Two facts for parents who want to improve children’s reading at home:
The 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that only 34 percent of US students were rated ‘reading proficient.”
A 2012 report by Renaissance Learning on 29,000 students showed that English 15 and 16-year-olds had an average reading age five years lower than their actual age.
The effects of a low reading age
In the UK, the reading age requirement for GCSEs is 15.6 – that’s the average age of students who sit them. If their reading age is well below that at the time of sitting the exam, it becomes frighteningly obvious they will not be able to understand the exam papers well enough to pass the examination or do as well as they should.
It also means that throughout their entire time at school they will have been struggling to read the texts books and worksheets handed to them by teachers. They will have had a consistently poorer understanding of the subjects they were studying than those who have better reading skills. So, even if they did manage to understand the exam paper, the knowledge they had to answer the question would have been inadequate to get them through.
This will no doubt have a negative effect on their futures. Having a low reading age stops children getting into college and university and prevents them getting better paid jobs. These children will be less competitive in the jobs market and will have increased chances of living in poverty as a result.
No-one want this for their children.
What can parents do at home to help improve their child’s reading?
According to Renaissance Learning, children make the most progress when they are reading challenging books for at least 35 minutes a day. Less than that and the progress is smaller. The single most important thing you can do as a parent, therefore, is to get your children to read more. We all know, however, that this is easier said than done and the older the child, the harder it is to do, especially if they are really starting to read for pleasure for the first time.
Here are some useful tips to get you on your way:
1) Find how much time your child already spends reading
You should have an idea if your child reads at home and how much time they spend doing it, but you can add to this how much private reading (i.e. reading a book of their own choice for pleasure) they do at school. For example, in my last school, every child between 11 and 14 read privately for an hour and a half each week during school time. This would mean that at home they would only have to read for 22 minutes a day to reach the 35 minute a day goal.
2) Explain to your child the benefits of reading
Explain to your child why you want them to read at home and the benefits they will get from it. This is not just about improving their reading age but also about the telling them of improvements it will bring to their lives in the long run. It’s also about the benefits of reading good literature and the brilliant adventures they can experience when getting into a good book.
3) Find suitably challenging books for your child to read
Finding a suitable book is not as straightforward as it seems. The first thing you need to know is your child’s reading age. You should be able to get this from your school, but don’t count on it! Not all schools have well organised reading schemes where there is regular testing of students’ reading ages. However, if they do not have your child’s reading age ask for an assessment to be done.
If you can’t get it from school, an excellent test to use is the Burt Reading Test. Originally created in 1974 and since updated, this has been used extensively as a way to help understand a child’s reading age based on their ability to read increasingly more demanding vocabulary. What it doesn’t do, unlike the Renaissance Reading tests, is give you a reading age based on the child’s ability to understand the meaning of texts. However, it will help as a guide to get you started. You can download both the guide and the instructions here.
Only once you have the reading age can you begin to find suitably challenging books. If your child has a reading age of 10, then giving them books with a reading age of 8 will not benefit them and similarly, giving them a book with a much higher reading ages will be too difficult to help them progress. As a guide, in order to make the best progress, children need to be reading books that have a slightly higher reading age than they are currently working at. From here, they can then move to more challenging books as they progress.
4) Find children’s books with suitable content for their age
The big issue comes with the discrepancy between the real age and the reading age. A teenager with a low reading age might find it difficult to find an interesting book. No teenager wants to read childish content. Similarly, a seven year old with a reading age of 14 might find books that are a little bit inappropriate for their age and maturity.
Where to get help finding the right books
Renaissance Learning runs a program called ‘Accelerated Reader’. Unfortunately, it’s only available to schools, not to parents. However, there is a free tool called the AR Book Finder. Here’s what to do:
Go to the tool
click on advanced search tab
select the ‘Interest Level‘ for your child’s real age
select the ATOS book level for your child’s reading age. (For example, a book level of 4.5 means that the text could likely be read independently by a pupil whose reading skills are at the level of a typical fourth year pupil during the fifth month of school.)
If you leave the title and author boxes blank, the results will show you all the books that match both your child’s reading ability and are suitable for their age. The results will also include an image, a rating from other readers and a brief description.
What else do you need to do?
Encourage and support
Help them choose a book:
show them it’s cool to read by finding out who their heroes are and what they are reading
go to the library with them
sit down together and check out book reviews on Amazon
Talk about books you have read which they might be interested in or get them the book version of their favourite film or TV series.
