"Do you want me to read you a book?" I looked up and found myself face-to-face with Lemekia, a first-grade girl with a big smile and a head full of braids. She was holding one of those paperback decodable books. You know the type: stilted, phonetically regular language and simplistic, flat illustrations with washed- out, muted colors. I said, "Well, I don't know. What's the book about?" She said, "Oh, it's not about anything. It's just for reading practice." Then she launched into the reading:
"Mac is in the box. Mac has fun in the box.
Jeb cannot fit in the box. Jeb can rip the box . . ."
Lemekia was right. The book wasn't about anything. To make matters worse, it was boring! Lemekia is one of those children who is very excited about her newly developed ability to read and is thrilled to read anything at all. I remember when my daughter drove us crazy by reading absolutely every sign she saw when she first learned to read. But what about those children who are not quite as charged up about reading? What about those who are struggling to learn to read? They are going to need a much better payoff when they finally manage to work through a text. The anticipation of reading dull and boring texts will not provide the motivation necessary to pick up the next book.
Lemekia's teacher would have been very proud of her. She read the book with 100% accuracy. She can definitely decode words with the consonant-vowel-consonant pattern. But knowledge of phonics was the only available means for getting through the text. There certainly wasn't any help from any other source in that book. To be fair, that is the whole point of decodable books. However, I have much higher standards for reading. I want children to understand that reading is a meaning-making process, not something that we do "just for practice."
The grapho-phonic cuing system is a critical component of the reading process. No responsible teacher would ever seriously consider completely withholding phonics instruction from beginning readers. So I understand why teachers of beginning readers put so much time and energy into teaching phonics. Most children come to school with the necessary background knowledge to have some facility with the semantic and syntactic cuing systems. Only the lucky ones, who have been regularly read to, have some idea of how to apply the grapho-phonic cuing system.
However, I do become concerned when phonics is given so much emphasis that Lemekia gets the impression that reading is only about sounding out the words and getting them right. There is a world of reading beyond decodable books. I'd like Lemekia to learn to utilize all of the cueing systems appropriately, efficiently, and effectively, enabling her to read books that require their use and to have the strategies necessary to deal with words that are not phonetically regular.
For Lemekia's teacher and other teachers of beginning readers, here is a list of suggested books. These are books that I have actually used with beginning readers or witnessed their use in classrooms. These books give beginning readers an opportunity to practice phonics skills in a book that is "about something" or at least fun to read.
DePaola, T. (1999). Andy, That's My Name. Aladdin.
Andy is walking down the street pulling a wagon. The wagon is filled with letter blocks spelling out his name. A group of older kids sees Andy, commandeers the wagon and begins to make new words. Children enjoy predicting the next words. A natural extension is to give children letter blocks with their names and a few extra letters and invite them to make new words.
Downey, L. (2000). The Flea's Sneeze. Henry Holt.
It's bedtime on the farm. All of the animals are about to doze off until the flea sneezes and the bedlam begins. This book is chock full of opportunities to practice high frequency phonics patterns including -at, -ou-, -ow-, and -og. The repetitive refrain will have the novice reader succeeding in very little time.
Langstaff, J. (1991). Oh, A-Hunting We Will Go. Aladdin.
The book extends the familiar childhood rhyme/song by catching different animals and creatures and then, of course, letting them go. Children use picture clues, high frequency phonics patterns, and word families to read and enjoy this book.
Leonard, M. (1998). Get the Ball, Slim. Milbrook Press.
Twins Jim and Tim like playing ball. Their dog, Slim, always tags along. Tim and Jim hit, throw, and bat the ball. But it is Slim that hunts down the ball when it gets away. This book is part of the "Real Kids Readers" series. The series feature phonics-based stories illustrated with captivating, full-page color photographs of "real kids." The kids starring in these books are from diverse cultures and physical abilities. The clever authors create engaging stories while providing lots of decoding practice. Books are available at three levels of difficulty.
Martin, Jr.,B. (1997). The Wizard. Harcourt.
The wizard uses magical spells to create a mysterious potion. He is assisted by his trusty helpers, a frog, a rat, a bug, and a creature. When the concoction is completed, it spills and things begin disappearing. This book is filled with opportunities to practice short vowel words. Bill Martin, Jr. is renowned for his ability to create engaging texts for beginning readers; many of them provide the opportunity for children to practice phonics skills.
McMillan, B. (2001). Puffins Climb, Penguins Rhyme. Voyager.
This book is a great find for beginning readers who are fans of the movies March of the Penguins and Happy Feet. McMillan's camera captures penguin and puffin chicks at play and brings readers along for the fun. The book features two word rhyming phrases on each pair of pages. There is good pictorial support for challenging words. If your beginning readers like this book, be sure to share two of McMillan's other books written in "terse verse," a two word rhyming poem. One Sun is about a fun-filled day at the beach and Play Day is about an afternoon at the playground. Invite the children to try their hand at writing a terse verse.
Schneider, R. (1996). That's Not All! School Zone.
The mom in this story is having an exceptionally bad day. First she discovers a mouse in her house. Then she sees bugs in the carpeting (a bug in the rug), but "that's not all." Things only go from bad to worse. This book provides practice with high frequency phonograms: -ug, -en, -et, -at, -ink, -un, and -ay.
Shaw, N. (1996). Sheep in a Jeep. Houghton Mifflin.
What a great way to practice the long e sound! In this engaging book, five sheep go on a madcap jeep ride filled with calamity and laughs. This book was so enjoyable and successful that Nancy Shaw continued the adventures of the sheep in Sheep on a Ship, Sheep in a Shop, Sheep out to Eat, Sheep Trick-or-Treat, and Sheep Blast Off.
Udry, J.M. (1981). Thump and Plunk. Harper and Row.
The day started out so nicely. Sisters Thump and Plunk were sitting in chairs rocking their dollies, Thumpit and Plunkit. Suddenly, Plunk thumps Thumpit! Thump retaliates by plunking Plunkit. Before you know it, there is an out-and-out dolly brawl, and the reader is on a short-u, tongue-twister roller coaster. You simply can't read it without giggling. It's a good thing that Mom finally shows up and peace reigns.
Wildsmith, B. (1987). Cat on a Mat. Oxford Press.
I know, I know. The title makes it sound like it is going to be the usual decodable book dribble, but it's not! Brian Wildsmith presents a simple story with a little drama and ample opportunity to practice the -at phonogram. Also try All Fall Down and Toot! Toot! from Cat on the Mat books, a series of books for beginning readers named for the feature book.
No list of engaging books to support the application of phonics skills is complete without mentioning Dr. Seuss. While many of the Seuss books "aren't about anything," they are a lot of fun. That's why they have been around for about 50 years now. Children will need to gain a little proficiency as readers before they can tackle The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, but teachers have used some of the individual "poems" in One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and Hop on Pop with novice readers. Seuss' use of nonsense words gives teachers a little extra assurance that children have indeed mastered those phonics lessons.