From the May/June, 2011 issue of Touchstone

Opening Day by Kathie Johnson

Opening Day

One of the special moments I often get to see in my children’s library is when a child first begins to read. I have a large collection of “just-beginning-to-read” books, some of them using phonics, others using sight words. I have most of the regular series, including Bob Books, Step into Reading, School Zone, and many others. However, there are several special sets that have been particularly successful in helping to launch new readers. Different children with different learning styles will respond better to one over another, so when parents ask me what to try, I generally show them all of these.

Two sets are from England and are part of the massive Ladybird series. The first is a structured, sight-word reading series very much like Dick and Jane, though in this case, it’s Peter and Jane. The series uses a “Key Words” system, with the new words listed at the back of each book. The pictures are colorful and lovely and appeal to certain kids enough to motivate them.

The second Ladybird set is a series called Puddle Lane, by Sheila McCullagh. This is a “shared reading” series, meaning that each page spread is set up so that the parent/adult reads one page first, and then the child, with the help of picture clues, reads the much simpler facing page, which picks up from what the adult has read. This is a fantasy series, which includes a magician, saucers that fly, adventurous cats, and such like. There is nothing scary about the stories; they are a lot of fun. Some children respond to these with great enthusiasm. It’s a long series, so by the time you reach the end, a child who has gone all the way through will be reading well.

More Appealing Approaches

Another approach that works well with certain children is the 10-Word Readers. These clever, wonderfully illustrated books by Patty Wolcott have only ten words each, so most children can memorize them fairly quickly. But these are no “Dick and Jane” words. They are amazing words. One of my favorite books in this series is The Marvelous Mud Washing Machine. The title has most of the ten words, but the book also includes “boy,” “beautiful,” “for,” “dinner,” and “now.” The words are used many times in different ways to tell a funny story. I remember one boy who loved Beware of a Very Hungry Fox. Once he had mastered the words, he had great fun making up his own story with them.

Children who love fairy tales may find that learning to read with simplified versions is appealing. The simple sight-word versions by Margaret Hillert are attractively illustrated and tell well-known stories. “The Cookie House,” for example, tells the story of Hansel and Gretel, using 60 words. A typical passage reads, “Mother is not here. Father is not here. I do not like this.”

The series in my library that has been most successful is a very basic one, with no color. I’m not even sure what it should be called, although the back of each book indicates “SWRL” from Ginn and Company. This is a phonics-based series, beginning with very simple words and gradually building. Each thin paperback book is only 10–14 pages long, with a line drawing taking up most of each page and a few words underneath. You can get an idea of the simplicity when you know that Sam Sat is Book 11. Many, many children have started reading with this series—all the earliest books in my library are checked out just now—and I only wish I could find the ones I’m missing. I’ve never been clear on what the attraction is; I only know that these books work amazingly well, and most kids seem to love them.

Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

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