Remember that 35 minutes a day may take some time to achieve. It doesn’t all have to be done at the same time either – it can split up over a couple of sessions. If your child is finding hard to focus for so long at first, don’t worry, just give it time.
Whatever, you do, don’t leave it too late before you start your 35 minutes a day routine. Perhaps you can join them and read at the same time? Acting as a role model is one of the best ways to improve children’s reading at home.
I discovered Eric Carle’s stories when I first started teaching. As well as being enjoyable and entertaining they include lots of wonderful opportunities for learning.
The Story: The chameleon changes colour depending on where it’s sitting or whether it’s warm or cold and when it’s hungry it catches a fly. It doesn’t have a very interesting life but one day it sees a zoo full of animals. It wishes that it could be like a polar bear and its wish comes true. Then it wishes it could be like a flamingo. As well as gaining flamingo wings it also retains some polar bear characteristics. The chameleon carries on wishing and ends up with characteristics from nine different animals and a human but it runs into trouble when it gets hungry and can’t catch a fly. Its last wish is to be a chameleon again so that it can catch the fly, luckily for him that wish also comes true.
The Mixed Up Chameleon is a simple story supported by Eric Carle’s wonderfully colourful illustrations. I have read this story to so many children and they always laugh at the ‘creature’ that the chameleon turns into. With a deer’s antlers, an elephant’s trunk and a giraffe’s neck it looks quite bizarre (and also very colourful) by the end of the story. The text is simple and repetitive, it is the pictures that tell the story and children love spotting each new animal characteristic as the chameleon makes its next wish. The message that The Mixed Up Chameleon portrays is very simple, ‘be yourself’ and enjoy your uniqueness, you won’t necessarily be any better off if you are different. It’s a great book to stimulate discussion about similarities and differences between yourself and others and also to talk about similarities and differences between different animal species.
Nearly forty years after it was first published The Mixed Up Chameleon is timeless and I have used it in so many ways in the classroom, particularly with Reception and Year One children. With its simple repetitive text and picture clues it’s a great book for beginner readers. It introduces ten different animals including the chameleon and explains a chameleon’s colour changing characteristics in a way that young children can easily understand. Each of the animals is a different colour and a beautiful rainbow at the end of the story provides opportunities for consolidating colour recognition. I have used The Mixed Up Chameleon with Year Two children who have chosen their own animal characteristics to make their own mixed up chameleon stories and I’ve also made a wall display using pictures that Reception children have drawn with their own mixed up chameleons.
As well as being entertaining, Eric Carle’s stories introduce a lot of learning. They’re also great books to introduce basic vocabulary to non native English speakers and I’ve often used them in the EFL classroom. Other Eric Carle favourites of mine include Little Cloud (weather and the water cycle), From Head to Toe (parts of the body and movement), The Secret Birthday Message (shapes and position words), Brown Bear, Brown Bear what do you see? (animals) and the classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar (days of the week, lifecycle of a caterpillar and food).
Catherine Friess is an Early Years teacher who also has EFL experience with adults and children. She recommends her favourite picture and early chapter books on Story Snug. You can also follow her on Pinterest, Google+ and Twitter.
For reluctant readers, using technology can be an excellent way to improve children’s reading and overall education. One thing I’ve noticed in the classroom in recent years is that whilst many children are reluctant to pick up a book and read it, hand them a gadget with a screen and they can’t keep their hands off.
Why don’t older children want to read books?
There is a psychological barrier that many children, particularly as they approach their teens, have with reading a book. It’s not an aversion to reading, but more to do with social acceptance.
In their teenage years, they are at an age where being socially acceptable is more important to them than at any other time of their lives. They have a need to fit in with their peers and the trendy kids at school.
This is why they demand only certain brands, have to style their hair in a particular way, listen to specific types of music and dress in similar ways to each other.
Truly, life can be devastating if they feel cast out of their social group for not conforming – and reading, unfortunately, is not seen as cool. It’s geeky, it’s what the swotty kids do. Not reading books can be part of the norm they have to conform to. So, to improve children’s reading we need to find a way around this problem.
The modern solution for reluctant readers
Thanks to technology, there is a solution. If you are the parent of a reluctant reader, then dangling an Amazon Kindle Fire HD in front of your child’s nose might be the perfect answer to improving their reading skills. Why? Well, although it has many of the same features as an iPad or other tablet PC (they can surf the net, download thousands of apps, store and play all their music as well as play videos and watch movies) the primary function of the Kindle is as a book reader.
