Teaching Emerging Readers

by beagooddad on May 7, 2008

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The signs of summer are everywhere. Dandelions, bees, sleepy evenings from sitting out in the fresh air for too long. And the summer reading program at the library.

We always do the summer reading program which so far has meant that we have to read a certain number of books to the kids. With both kids getting ready for kindergarten and becoming “emerging readers” (that was actually in Pookie’s IEP), we decided that we are going to let the kids read their books to us this year. We have checked out a few of those very early reader books from the library and they do a pretty good job with them.

Other than just throwing books at kids, what can you do to help an emerging reader improve their reading? I’m not an expert, but these are some of the things that we currently do are and are going to try this summer.

Rote memorization seems to have lost quite a bit of popularity over the years because it is boring and tedious. But when learning to read, there is no greater tool than actually knowing what the individual words and phrases are. Phonetics is great and definitely important but even with that at some point you have to know that the letters b-a-l-l spell the word ball and that a ball is one of those spherical things we sometimes throw at each other in the back yard.

But what words do early readers need to know.

  • Most common words – With a quick search on your search engine of choice, you will find a lot of lists showing English words sorted by frequency. The one that I bookmarked is the 1000 Most Common Vocabulary Words on about.com. I’m sure the kids already know a fair number of those but definitely not all of them. Learning the most common words is beneficial because they are the ones they will encounter most frequently in print. Knowing these common words will make it easier to use context clues to figure out some of the ones they might not know in a sentence.
  • Logical word groups – This would include learning all of the words describing things you could find in a bathroom or all of the animals you would find at a pet store or the names of all the different dishes, cups, and silverware in the kitchen. If you ever learned a foreign language in high school or college, this is most likely how vocabulary was introduced. By learning the groups of words together, you have a frame of reference for each word. Plus, when you are reading and encounter a word (lets say “spoon”), you are probably pretty likely to also see other similar words (like “fork”, “knife” and “butter dish”).
  • Words as you encounter them – When you are reading and encounter a new word, you can either grab a dictionary right then or write it down to look up later. Early readers are frequently going to see unknown words in almost anything they read. These are great words to add to a vocabulary list.

One of the best ways to learn a new word is to actually write it down. The physical act of forming the letters gives the brain something in addition to just the visual input to use when remembering something. Early readers are not going to sit around making up sentences and stories for each word they encounter, so how can you get them to use the writing of the words to help learn how to read the words?

  • Make lists – When you are getting ready to go on a quick trip to the store to pick up a few things, let your kids make the shopping list. Spell the words out loud and let them do the writing. If they have trouble forming the letters, write the words and let them trace your writing.
  • Write letters to mom, dad, Grandma, teacher, and any pets. Have your kid dictate the letter, then you spell the words (or write them for your kid to trace) and let them do the writing. Geetle is a huge fan of this and is constantly running around the house asking us how to spell “ice cream” or “toys” for a letter she is writing. In addition to helping with reading, this is a great exercise for getting kids comfortable with holding a pencil
  • Copy books – When I was a kid, my mom had an electric typewriter that I would frequently use to copy my Little Golden Books (I never sold any of my copies for profit, I promise). When the typewriter was hiding, I would use my trusty crayons. I watched Geetle doing this the other day completely unprompted. It must just be something that kids naturally want to do. After writing all the words, there is usually plenty of space for your kid to draw their own pictures, too.

Practice reading
The best way to learn to read, of course, is to actually read. Our kids are constantly looking at books. They are everywhere in the house and a constant source of entertainment. But looking at the books is different than reading them. Here are a few things we do to get the kids to actually do their own reading:

  • Mess up words – When I read stories to the kids, I often “accidentally” misread about one or two words per page. They almost always correct me. I work hard to find more obscure words and misread them as words that sound pretty similar but they are almost always on to me.
  • Read to the baby, pet, stuffed animals – When we are busy, the kids are often prompted to read a book to Giggles. She loves the attention (and pictures) and the kids get to practice reading. Our library has a program for kids in 1st grade and above to sit at the library and read to a dog for 20 minutes. Even stuffed animals would make great listening buddies for your early reader.
  • Let them pick their own food off the menu – They will often pick things that have a picture, but with a little guidance they can learn to read all of the options before making their final choice.
  • Let them pick their own books – As a kid, I hardly ever read a book that was assigned to me. But I was always getting in trouble for reading a book during class. To a kid, assigned books = boring, books they choose = cool. Our kids have a tendency to pick the same kinds of books (like only Arthur books or only Curious George books). We always let them have that free choice at this stage. If you really want your kid to learn about farm life, you could preselect a handful of books and let them pick one or two from your selection.
  • In 1st grade, our teacher had us read stories out loud and recorded them on tape so we could listen to ourselves read. It was a blast. Most kids are fascinated by recording themselves. Break out the old cassette recorder or video camera and let your kid practice their out loud reading. Listening to their own voice on the playback while reading the book is also a great way for them to hear words that they might have misread the first time.

Let them see you read
Young kids have a strong tendency to be interested in the things their parents are interested in. If your kids see you sitting around reading a book for your own pleasure/interest/education, there is a great chance they are going to be more interested in reading, too.

That’s most of our summer reading plans with the kids. What things are you going to be trying? What has worked or not worked for you?

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