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.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Learning to read: word families

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm finding Eleanor's first forays into reading fascinating, and also the first time in reading to my children that I've felt like I don't fully know what I'm doing.  I have no memory of learning to read, and aside from knowing that it involves memorizing some sight words and learning to sound things out phonetically, am not sure how to best teach and encourage Eleanor.

I've asked my mom (a reading specialist, and the person whose teaching is getting Eleanor to read at the moment) and a friend who teaches kindergarten and first grade (and therefore, reading) to guest blog in the next couple of weeks, so we can get some expert voices in here.

In the meantime, I hit the library shelves yesterday on my way home.  As you mentioned in your last post, the reading levels governing each series seem wildly different.  I picked up a few books which seemed feasible in the near future, and two which I knew immediately upon looking at them would work with Eleanor right now.

These are from the Flip-a-Word series, written by Harriet Ziefert and illustrated by Yukiko Kido.  The idea behind each book is to introduce kids to "word families": words which end with two or more of the same letters.  The words are short, and within each family, they rhyme.  Once you get the end sound -- "op," "un," "an," "ig," etc. -- it's easy to change the first letter and be able to read a number of related words: "stop," "pop," "top," "cop" (Flip-a-Word:Stop Pop).

The illustrations are blocky and bold, and in each word family section, there's a page in the middle with a hole in it, so that the face on the bun is the same as the face on the sun, and the face on the boy in "run" is the same as the girl having "fun."  Each word is presented solo, then as part of a short phrase ("cop on top of pop") with an accompanying drawing.  The pigs with wigs in Flip-a-Word: Pig Wig are particularly funny.  At the end, there's a page with all the words in each family laid out together, and in each section one slightly more complex word joins them ("twig," "plan").  Finally, there's a page containing all the words used throughout the book, mixed up and in different colors and fonts.

Immediate buy-in from Eleanor.  The books are clear and simple enough for her to read aloud immediately, so there's a sense of mastery, and they're funny, so there's joy in the decoding.

I look forward to more ideas from you, too!

Love, Annie


  1. Our local library does not have the Flip-A-Word series, which I was going to suggest to you, too. It's too bad, since M is at the stage where she could probably read them. But I refuse to pay money for books that the kids will quickly outgrow. They're not the kind of books you come back to once you've mastered them. I'm glad the BPL has them!! I've heard good things about the "BOB" books, too, but again, can't find them at the NYPL. I'd love more suggestions on this level, since even most Level 1 books are too hard for M right now.

  2. This is likely unhelpful but I was like you, utterly clueless on teaching reading. My instinct went where it sounds like that Flip-A-Word goes, using word families and rhyme. We got the Bob books, which are great, at an earlier stage (age 3/4) and they are very easy to read. It was getting to the next phase,just flat out reading, that I didn't know where to go next. Noah learned it at school. When I switched him to Montessori, he got a great teacher that used what I believe are old school methods - worksheets and phonics. Within a week or so he could read, and within about two months, could read fluently. I don't know how she did it. I asked her and she showed me, but it still baffles me. It was not the "Whole Language" approach, I can tell you that much! Anyway, we basically skipped the "easy reader" books. Which is nice, as they are boring. Workbooks took their place, and while workbooks seem boring to me, Noah loved them, and I mean LOVED them. Did them obsessively those few months he was learning to read. Now that he is past that, he finds workbooks much less interesting.
    We found "Frog and Toad" to be a favorite easyish-to-read book, and of course all the picture books. Now when I read longer novels out loud, Noah likes to read the last paragraph of each page for me, and he always likes to read one or two of Drew's bedtime stories to him.

  3. Both my children read the Bob books and enjoyed them.
    We also logged many hours with "Hop on Pop" :)