In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Guest blogger: my mom, on teaching kids to read

Dear Aunt Debbie,

To continue our conversation about learning to read, with some book recommendations and technical know-how, here's my mom (who has written her own early reader books, and has guest blogged for us before):

Dear Sister Debbie and Daughter Annie,

Thank you so much for the shout-out on my little books!   It’s fun to see them on your wonderful blog.  I always knew that you liked them, but it’s quite another thing to read that you like them!  We are going to try to find a way to make them available for download over the internet soon, in case anyone is interested.

I wrote those books when I was working as a reading specialist, so my job was to teach kids who had problems learning to read.  The method I found most successful was to teach them phonics in a very structured way and, once they had mastered the consonant sounds, I got them started reading right away in phonetically regular books, so that they would be sure to have success right off the bat, and would find that reading was fun.  

I wrote my little books to fill in the gap between blending sounds to make words and reading the first phonics readers.

It’s important for kids not to have too many unfamiliar words in whatever they are trying to read, especially when it’s their first book.  Before I showed grand-daughter Eleanor the little short-a books I wrote, I made sure that she could put together the sounds of the words that were in the books, so that she could recognize and/or figure out, for example, the difference between “bat” and “bag” when she saw those words in a story.    

[Want more technical discussion of this method of teaching reading?  See section at the bottom of this post.  Want straight-up book recommendations?  Keep reading.]

Once children had read and reread these little books or other similar ones, then I got them to read some of the Primary Phonics series, published by Educators Publishing Service (EPS).  They are available in teachers’ stores, such as the Bank Street Bookstore in New York City, or you can search for them online. [Here's the Alibris link, but a quick Google search turns up a bunch of places you can find them.  Some of the top links are Christian homeschooling sites.  This doesn't mean the phonics books have religious content, just that they're clearly used a lot in homeschooling situations.]  

Many books in this series were written by Barbara Makar, and many have some sort of welcome conflict or aggression in them, which I always felt gave them more bite than some of the non-story pap that is in many phonetic readers.

 Maybe because I couldn’t stand going through the whole phonics series with kids --and/or because once most kids are jump-started, they begin to absorb whole words whether or not they are phonetically regular -- as soon as I could, I would switch them to Real Books (i.e. not written by textbook people), like the early Dr. Seuss readers or the marvelous just-republished Monster series. 

Meet Monster: Six Stories about the World's Friendliest Monster
is a book containing a reprint of the first of many stories of a series written in 1973 by Ann Cook and Ellen Blance, and charmingly illustrated by Quentin Blake (big Roald Dahl illustrator).   As they say on the copyright page, “The authors believe that initial reading experiences should be closely linked to the spoken language of children.  Therefore, the Monster stories draw upon the words and expressions used by children from five to eight years old as they talked with the authors about Monster and his adventures.”   Here is how the first story starts:

Once upon a time there was a city.
A monster comes to this city to live.

Monster is not ugly
like other monsters.
He’s very tall,
and his head is skinny.

It has very few words per page, good spacing of the text, and nice large illustrations.  The stories in “Meet Monster” tell how monster comes to a city, decides he likes it, finds a suitable house, moves in, cleans it, looks long and hard for a friend, finds a nice little boy, and even a lady monster, and then goes to the beach with the little boy.  It is greatly to be hoped that the further adventures of Monster and Lady Monster will soon follow the republishing of these.  We used to keep battered copies of the originals where I worked, and never let them be borrowed, so that we wouldn’t lose them, they are so good.

Another wonderful series that is currently out of print but still find-able is the “Pleasure Reading Series,” written by Edward W. Dolch, Marguerite P. Dolch, and Beulah F. Jackson.  You may have heard of the Dolch Word lists, careful compilations of the most commonly used words in the English language, graded for difficulty and grade level.  The same Dolch family wrote these stories, which are retellings of famous folk and fairy tales, using a 1000-word vocabulary.   They are just wonderful, since they are written in a literate, easy-to-read style, and include lots of repetition.   “Teach reading by having kids read,” has always been my motto, and these stories do the trick.

The one drawback of the Dolch books is that they are sparsely illustrated, with just one full-page drawing per story.  But if you have a beginning reader who will feel really grown-up reading a book without pictures on every page, these books are great.  (Why doesn’t someone republish them with lots of pictures?  I wonder.)  Search just for “Dolch” at or to find them.

To give you a feeling for the diction, here is the beginning of “Beauty and the Beast,” found in “Old World Stories.”

Once upon a time, long, long ago, there lived a very rich man.  He had six daughters that he loved very much.  Since he was so rich, he gave them everything they asked for.  They had beautiful clothes to wear, the nicest things to eat, and they never had to do a bit of work.

More technical discussion of the method of teaching reading mentioned above:
I use the method embodied in the Structural Reading series written by Catherine Stern, Toni S. Gould, and Margaret Stern, a brilliant mother/daughter/daughter-in-law team, (who also, by the way, co-authored the best method for teaching arithmetic ever devised).   
They were not the first or only people to figure out that a good structured sequence for teaching phonics would be to start with 3-letter words with a vowel in the middle.  CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words are cool, because the sound of the vowel will always be short, therefore predictable.   So you teach the short-a words, then go on to the short-i words, then short-o words, and then short-u, and last but not least, short-e.   (You remove short-e from the AEIOU series and put it at the end because it’s the hardest sound to distinguish, being so schwa-like.)
A lot of programs teach in this way using so-called “word families,” rhyming words like “cat, sat, mat, bat.”  The pitfall in teaching like this is that children will tend to look at the first letter of a word, and then think they are reading it, when all they are doing is hearing the rhyme.  The genius of the Stern approach is to present the first two letters of a CVC word as a unit, and then to add on the last letter, always the hardest for a kid to hear.  So you teach them to pronounce words slowly: ba  t, ma  n, ba g, etc, lingering over the short vowel sound, and clipping the final consonant sound sharply, as if you were British.  Then you get them to assemble words with word cards, or dominoes, that you make.
They have a website for the math program, but if you go to the link for the reading program listed there, it will put you on to McGraw Hill’s website, where it will seem that you can order the books, but McGraw Hill has a weird policy of not allowing anyone but teachers to order the teachers’ editions since they don’t want kids to order them and cheat (a particularly hilarious supposition in the case of books designed to teach children to read).  So if you go there, be sure to sign in as a homeschooling parent, so you will be allowed to purchase books.  But then also be aware that when books are out of print, you will get a message that you don’t have the right credentials.   It’s probably best to give them a call.
I await with pleasure your blog readers' recommendations for good first books for kid readers.

Love, Judy
Me too!

Love, Annie


  1. This is spectacular! Thank you, dear sister.

    I read this and immediately ordered Meet Monster for the store.

  2. Thank you for recommending Meet Monster. I got a copy for my kiddo (who's in kindergarten) and it's perfect for her! She's particularly interested in the Lady Monster. Do you know whether she makes more appearances in the other Monster books?