Are you looking for the best books for struggling readers? You might find yourself overwhelmed the options. In this post, I describe the different types of early reader books. Each early reader book follows a certain reading method. As a consumer, it’s important to know how to select the best books for struggling readers.
Reading Elephant only advocates and offers phonics books. Phonics books are the best books for struggling readers. However, it’s important to learn about all the books on the market. Additionally, many books are sold as phonics books, but aren’t.
Basal readers are not the best books for struggling readers
First, basal readers are repetitive. In the early twentieth century, education professors who had little practical experience teaching reading decided it was time for phonics to go. They created the “look-say” approach. Children were expected to “look” at a word and “say” the word over and over again. Kids spent most of the lesson repeating common words. These education professors claimed the best books for struggling readers repeated words too.
Moreover, self-appointed education gurus claimed the “look-say” approach was “meaning-based.” Teachers introduced a few common words each lesson, like “see” “say” and “come.” Reading teachers had to teach these common words as vocabulary words. Teachers asked questions like, “When do we say come? Can you say come in a sentence? What does come mean?” Classes full of 5 and 6 year olds had to learn the definition of words like, “come.” Of course, kids already knew the meaning of these words!
Furthermore, entire books sets were sold using the “look-say” approach. Currently, there are still “look-say” books in libraries and in schools.
Sample basal reader text
Come Sally. Come. Come. Come swing with me.
Look Jerry. Look. Look. Look at the cat.
Can you see? Can you see the cat? I see the cat.
As you can see, basal readers repeat the same word over and over again. They teach common words as if they were vocabulary words. Clearly, basal readers are not the best books for struggling readers.
Whole Language books and Word Family Books are the same thing
Overall, whole language books and word family books are not the best books for struggling readers either. You might be surprised to learn that whole language books and word family books are the same. Whole language was an epic disaster, as resulted in the highest rates of illiteracy among all reading methodologies ever. No one truly wants to sell “whole language books,” because no one wants to buy whole language books. Parents know better. Parents don’t want whole language books.
No one wants to buy whole language books, so they’ve been re-packaged as word family books
By and large, parents want phonics books. There are only 10 searches per month for “whole language books,” an amount close to zero. In contrast, there are 3,600 searches per month for “phonics books.” Since no one really wants whole language books, whole language advocates found an ingenious way to give their books a marketing makeover: they sell them as “word family books.” They claim to teach phonics skills, though they don’t.
First, whole language is a reading method that encourages “whole word” reading. This means the child looks at the word and guesses. The word family approach is under the umbrella of whole language. Whole language advocates that kids memorize words in each family. For example, “bat, sat, rat, mat, and fat” are taught together.
Sample whole language text
A bat. [picture of a bat]
A rat. [picture of a rat]
A mat. [picture of a mat]
A cat. [picture of a cat]
In sum, the child knows to say “at” every time. Therefore, the child guesses. He says “-at” each time, without even analyzing the word. These books are not the best books for struggling readers.
Whole language books use pictures so kids can guess
In these poorly designed books, kids use pictures to guess at the words. Pictures are purposefully drawn to allow kids to cheat. Does your child look at pictures to read? He’s probably reading whole language books. When reading these books, students use the pictures as a crutch. What happens when the pictures are gone? The child can’t read!
Whole language books encourage kids to look at the picture
I can smell a rose. [picture of a rose]
I can smell a pie. [picture of a pie]
I can smell the beach. [picture of the beach]
I can smell a cookie. [picture of a cookie]
Most importantly, whole language books fail to teach kids to read. Though they claim to use “good literature,” their use of repetition is dull. Kids are forced to read the same phrase over and over again. In addition, the repetition teaches kids that reading is about memorizing. For example, a child might think: as long as I memorize the first words, and look at the picture for the last word, I can read! Of course, these are NOT the best books for struggling readers.
Lastly, for more on the history of whole language, check out: The History of Whole Language.
