and Toad or Fly Guy or any number of other choices, that’s why I let BalletBoy read A Pet for a Princess when it’s time for reading.  It’s not high art, but it’s free choice and it’s words on the page.  If someone had taken away my Sweet Valley Twins novels in fourth grade, I might have had conniptions, so I’ll leave him with his Disney drivel.  As long as I don’t have to read it myself, that is.

How the Kids are Learning to Read

Mushroom looking through Fly Guy.

One of the good things about having twins (and there are many, which is a relief to discover because most of these good things never showed themselves during the infant and toddler years) is that you can see two kids learn the same things in completely different ways.  Mushroom and BalletBoy often leapfrog each other in skills.  They take a yin yang approach to being “the difficult one.”  Mushroom was usually the first to do everything when they were tiny.  Sitting, crawling, babbling and all that.  Not to be outdone, BalletBoy spent months working on pulling up and cruising.  Then, one day, he took off and walked weeks before Mushroom did.  You can’t imagine what a difficult time we spent with poor Mushroom when he realized his brother had a skill he hadn’t even conceived of yet.

In some ways, this is exactly how BalletBoy learned to read.  He spent a long time working out the sounds and putting them together.  While it didn’t quite happen overnight, one day he was just reading, even if it was just some common words and very simple phonics, he was doing it on his own.  Mushroom, on the other hand, initially had the exact same reaction that he had when he saw BalletBoy walk for the first time.  His frustration level with the world, in particular the world of words, went way up.  When he didn’t catch up to his brother quickly, I began to get worried.  I had no fear that he was behind in any way.  My worry was that his frustration would get the better of him or that he would develop a conception of himself as a non-reader.

Mushroom is still struggling to catch up to his brother in reading.  I hope he won’t develop a conception of himself as “the one who doesn’t read.”  He definitely relies on BalletBoy to read all kinds of things, like TV shows listed on the Tivo, notes I leave them in the morning, or cards sent by grandparents.  However, he got over his frustration about it a long time ago and is making a genuine effort to learn to read when we sit down together or play reading games.  He seems to have accepted that different people learn at different rates and in different ways.  He knows there are things he can do that BalletBoy can’t yet, such as swim across the pool.  If he can carry that lesson with him for the rest of his life, then that’s more important than learning to read Frog and Toad before you’re six.  It may also be another benefit of being a twin, like learning to share before all the other toddlers.  The irony is that I suspect Mushroom may turn out to be a better reader than his brother.  He looks for context and has a much better ear for stories.  He can anticipate what’s coming next in a book, even a complex one.  The other day, while we listened to Half Magic by Edward Eager, he immediately understood that a character the children meet in a bookstore was the same character the children’s mother met on the road and that he would probably marry the mother.  He was so excited by the realization, I had to pause the book so he could explain it.  As an adult reader, it’s all very obvious plot devices, but it was the sort of thing I didn’t expect the kids to pick up on until it had been spelled out more clearly.  I was impressed.  Once you get the decoding part down, being able to understand stories and foreshadowing like that becomes pretty essential.

We haven’t been using a formal program for reading.  Next year, we may do something a little more formal.  I once heard an elementary teacher tell a homeschooler that you can’t teach reading without an expensive program, which I find completely absurd, as if money somehow equals quality.  Pardon my sarcasm, but I wonder if the parents of great eighteenth centuries writers had expensive reading programs.  I also see where homeschoolers are sometimes pretty harsh with each other, condemning any early reading materials that were written after the first World War (apparently our grammar is rather cruddy these days) or suggesting that if you let your kids see the pictures in the early readers, you’ll ruin their ability to learn to read.  When I taught, I often told students that there were some wrong answers, but there wasn’t one right answer.  I feel the same about learning to read.  I find it impossible to believe there’s one right way to learn anything, not even learning to read.  I also think, that while it’s good to have studies about what works and what doesn’t, in the end all learning is personal.

We have been using some of the BOB books with Mushroom.  Both the kids have played on Starfall and a few other early reading sites.  Mostly though, we’ve just been playing homemade games, sounding out words on cards and making words with Banagrams tiles or old fridge letter magnets.  BalletBoy especially likes a game we call “Reading Treasure Hunt” probably because it ends with a few chocolate chips.  I give the kids a series of clues that I hide around the house.  If the first clue reads, “Rug” then they’ll find the next clue under the rug.  This used to be a cooperative game, but their levels are so different I break them up now.  Mushroom gets clues like “Look in the pot.” and “Look in the tub.”  BalletBoy gets clues like “Go to the coldest place in the house.” and “Look inside a book with a red cover on the top shelf.”  After about half an hour of scouring the house, they find the final clue, which leads to the chocolate chips.  Chocolate chips and pride, that is.

