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Increase Fluency and Make Reading Stick

Your child has just started to read and you are bursting with excitement and pride! Immediately you go on the hunt for fresh reading material as they exhaust your limited supply.

It’s a significant milestone when your child starts reading and you want to keep them progressing but how? When choosing early reader books, you want them developmentally appropriate AND I strongly suggest you postpone getting your beginning or struggling readers leveled books and I'll tell you why.

Reason being is that children need to figure out how the English code actually works and the best way is to build up a sound-based decoding foundation. Most often leveled readers don't teach or reveal to the reader very strongly how the code works. Francine Johnston did a study about levelled readers in 1998. Her definition of a levelled reader is, ”it’s where word recognition is supported by the illustrations, by patterned repetitive language, by rhythm and rhyme and by the child's ability to anticipate and quickly memorize the language.”

Many programs start our kindergarteners or first graders off with these types of books however Francine Johnston points out what they're designed to have kids focus on and it’s not what you would think. She led a study where she had the kids read and re-read leveled books with predictable text only to be disappointed and discover that despite reading the books 10 times a day over a 4 day period most students did not on the average seem to learn a great many words. The results were so low that the study raised many questions about the use of predictable text in the early stages of learning to read. The research has shown us how ineffective they are. The words simply weren’t sticking; reason being is that students were not directed to pay attention to sound-based decoding and to figuring out how those sounds and symbols line up and work together. What they were being directed to think about were other things like rhythm, rhyme and language, which are all wonderful things but do not reveal to your child how the code works. So essentially, they were off task when reading.

Sound based decoding is the foundation on which word identification is built and the foundation on which fluency is built. Francine determined that predictable text may be problematic in terms of word learning, as it offers considerable support from the context, making it easy to read but may not encourage careful processing of the print. In addition, the words used to write predictable text are often not the words children find easiest to learn. For example your child begins reading an early book which has the word hippopotamus because there's a picture of a hippopotamus but hippopotamus is not the easiest word to start to learn to read. A better start for your struggling or beginning reader would be with a word like “m-a-t” with decodable text.

Here we help children in as little as 7 weeks to get a strong decoding foundation using our Bright Futures Reading System where we build a very strong decoding foundation and then have them immediately apply it in a variety of decodable texts. You will find that once a child has a strong decoding foundation, they will accelerate their reading much faster than if they do not. Another important tip to know is to match the decodable text with the instructional target sound. So if you're studying the short ‘a’ sound, then you would read texts that have a lot of short ‘a’ words. For example, if you did word work with short ‘a’ in our activities “Build It” and “Swap It” along with our multiple multi-sensory Early Readers activities then you would see a reading text something similar to: “I am Sam. I am Pam. I am …the child puts in their own name” or “Sam sat. Sam and Pam sat.” You want to offer them multiple “short vowel a” reading opportunities. Then as they move up higher in their decoding development and their phonics knowledge and you're studying the “short u” sound, then you would practice words and passages with the “short u” sound. This is exactly what will help them figure out the English code.

Jim Cunningham, a prominent reading researcher, and his colleagues did a research analysis of 80 different levelled reading recovery books and they found that these books were not focused on word recognition at all for any of the levels. They were focused on other things outside of and not supportive of learning word attack and word recognition which is essentially the main work of the beginner reader.

The reality is if we want kids to transfer the knowledge from word work activities the best thing we can do for them is give them opportunities to practice it and that's why I'm suggesting they initially read decodable texts that will enable them to transfer and apply their new found skills more easily and quickly helping them retain it in their long term memory.

Let’s compare this with learning math concepts. Suppose you are teaching your Kindergarten class the concept of addition such as 1 + 1 = 2, 1 + 2 = 3, 1 + 3 = 4, then you move onto adding by twos. Now would you expect them to be able to accurately answer 4 + 3 =7, 7 + 5 = 12, 6 + 8 = 14, 7 + 2 = 9, or 10 + 3 = 13? Would that support application of what they had previously learned? Certainly not! It’s too big of a leap. They were just adding with 1’s and 2’s and they’ve not had enough practice. It's simply too hard. Intuitively we don't do that with math, but we do it with reading all the time. We've been tricked into doing it from mainstream programs that are marketed well. If you're introducing the “short o sound” would you then have them read this little book that says, “This is Jill, Jill lives in Edmonton, Edmonton is in Alberta, Jill lives with her Aunt Susan, Jill loves her Aunt Susan?” If a child reads that book a number of times, it might be interesting to read but is it going to be a great follow up to a word study on the “short o sound?” Absolutely not! It's not designed for that. On the other hand, we have loads of passages at the beginning reading levels that follow letter sound instruction and target a specific sound in a decodable text. Here’s a passage from Early Readers Academy. “Mom on cot. Mom got on cot. Mom got off cot." And so on. And another, “Dog hop. Dog hop on top. Dog hop on log.” This type of text is going to be more likely to cause them to apply their newly learned decoding skills and experience success and mastery.