The Kindle makes reading cool. It removes the social barrier as there’s no turning of paper pages. Children see it more as ‘surfing a book’ or using a ‘book app’ rather than ‘boring reading’.
Of course, being made by Amazon, there are an almost endless number of books to be downloaded and read – and frequently cheaper than the physical version – all of which can be stored on the device itself. These include not only novels and stories but also graphic novels and other similarly formatted texts that your child might feel more comfortable reading. There are many educational and school textbooks available on Amazon, too. With an Amazon Fire, your child can carry around a whole library with them in one small package.
This might seem like an odd approach to improving children’s reading, but it works. I have seen it working in schools. Kids who wouldn’t be seen dead in a library will sit engrossed in the classroom, almost unaware that what they are doing is reading. E-readers remove the social barriers and at the same time provides a medium that young people prefer to use to read. This allows parents to help their children form good reading habits though those vital teenage years.
The Kindle also has one more trick up its sleeve – it allows children to listen to audio books. Whilst not as beneficial as actually reading a text, this can be extremely useful for older children who have to work their way through longer texts for school. A child who might take several weeks to get through a 200-page novel might find it much easier and quicker to listen to it through an audiobook. There are thousands of suitable audiobooks available for download, at very reasonable prices, from Audible, another Amazon company.
Like all good devices, the Kindle Fire HD offers you parental control over what your children can and can’t have access to. And the other big advantages? It’s significantly less expensive than an iPad and as it can also be used as a tablet PC there’s no need to buy another device. There’s also a new larger version available too.
In the current educational system, your children are taught to read using phonics or, to use its full name, systematic synthetic phonics. This method uses a very different approach to teaching reading than that which most parents will have experienced when they went to school. For that reason, many parents feel very much in the dark and out of their depth when it comes to helping their own children to read using phonics. For that reason, I’ve put together a parental guide to phonics and how young children are taught to read in schools so that you can begin to understand how phonics works and how you can help your children to read at home.
What is Phonics?
The word phonics derives from the word for sound. The words: gramophone, microphone, telephone and even the band name, Stereophonics, are all sound-related words. Phonics is the practice of teaching children to match sounds to letters and from there to teach them to ‘blend’ the sounds together when they see a combination of letters in a word so that, when they say them, they pronounce the word correctly.
For this reason, teachers are more focused on teaching the sounds of the letters rather than the name. For instance, when they teach the letter Z they are taught how to say ‘zzz’ rather than its name ‘Zed’ (UK) or Zee (US). Instead of teaching the alphabet, ‘ay, be, see, dee, he, ef, gee,’ they would teach ‘ha, buh, kuh, duh, eh, fuh, guh.’
By teaching duh, ho, guh, rather than dee, oh, gee, it is hoped children would soon be able to associate and blend the sounds to say ‘dog’ when they see the three letters together.
Please note that the way I’ve spelled the phonics sounds is only a guide to how they should be said, there is no actual way of writing the sounds down accurately: to find out how they really should be pronounced you need to watch the video below from the BBC series, Alphablocks. The sounds the characters say in the video are the ones you need to teach your child. For those of us brought up to learn the alphabet by saying the letters, it can seem quite odd at first – but this will be how your children are taught at school and if you want them to be able to find learning phonics and reading at school easier, you can help by teaching the method in the video below.
Phonics terminology and why you need to learn it
Once you have got your head around the basic principle underlying the teaching of phonics, the next thing you need to be aware of is the terminology used to teach it. One reason why you need to learn this is because your children will be learning it too and these are the terms they will understand when you help them at home. Despite the fact that your children are still at a very early stage in their actual reading, these challenging and technical words will be part of the everyday vocabulary they will be using in lessons. Using these terms at home when teaching your children phonics will reinforce the learning they do at school and make sure you are communicating accurately.
Below are the main phonics terms you will need to know together with an explanation of what they mean.
In basic terms, a phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a word. Usually, a phoneme represents the sound of an individual letter spoken out loud, but sometimes it can be a sound that represents more than one letter as in the sound ‘uh’ the middle of book, or the ‘eye’ sound in the middle of night. The English language uses around 44 different phonemes, I say ‘around’ as there are debates about the actual number, some insist the number is 42.
