Choosing early readers and why they matter: Early readers for early readers…
What do we mean by ‘early readers’? There are books described as ‘early readers’ but, of course, it is also a phrase used to describe children at a particular stage in learning to read. How can you support your child with such books? Alison Kelly expains.
Children’s reading journeys
Let’s start with the child. For many children, their reading journey begins long before they have the oral or aural skills needed for the actual decoding of print. And yet, already, they are learning about the joys and possibilities of reading as you will know if you have watched your toddler pick up a book and pretend to read, adopting a reading voice (probably yours) and relishing in her/his pretend role of reader and teller of the story.
Later, either with you or in their early days at school, children embark on the challenging task of learning how to decode using phonics (matching sounds to letters). English is a complex language with only 26 letters to cover its 44 or more sounds, so learning to crack this code is no mean feat and you can read about the debates and issues about this reading stage in articles in Books for Keeps* and elsewhere.
The rewards of reading
This is the point at which children are expected to start to tackle and decode simple books, often with restricted vocabulary and sounds, so they can apply their newly learnt phonic skills. As an important aside: it is absolutely crucial that you continue to share books with your child and read aloud to her/him. Early decoding can be hard work and children must never, ever be allowed to lose sight of the rewards of reading.
However, it is the next reading stage that we are interested in here. This is when the early reader child can move away from the somewhat regulated world of reading scheme texts to books – ‘early readers’ – which allow the child to flex her/his newly found reading stamina in a manageable way.
Books that hold the reader’s hand
This is a precarious point in the children’s reading. Whilst they have just about got to grips with the complex business of letters and sounds, children who are early readers have yet to develop the stamina and persistence needed to tackle longer reads. Having been held safely by their first reading books, the launch into the wider world of books is one that needs careful support. The child needs to be held securely by a book that feels like a proper, grown-up ’chapter’ book but which still offers metaphorical hand-holding. Such books need to bring together a combination of accessible language with robust and winning content. They need to inspire the child’s confidence through easy-to-follow plot lines and recognisable characters.
‘Horrid Henry’ early readers
So where better to start than with the newly revamped series of ‘Horrid Henry’ early readers? If ever a character were instantly recognisable or appealing to children, it’s the terrible Henry, product of Francesca Simon’s prose ably complemented by Tony Ross’s wicked illustrations. It is a formula that translates perfectly into the early reading format. The books have chapters, so this is a proper ‘grown up’ read, yet Simon’s pacy plot is presented in an easy-to-read and good sized font with Ross’s colourful pictures enlivening every page. All of this makes for a speedy read with the satisfaction of turning the pages and getting through the story. And with Horrid Henry on truly horrid form and his foil, Perfect Peter, on tip-top smug form, there are no disappointments here. There is a myriad of titles in the ‘Horrid Henry’ early readers series so children will be keen to get on to the next one – again the hallmark of an experienced reader. I particularly enjoyed Henry’s attempt to set up a thank you letter writing scam in Horrid Henry’s Thank You Letter.
Traditional story retellings
The ‘Horrid Henry’ books tap into children’s own interests and lives. Equally supportive are early reading books that retell traditional stories: with their distinctive and familiar ‘once upon a time’ pattern, these are predictable and easy to navigate. There are many retellings and subverted retellings of tried and tested stories: The Good Little Wolf by A H Benjamin takes the well-worn theme of a wolf trying to disprove the big bad wolf stereotype and getting into all kinds of trouble along the way. Sarah Aspinall’s quirky illustrations give the story energy and provide natural breaks in the text which give the child useful breathing space.
One of the strengths of the ‘White Wolves’ series of early readers, published in consultation with the highly esteemed Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, is that it brings some little known traditional tales to life in a vivid and accessible format The story of the chicken, Medio Pollito, in Half as Big has all the strengths of the ‘Horrid Henry’ books and children will love the rather unexpected events that befall the cocky, one-legged chicken who is convinced that he is far too important to stay at home. In the same series there is the delightful Ethiopian tale, The Hut that Grew, that tells the story of Princess Zara who is forced to leave her beautiful palace and live in a smelly hut. Again, it’s an ingenious plot with a nice twist at the end.