Truth be told if you want your child to move ahead in their reading ability and have it stick, I hope you would consider postponing using predictable text or levelled readers, particularly if you have a beginning or struggling reader. Hold off on those types of books to start because almost invariably when a kid struggles to learn to read, they lack the sound-based decoding foundation and the best way to build it up is to teach them word attack strategies in the context of a word, sentences and stories. Ones like you would get through our “Build It” and “Swap It” activities along with all of our other activities and then to apply those skills into real reading that's focused on the sounds they are learning. That will yield tremendous growth and give them a strong foundation that will launch them into accelerated reading skills.

To help you understand what I mean I will share with you a little of what we do at Early Readers Academy. Each lesson introduces a sound such as “short o” and includes a whole lot of activities and we read a lot of “short o” passages. Then we follow that up with decodable text that has the “short o sound” all through it. At the same time we are integrating multiple reading processes in every single one of our activities. They are connecting phonemic awareness in print, making the letter-sound connection, understanding phonics, word attack skills, blending, tracking, left to right progression, sentence fluency, printing, comprehension and more all in a multi-sensory way AND they are building a file folder or schema in their mind for this letter sound and it’s many applications. That is just the preface to then of course reading something that's going to build on all the activities they just did. It’s very intentional, meaningful and purposeful. You can get more through our website or by joining our membership and getting in-depth training where we build these pieces together. Inside the Early Readers Academy, children do a lot of work with a targeted sound and then read words in many different activities to practice and reinforce the sound in words, sentences and passages. That’s going to be the best way for them to apply their knowledge with accuracy, experience success and put it into their long term memory.

Now do you understand why I'm suggesting initially start out your beginning and struggling readers with books that are decodable and target a specific sound after they have had explicit instruction on how to read that sound? This will give them mastery and make learning to read that much easier and more enjoyable.

So what can you do at home? Consider what your child has learned so far with phonics and decoding and then make a text that matches the letter sound(s) they're studying. If you would prefer it all done for you using a systematic approach with progressive activities, video lessons, parent trainings, and decodable texts making reading easier to learn and even comes with a reading expert guiding you along each step of the way then head over to where it’s all ready for you!

My final thoughts for you are to carefully consider squeezing in some more decodable texts for your child when they are still in need of learning how the code works, provide some sound based decoding and then apply it in a coded text. With my experience and the proven research data to back it up, it will be better for your child in their early stages of learning to read. Children don't need the stress of getting bogged down reading levelled text but rather they need the challenge of decodable text where yes they work hard while they're figuring out how the code works, however it simplifies the reading process making it more systematic and ultimately easier for them.

Personally, as a teacher I got significantly better results by not leveling my students in programmed level books and it still amazes me at the progress they make in such a short time. Think about what this will do for you and your beginning reader as they practice their skills in practical and meaningful ways learning to read in a much simpler and easier way to learn.

As a parent it reduces the stress when I know that the text I'm putting in front of my child is going to actually help them make progress from reading it. When you see the progress it’s much more gratifying than when I was working with those older kids, when I first started teaching, who weren't even able to read at the 1st grade level. I remember putting something in front of them and I wasn't sure if it was actually even helping them read but if you know where they are in their decoding development and you match the text to that, and you see them make the progress and they see the progress - that's a whole lot more gratifying for everyone!

Choose not to use levelled text particularly with your beginning or struggling readers. There's a time and a place for that type of reading material much later in their reading journey when they have figured out how the English code works. You and your child are better off to align your text with word attack instruction and that will help you to see your child improve much faster and develop a stronger reading foundation which will benefit them in the long run and make learning to read easier and more enjoyable!

Mary Printz aka Miss Mary is the co-founder of Early Readers Academy and Accelerated Potential Academy. She is an educational consultant, researcher, Reading Specialist and International speaker. Contact her at

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