If a phoneme is the sound, the grapheme is the letter or group of letters printed on the page that represent the phoneme. Using the example above, if the word is night and the middle phoneme is ‘eye’ then the grapheme that represents it is, quite simply the letters ‘igh’.
It is worth pointing out here that there can be several different graphemes associated with a single phoneme. The sound ‘eye’ for example, can be used in the words ‘by’, ‘bye’, ‘lie’, as well as ‘night’. So, the phoneme pronounced ‘eye’ can have the written graphemes ‘y’, ‘ye’, ‘ie’ and ‘igh’.
You can see from this that there is a downside to phonics when it comes to teaching spelling: whilst it can make reading easier to learn, the number of possible graphemes to choose from can make spelling more of a challenge. For the 44 phonemes in the English language, children need to learn many more graphemes in order to spell them all. There is some considerable debate over the numbers, some conservative sources state there are around 130 graphemes whilst others say there are as many as 461. However, even at its lower end, you can still see how children can become easily confused.
Segmenting and blending
Segmenting is the term children are taught to mean the breaking down of words into individual phonemes when trying to spell (they find breaking into sounds easy, the difficulty, as mentioned above, comes with matching the correct grapheme to the sound). When teaching a child to learn a spelling using phonics, the first thing you need to do is to get them to segment the word into its phonemes and then write down the corresponding grapheme. If they choose the wrong one, then you may need to point them in the right direction.
One of the difficulties with English, particularly with spelling, is that many of the words in the language are imported from other languages. Words beginning with the letters ‘ch’ are a good example. Used as in champagne, with a ‘sh’ sound, the origin is French, used as in chaos, with a k sound, the origin is Greek. This means that there is really no uniform spelling pattern which links sounds to letters, hence the larger number of graphemes in comparison to phonemes.
Blending is the term they are taught when putting individual phonemes together to pronounce a word when reading.
Digraph is the term used to describe a single phoneme that in written form is made up of two separate letters. For example, the ‘oa’ that comes in the middle of ‘coal’ or the when ‘s’ and ‘h’ come together to make ‘sh’ as in ‘show’. In addition, if both the letters are made from vowels this is called a vowel digraph, where they are both consonants they are called consonant digraphs.
A trigraph is when three letters represent a single phoneme, as in the ‘igh’ in ‘night’ or ‘eau’ in beautiful.
Split digraphs are one of the most difficult phonetic concepts for children to understand, but they are so common in the English language they will not be able to read fluently until they have grasped the concept – so it’s vital that they learn this quickly and using the split digraph terminology to do so.
Most parents will grasp the concept quickly if I refer to it by it’s old nickname – the magic ‘e’. Basically, if you add an ‘e’ to the end of a word it changes how you would pronounce the word, or more precisely, how you would pronounce the previous vowel in the word.
The word ‘fat’ when pronounced has the phonemes ‘fuh’ ha’ and ‘tuh.’ However, if you add an ‘e’ on the end to make ‘fate’ the letter ‘a’ is now pronounced ‘hay’ instead of ‘ha’. The letter is the same, but the phoneme is pronounced differently because of the addition of the magic ‘e’.
In phonics, this is called a split digraph, because it combines the ‘a’ and ‘e’ to make the digraph ‘hay’, but the two letters are split up by the ‘t’. Other examples of split digraphs include ‘life’, ‘rate’, ’tile’, ‘hope’ etc.
You can tell when a child has not grasped how to pronounce split digraphs because instead of reading fate as ‘fayt’ they will say ‘fatty’. Here, they are saying the ‘a’ and ‘e’ as separate phonemes instead of a single one.
Teachers are renowned for using abbreviations and this is apparent in the teaching of phonics. However, there are only two you need to be aware of and these are easy to grasp: C for consonant and V for vowel. They are used to show children the pattern of consonant and vowel graphemes in written words. So CVC stands for consonant – vowel – consonant as seen in the word ‘big; and VC, vowel – consonant is seen in the word ‘each’ (remember although ‘each’ has four letters, it has only two graphemes ‘ea’ and ‘ch’ as the grapheme is a written version of a phoneme and some phonemes, digraphs and trigraphs, can be made of more than more letter). There are more complex patterns of vowels and consonants in words, children encounter these as they move on to longer words.