Learning to Read

I have so many thoughts on this that I could probably ramble pointlessly for thousands of words, so I’m going to try hard to keep it short.  Some of the homeschooling folks I know have recently pointed me to the Diane McGuinness book Why Our Children Can’t Read, which I (ahem) skimmed a bit of then read this helpful summary written by McGuinness herself.  Her basic concept, that our writing system sucks, isn’t anything new.  The way she really takes down the lack of serious studies about learning to read was what interested me.  Apparently, researchers in the 60’s and early 70’s decided that how you taught kids to read didn’t really matter because the teacher was the most important aspect.  How very John Dewey progressive of them and how very unscientific and annoying for us all now.  McGuinness believes that what the scattering of scientifically sound studies do show is that learning phonemes, not just phonics, is what makes the difference for kids in learning to read.

While this is sort of a tangent, the first thing that struck me was how she takes apart the world’s writing systems.  She says that, “No writing system, living or dead, was ever based on the whole word.”  Knowing a little Chinese and having lived and taught in China, and seen Chinese children learning both Chinese and English, I’m curious what her take on Chinese and how Chinese children learn to read would be.  She’s right that Chinese is syllabic, not pictographic as some westerners think.  However, there’s no way to become literate other than memorizing the whole character, which makes it very close to violating her rule from a practical standpoint.  McGuinness (rightly, I think) dismisses the idea of memorizing loads of “sight words” the way kids are encouraged to do in many schools today.  She praises systems like Spanish and German because their alphabets are clear and their spelling systems standardized.  However, Chinese kids must learn the sight words.  When I tried to convince Chinese educators to introduce some phonics work for English students, they were appalled and insisted that all words must be taught as sight words, the same way that the students learned Chinese.  I wonder how this also changes the basic outlook of Chinese students.  If the way English is taught (and written) can cause dyslexia, then how does learning Chinese wire your brain differently?

Moving on from that tangent, I have two personal experiences to share.  First, I learned to read in the exact way that McGuinness suggests is all wrong.  In other words, the most whole language, haphazard way possible.  I don’t know exactly how I learned to read, since I learned before kindergarten, I do know that no one ever taught me phonics as a system in school and my mother didn’t teach it to me either.  On the other hand, my brother learned to read through one of the short lived programs that McGuinness mentions that tried to standardize spelling in order to accelerate reading (then discarding it slowly so children could learn common spelling).  I remember his workbook that taught him to spell “elephant” as “elefant.”  I love to read.  My brother, not so much.  How much is that just because I was made to be a reader and my brother was made to learn in different ways?  How much is the way we learned?  How much is the teachers we had?  How much is experiences in learning to read that came after that initial learning to decode?

It is so difficult, when faced with statistical evidence that counters one’s anecdotal experiences, to go against those experiences.  I don’t think statistics always rule the day, but I do think intelligent decisions should be informed by data.  Still, I wonder what pieces of the puzzle are missing.  Did my love of reading develop in part because I was surrounded by people who encouraged me to love words, without any judgement of how I wrote them?  If I didn’t have the lucky skill of working them out the rules mostly on my own, then that would have been one thing, but since I did, was it better that I was allowed to freely discover whatever I wanted?  This is part of the individual teacher personality that all educational studies struggle with.  The teacher can’t help but bring personality into it.

My own experience teaching young children to read begins (unless you count a few Chinese elementary schoolers) with my own kids.  Before that, the reading problems I helped kids through belonged to older kids.  Like other things, teaching middle schoolers in my previous life has generally helped me keep the long game in mind with my own kids.  However, some of the most common problems I saw middle schoolers with led me to teach strategies that seem contrary to some of the things that reading experts tell us now.  For example, looking for context and anticipating what comes next were things I worked with middle schoolers on in reading.  It’s hard for me not to recoil a little when early reading experts suggest you try to rob kids of the context by covering up the pictures or not allowing any actual books to be read until some relatively high level of reading achievement has been passed.  This seems so counter to my experiences.  Again, I’m faced with the problem of data countering my own experience.

No conclusions.  And I’m hardly an expert.  Up tomorrow: how my duo are learning to read.