Phonics books are the best books for struggling readers
In contrast, phonics acknowledges that writing systems are codes. Kids learn the code a bit at a time. Each time they learn a symbol, they practice that symbol. In sum, knowledge builds incrementally. There is no guessing. After all, if the writing system is a code, it can be cracked sound-by-sound. It’s not an easy method, but it’s a method that works.
Many books are sold under the guise of phonics, but are not phonics books at all
Unfortunately, many books are sold as “phonics books,” but aren’t phonics books at all. Search the web for phonics books and you’ll find whole language and basal reader books packaged as phonics books. For example, here’s a sample whole language book sold as a phonics book:
NOT A PHONICS BOOK
Title: Ch Book
Learn the “ch” sound.
Bob can chop. [picture of a man chopping a log]
Bob can chit chat. [picture of a man talking]
Bob can have lunch. [picture of a man eating a sandwich]
As you can see, the above text is actually a whole language book. The author claims to teach the “ch” sound, but he’s really just training children to memorize the phrase “Bob can” and look to the picture for guidance. These types of fake phonics books cause reading failure. Even worse, parents begin to think that phonics is the culprit. So how do you actually identify a true phonics book?
Phonics books are not guessable
Above all, phonics books do not repeat the same phrase. Rather, each sentence is different. Kids read sound-by-sound. When kids read phonics books, they’re actually reading. Their skills are transferable to the real world. If a child can truly read, he doesn’t rely on memorization. Consequently, phonics books encourage kids to analyze words and crack the code. Here’s a sample of how a phonics books uses word and sentence variation to encourage sound-by-sound reading:
Mom and cub got up. They sat in the den. “The sun is up,” said mom. “You can run in the sun. You can have fun.”
In the above excerpt, the child must really read. He cannot rely on repetition at all. The sentences vary. Therefore, the child has to crack the code.
Phonics books introduce sounds incrementally
There is a wide range of phonics books to account for children along the broad K-2 reading spectrum. Of course, early phonics books start off very simple. For example, they only use short vowel words and a handful of sight words (as in the above sample). As kids master each new piece of the code, they read books with more sound variation. For example, a child that is learning the ee/ea unit might read:
Dean dove in the sea. The sea was clear. Dean could see the fish.
Consequently, as the child learns even more of the code, he might be able to read ai/ai words too:
Dad and I sail on the sea. I grab the rail. I can see a big whale. The ship sways from side to side.
In sum, kids learn the code a bit at a time. Early phonics books contain limited words. Later phonics books incorporate more of the code. As the child learns the code, eventually they are able to break out of phonics books altogether. Ideally, a child should break out of phonics books in second grade. By this time, kids should know so much of the code, that they can handle reading words that don’t follow the code.
Phonics books have pictures too, but only for the student’s amusement
Finally, pictures do not exist as a crutch. As a result, the child cannot rely on the picture to read. Since kids know they can’t rely on the pictures to guess, they focus on the code. After they read, then they look at the pictures for fun.
Now you can identify the types of books your student is reading. Is he reading the best books for struggling readers? Or, worst of all, is he reading fake phonics books that don’t actually instill good reading habits? Finally, you can be a savvy consumer.
The best books for struggling readers:
-First, phonics books do not include pictures as a reading crutch. As a result, kids cannot look at the pictures to guess at the words.
-Most notably, phonics books use limited repetition. Consequently, phrases are not repeated over and over.
-Also, phonics books do not repeat the same word over and over again.
-Phonics books do not teach word families. In essence, the child should not be able to guess the end of the word. “The bat. The cat. The rat.” Here, the child knows to say “-at” every time. This does not foster good reading habits.
-Phonics books are incremental. As a result, they start easy and progressively introduce more sound units.
-Also, phonics books incorporate sight words systematically.
-Additionally, you should be able to find a book set that your child can read successfully.
For more phonics books, check out: The Printable Phonics Books Library.
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