Phases of Phonics Teaching
The teaching of phonics is divided into six phases which usually begin as soon as children begin school, sometimes phase one is even taught in preschool. The first phases are very basic but soon begin to get increasingly complex as children’s reading develops. Although most children learn at a similar rate some children will develop at a quicker pace to others.
Also note that children who have learned to read before they get to school may not have learned using these skills, so whilst they may be fairly fluent readers and reading itself may not be difficult for them, learning phonics will be something they have to start from scratch. Learning new terminology and techniques for this way of reading is likely to be as challenging for them as every other child, indeed, it might make it even more difficult for them if they have already trained their brains in one way of learning words.
There is also some concern in academic circles about whether there is any need to teach phonics to children who can already read by the time they get to school. Some believe it can hold these children back. From a personal point of view, my eldest daughter could read fluently, without phonics, by the time she started school and whilst it’s been a new skill for her to learn, I don’t see it has been of any benefit to her at all. Whilst she could not phonetically blend words she did not know, she was quite capable of blending syllables by herself if she was unsure of how to pronounce a word. I can’t say for definite that it has held her back, except to say that all the time spent learning phonics could have been better spent on developing other literacy skills. In contrast, my youngest daughter could not read more than a few words by the time school started, yet by the time she got to the end of reception year the phonics system had helped her massively, she can now read exceptionally well for her age and constantly uses blending to help her when she is stuck.
I can’t say for definite that it has held her back, except to say that all the time spent learning phonics could have been better spent on developing other literacy skills. In contrast, my youngest daughter could not read more than a few words by the time school started, yet by the time she got to the end of reception year the phonics system had helped her massively, she can now read exceptionally well for her age and constantly uses blending to help her when she is stuck.
Phase One focuses on developing a child’s speaking and listening skills and is designed to familiarise children with everyday sounds in order to get them ready to blend and segment phonemes. Phase 1 has seven stages all of which involve: tuning into sounds and being able to look at similarities and differences between sounds; listening to and remembering sounds and patterns of sound; talking about sounds and learning new terminology.
Phase 2 is when children are introduced to letters, graphemes and their sounds. This is often done one phoneme / grapheme at a time in the following sets:
Set 1: s, a, t, p
Set 2: i, n, m, d
Set 3: g, o, c, k
Set 4: ck, e, u, r
Set 5: h, b, f, ff, l, ll, ss
At this point, children will start learning to blend and segment simple words usually three or four letters long. Alongside this, children are introduced to simple but irregular words where phonics cannot be applied to the reading and spelling. Children are taught to call these, ‘tricky words’ and they include such words as ‘I’ and ‘the’.
Phase 3 begins when children are at a stage when they are able to blend and segment words using the the graphemes / phonemes taught in Phase 2. During Phase 3 twenty-five new graphemes / phonemes are introduced one at a time. these are:
By the time students reach Phase 4 it is expected that children will be able to recognize all graphemes above, be able to pronounce them and in most cases be able to write them. During Phase 4 they will blend these phonemes to read CVC words and segment CVC words for spelling, doing so with increasing confidence. At the same time, they should also develop the skills to read simple two syllable words. Finally, they should also be able to read all the irregular words learned during these phases and be able to spell most of them.
In phase 5, children begin to learn new graphemes and where they exist, their differing pronunciations, for example, ‘ow’ can be pronounced differently depending on whether it part of ‘sowing’ or ‘how’. It’s the complexity of the English language which can cause problems for children here – for ‘sow’ itself can be pronounced in two separate ways depending on whether one is talking about growing seeds or female pigs!
It’s at phase 5 where children begin to focus in on spelling. Using phonics again, they learn to spell by choose the right grapheme to represent the phoneme. This is why, when you read young children’s work, it often is spelled incorrectly, but when read phonetically, makes sense. This is because they have not yet grasped the right grapheme to choose.
In phase 6, the focus is even more on learning spelling. Here they will be taught the rules for adding suffixes (endings) to words. This includes rules like adding ‘-ed’ to create past tense and -ing’ to create present tense, eg, walk becomes waled or walking. The main suffixes taught at this stage are:
I would start off by showing Youtube videos, such as the Alphablocks one shown above that you can watch with your child to help them to learn the sounds and associate them with their graphemes.
Playing with things like foam bath letters and magnetic letters is another way to make learning fun. If you do this, make sure you start with lower case letters and not capitals, as these are where they will start at school. Mixing capitals and lower case letters can be confusing for a child so stay with lower-case until they know them all before moving on to capitals.