Pirates and princesses
Equally successful is Usborne’s ‘Young Reading’ series. Like the ‘White Wolves’, there are many traditional tales here that are likely to be new to you and your child but, because they include the predictable structure and characteristics of traditional stories, they offer the compass the child needs. First rate illustrators combine with child-friendly content. In addition to traditional tales, you will also find other stories in this well designed series to satisfy every child’s interests: there are pirates, princesses, dinosaurs, football… Robust, unpatronising plots are powered by illustrations that frequently add additional detail to the story.
On the subject of pirates and princesses, Orion Children’s Books publish a series of early readers about jolly threesomes: The Three Little Princesses, The Three Little Pirates and The Three Little Witches. Emily Bolam’s charming cartoon-like illustrations are full of enlivening detail and the annotated maps at the beginning of each book are a bonus.
How you can help
Whilst many children will happily embark on reading ‘early readers’ titles independently, some may need your help. Getting going can be tricky, particularly if the child is on unfamiliar ground as with Half as Big (in the ‘White Wolves’ series). You could try reading the first chapter to your child or maybe suggest that you take it in turns to read a page or a chapter. You could take over from your child if you feel s/he is flagging.
What to do if your child gets a word wrong or gets stuck on a word
If your child reads a word incorrectly, ask yourself whether the mistake matters or not. For instance, if, instead of ‘Mum marched into the room and switched off the TV’, your child reads ‘Mum marched into the room and turned off the TV’, there is really no need to worry as the meaning is still clear. If, on the other hand, s/he reads that Mum ‘swerved off the TV’ you will know that the meaning has been lost and you may decide to ask the child whether what s/he’s read makes sense or not. Sometimes children become so absorbed in trying to decode an unfamiliar word that they lose sight of the fact that text makes sense. I often describe this as helping children to have their ‘meaning antennae’ out at all times.
It’s also worth having a quick look through a book before your child starts to read so that you can anticipate any vocabulary that might be challenging. In Half as Big for instance, the chick’s name is ‘Medio Pollito’ – hardly a familiar name – so you could tell the child the name and find it in the book before s/he begins to read.
If a child gets stuck on a word, there are lots of ways to help. You could just tell her/him the word so as not to interfere with the flow of the story. But you may be pretty sure that it’s a word s/he could read independently so you could suggest s/he tells you what the first sound in the word is and then try to blend the rest. If it’s a word that can’t be decoded like this (‘once’ is a good example – you can’t put the sounds together in this tricky word) ask if s/he has seen the word anywhere else. Other options are to suggest the child reads back to the beginning of the sentence or ahead to the end, so that s/he is using the context of the story to predict what the word might be. And, of course, there are always the pictures to help. The important thing here is to use your judgement and not let a struggle over one word detract from the overall pace and enjoyment of the read.
All these early reading books offer a gateway into the amazing worlds that books can open up to children, so enjoy the wonderful array of early readers for your own early reader!
Alison Kelly is Principal Lecturer and Coordinator of English Education, Roehampton University.
The Good Little Wolf, A H Benjamin, ill. Sarah Aspinall, A & C Black (2010), 978 1 4081 2401 7, £9.99 hbk
‘White Wolves’ series:
Half as Big, Lily Hyde, ill. Karen Perrins, A & C Black (2010), 978 1 4081 2841 1, £4.99 pbk
The Hut that Grew, Annie Dalton, ill. Laura Clark, A & C Black (2010), 978 1 4081 2650 9, £4.99 pbk
‘Orion Early Reader’ series:
Horrid Henry’s Thank You Letter, Francesca Simon, ill. Tony Ross, Orion (2011), 978 1 4440 0105 1, £4.99 pbk
The Three Little Pirates, Georgie Adams, ill. Emily Bolam, Orion (2006), 978 1 4440 0084 9, £4.99 pbk
‘Usborne Young Reading’ series:
Stories of Pirates, Russell Punter, ill. Christyan Fox, Usborne (2007), 978 0 7460 8096 2, £4.99 hbk
* See the following, amongst other articles in the Books for Keeps archive:
‘How Should We Teach Children to Read?’ by Henrietta Dombey (BfK No.156, Jan 2006)
‘Waiting for a Jamie Oliver: Beyond bog-standard literacy’ by Henrietta Dombey (BfK No.160, Sept 2006)
‘Panic about the Teaching of Reading’ by Henrietta Dombey (BfK No.186, Jan 2011)