One crucial task of early reading instruction is developing a child’s attention to the “how” of reading. Skilled readers, even though they may not be aware of this, learned proficient reading strategies through attending to letter sequences and how they map to words. The books children are given to read can contribute or distract from this purpose.
Do ‘easy’ reader or ‘beginning reader’ help all beginning readers? Let’s look at three different beginning readers and the beginning reader, Danny and the Dinosaur, to measure if the book will contribute to their reading growth.
Our first strong beginning reader comes to the word ‘museum’. Initially he may say it as “muss’ ‘see’ ‘um’ …. then quickly says, “Oh, museum” and goes on his merry way with the text. She has demonstrated the critical use of the letter sequence, even though she most likely does not know the pattern of an open syllable (which indicates a long vowel sound ‘mu’ and ‘se’). But she followed the letter/sound sequence producing a close approximation of the word and then used her vocabulary to derive the word.
The next strong early reader may start with the first few letters of ‘museum’ and say ‘muss….’ then hesitate, but when given a simple prompt, “Use the letter ‘u’s name sound.” confidently moves through the word to also derive ‘museum.’ These children have internalized the process it takes to identify a word. For these children this book, although presenting challenging words, is suitable since the book is not so difficult that they abandon careful processing of the letters’ order and sound approximations nor do they resort to guessing without reference to the letter sequence.
Our third beginning reader comes to the word ‘museum’ and simply looks away from the print to the picture on the page and says ‘building.’ Or perhaps he uses the ‘m’ letter and says ‘mansion’ or some such. He then moves on happy with his guesses which made sense. But now the word ‘delighted’ is in the book and the picture doesn’t help much. And the letter-sound correspondences he knows would make the word ‘del – ig- huh-ed’ . Del – ig- huh- ted isn’t even a close approximation to a real word so he retreats from this approach because it makes no sense at all and either skips the word or asks the adult what the word is. He may even conclude that letters are a secondary approach to figure out words.
This book is influencing the child to develop weak word identification skills and to use letter sequences in a haphazard way. When he comes to the word ‘bundles’, he may have surmised from his experiences so far that using letter sequences is often futile. So, even though he actually could have easily read the ‘b – u- n’ part of the word), he glances away from the word to the picture (a lady carrying bags and boxes) and then using only the first letter ‘b’ pronounces the word ‘bags.’ This makes sense for the story and eliminates full letter processing, which has become tedious and more work than he wants. For this student the easy reader is loaded with roadblocks and detours from efficient word identification.
Although a ‘guess and go’ worked quite well for this book – it will not serve him to read accurately in the future, e.g. when he comes to other unrecognized words with a ‘b-u-n’ letter sequence. So ‘bungalow’ is more easily read as ‘house;’ ‘ and ‘bungee’ as ‘rubber band;’ and ‘bunk’ as ‘futon.’ The type of errors we so often hear made by older struggling readers. Reading by guessing is ‘bunk’ and the child will ‘bungle’ the important task of learning to read accurately.
Proficient readers apply what is known as the alphabetic principle and realize that the letter order is key to determining a word. Stop, spot, tops, pots all share the same letters but it is the order of those letters and their corresponding sound sequence that identifies the word. Additionally they learn there are no hard and fixed rules and they develop a mind set for diversity.
For some children this understanding and its application to reading takes additional time and effort. If a child is reading books which result in over reliance on inefficient reading practices they are being robbed of an opportunity to become proficient readers. The books we give a child to read must support them in the development of efficient word recognition strategies.