When you name letters or talk about them, do use the phonetic sound, rather than the name of letter. Ha, buh, Kuh, duh, eh, instead of hay, bee, see, dee, he.
There are also some excellent resources available. Jolly Phonics is an educational publisher who was recommended to me by primary literacy advisor. They have a fantastic reputation in schools for providing phonics resources to help children learn to read. Their catalogue includes: reading books, workbooks, flashcards, dvds, phonics sounds and graphemes wall stickers and even phonics song CDs.
I’ve just come across a perfect selection of books for advanced young readers. The Usbourne Young Reading Classics are a collection of beautifully illustrated classic novels rewritten for younger readers.
What makes this collection excellent is that it includes many of the great texts from the English literary canon that high achievers would be expected to read. There are many traditional older children’s books, such as Robinson Crusoe, Heidi and Pinocchio and then there are some really grown up classics from writers such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen and the Brontes.
Whilst these are suitably challenging books for advanced young readers, they are ideal for younger children because they have been rewritten especially for them and are heavily illustrated with lots of colourful pictures which young children still love to lok at no matter how well they can read.
If you have a four to eight year old who is a good reader, needs challenging to the next level and is running out of suitable books aimed at their age group, then these are the books for you. The books come in several difficulty levels, so once your child improves their reading skills you can move them up to the next one.
My latest kids’ book review has turned out to be very exciting indeed. The book I have chosen is ‘Sophie’s Squash’ by Pat Zietlow Millerand Anne Wilsdorf – and not only did I manage to interview Pat, she also kindly agreed to giveaway a signed first edition copy to one of our lucky readers! ‘Sophie’s Squash’ is an endearing story, about love, friendship and just a little bit about growing up. The story centres around a little girl called Sophie who chooses a squash on a trip to the farmers’ market with her parents. When she get’s home, instead of letting her mom cook it, she adopts it. She even gives it a name: Bernice. From that moment, a wonderful friendship is born and Sophie and Bernice are inseparable. This certainly clicked with me, having one daughter with an imaginary friend and another who crafts characters out of various bits of odds and ends and then has to take them out shopping with us and ride them in the trolley. It certainly was a story that they would love. As the story continues and winter begins to near, Sophie, who failed to heed her parents’ gentle warnings that Bernice will begin to rot, start’s to notice that changes are taking place. Nature is running its course. This is the touching and growing up part of the story. What can a little girl to do when the squash she loves is in trouble? ‘Sophie’s Squash’ is a delightful story, well told and perfect for reading to the kids – especially now as winter approaches. It’s beautifully illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf who manages to create a perfect setting and atmosphere for the tale as well as creating some very funny pictures to compliment the text and bring the characters to life.
What the critics have said about ‘Sophie’s Squash’
Booklist, August 1, 2013: “In a perfect blend of story and art, the humorous watercolor-and-ink illustrations are bursting with color and energy on every page… This is a paean to love and friendship, which can come in all species, shapes, and sizes.” School Library Journal, July 2013: “With lessons on life, love, and vegetable gardening, this tale will be cherished by children, and their parents will be happy to read it to them often.” Publishers Weekly, May 27, 2013: “Sensitive but funny…Miller’s easygoing storytelling taps into the familiar scenario of children making fierce attachments to favorite objects.” Buy Sophie’s Squash from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
Here’s what Pat Zietlow Miller had to say when I interviewed her:
What inspired you to write SOPHIE’S SQUASH? My daughter, Sonia, fell in love with a squash when she was small. It was so sweet. She wasn’t as dedicated as Sophie is in my story, but she was definitely the inspiration for the book. I took what happened to her and asked, “What if she hadn’t wanted to give the squash up?” “What if she kept it so long it began to rot?” Tell us a little bit about Bernice, the squash. Bernice is the perfect friend. She loves unconditionally, listens to secrets but doesn’t tell them, and is always up for whatever Sophie wants to do. Plus, as Sophie says, she’s “just the right size to love.” Really, who wouldn’t want a friend like Bernice? Is there a message in the book that you want children to understand? I didn’t write the book with a message in mind, but as the book evolved, I think the message became: “Friends come in all shapes and sizes.” And that’s what I write in every book I sign. You never can tell who will matter in your life – especially at first glance.The illustrations are fantastic, what attracted you to the work of Anne Wilsdorf? I just adore the illustrations. I hold Anne Wilsdorf in a special kind of awe. Interestingly enough, we’ve never met and I had nothing to do with her being chosen to illustrate the book. The folks at Schwartz & Wade matched us together, and I don’t think they could have done a better job. Anne made Sophie and Bernice and their family come to life in the most wonderful way. I understand you have several other books in the pipeline, what are they about? I have three books that are in the process of being published.
SHARING THE BREAD is a celebration of food and family and togetherness as seen during one down-home Thanksgiving dinner.
WHEREVER YOU GOis a poem about all the different paths you can take in life.
THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE is the story of a little girl in 1960s Clarksville, Tennessee, who dreams of being the fastest girl in the world – just like her hero, sprinter Wilma Rudolph, who made history as the first woman from the United States to win three gold medals at one Olympics.
They’re all quite different from each other, but that’s one of the things I like best about being a writer. There are so many different stories to write and so many ways to write them. You also review books for children on your own website, ‘Read, Write, Repeat’. What’s your favourite book you have reviewed? Oh, that’s a hard one. I am a huge reader and book lover, so I have lots of favorites. Two I especially remember enjoying are STAND STRAIGHT, ELLA KATE by Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise and IMOGENE’S LAST STAND by Candace Fleming and Nancy Carpenter. The first is the true story of Ella Kate Ewing, a young woman who grew to be 8 feet tall. It tells how she embraced her differences to enjoy life. The endpapers feature the actual size of her shoe and her gloves. The second is a fictional account of a young girl who saves her town’s historical society from destruction. It features quotes from lots of famous people artfully woven into the story. Both are wonderful, wonderful picture books.
As a former English teacher, one thing I can tell you is that early readers do much better at school. They understand their books better, have superior writing skills, can express their ideas more articulately and they have a wider understanding of the world than non-readers. In addition, they enjoy learning, are highly motivated and are a step ahead of the class from day one.
But how do you get your kids reading early? Well, here are some helpful tips for you to try that have been proven to work.
1) Use foam bath letters
Foam bath letters are a great way to teach the alphabet and to learn the spelling of simple words. We used with our daughters from about 12 months old and within 6 months they could arrange the entire alphabet and write their name.
The best way to start is to let them play with the letters, but each time they pick one up, tell them what letter it is and the sound it makes. After this, begin to ask them to find letters. Once they can do this, the next stage is to sequence the letters on the side of the bath. It’s a fun way to learn and children really enjoy taking part.
If you want to encourage early reading, it’s important to read with rather than read to your kids. To do this, make sure your child can see the book and trace the words with your fingers as you read out aloud. Although they won’t understand the words at first, they will begin to realize that the sounds are linked with the marks on the page and that you read from left to right and from top to bottom. Both of these are essential things to grasp before children can learn to read.
Once your child has learned a few letters, you can get them to spot them as you read. ‘Can you find the b?’
Another helpful hint is to use colourful books with lift up flaps or textured illustrations. These increase children’s pleasure and fascination with the books and help motivate them to read. As you read, remember to ask questions or get them to interact with the story. ‘What’s under the flap?’ ‘Can you find the rabbit?’ ‘What letter does that word begin with?’
3) Join the library
A library is like an Aladdin’s cave for young children learning to read. Let them go and explore, open books, look at pictures and find books for you to read with them. If you can, don’t just take the books home, read them in the library too. It then becomes a world of adventures.Joining a library will also give you a better idea of what to buy for your home collection too.
4) Choose the right books
There are countless children’s books available and choosing the right ones for your child can often seem an improbable task. However, here is a list of some things to look for:
colourful picture books
relatively easy vocabulary (gradually getting more challenging)
The more your child enjoys stories and books the sooner they will want to be able to read them for themselves. If they love one particular story more than others and keep asking you to read it, you may eventually find they know the opening off by heart. This is a great opportunity for you to ask them to read it to you. They won’t actually be able to read at first, but if they know they words and you point at the written word whilst they say it, they will soon associate the two, and this is one of the first steps to real reading.
5) Book talk
Talking about books goes a long way to develop kids’ reading. Asking questions helps them understand the book and lets you know how well they are learning the stories. You can ask them about their favourite characters, what they think will happen on the next page, whether they like or dislike what has just happened. You can get them to tell their own stories based on the books you have read. All this will help develop an interest in books and learning and keep your child wanting to read.