Amy, a literacy coach, invited me to sit in on a first-grade team meeting. She had had a breakthrough with the group and wanted some input for next steps with the teachers. Amy and the team were working on planning guided reading lessons. The team had analyzed their students’ running records, formed groups, and set objectives for upcoming lessons. Then they had selected books that would help them address those objectives. Finally, they had drafted book introductions and planned follow-up activities.
I was surprised to see that every one of the follow-up activities was focused on “print processing”: letter-sound matching, word recognition, and word solving. The teachers had planned activities such as word sorts, word building with magnetic letters, and word writing on whiteboards.
After the team meeting, I met with Amy. I complimented her on the work that she had done with this team. They had come a long way. I clearly remember a time when that group of teachers balked at the idea of running records. Now they are not only regularly taking running records, but are also using the information to plan lessons. Tremendous achievement!
My concern was the focus of the lessons. So much attention was being devoted to individual words. I was concerned that the children (and maybe even the teachers) were getting the idea that reading was all about getting the words right. The message that reading is a meaning-making process was completely missing from the lessons. There were no plans to have conversations about the books. The children were not writing responses to what they had read.
Amy said, “What is there to talk about? There are only a few words and a picture on each page. These books aren’t really about anything. There’s nothing to say. Until you reach level F, that’s how it is. It is just the nature of the books at these low levels.”
As I looked over the leveled books that the teachers were planning to use, I had to admit that Amy had a point. I’m afraid that this is a problem that has plagued books for emergent and early readers since the very beginning of reading instruction. I remember undergraduates giggling at the following text in a primer-level McGuffey Reader: “Is it an ox? It is an ox. It is a big ox.” The McGuffey Readers and the early “Dick and Jane” books that were used to teach me to read were as devoid of sparks for conversation as Brown Bear, Brown Bear is today.
However, I refused to believe that there weren’t any emergent books at all that had enough content to generate a conversation. I made up my mind that the next time I visited Amy and the first-grade team, I was going to bring along some books that would give the children something to talk about.
Emergent and early readers have very limited sight word vocabularies. However, we should not allow this limitation to restrict their access to interesting texts. Teachers have three alternatives:
- offer children books that the class has read together during shared reading,
- use informational leveled books, and/or
- use emergent-level books in which illustrations do more of the work in conveying meaning.
Reading standard-sized copies of a familiar shared reading text in a small group puts the child in the driver’s seat. After days of being the passenger, the child is now in charge of constructing meaning from the book. Make careful book selections—not all shared reading texts will be suitable. Issues such as text layout and the number of lines of text on a page will determine a book’s suitability.
Informational books are great choices for emergent readers. They usually use photographs that can transport young readers to interesting settings and environments. For example, a book with typically emergent-level text such as “a red frog, a blue frog, a green frog, a yellow frog” can encourage the children to talk about the frogs’ habitats, survival strategies, and diet.
Here is a small sample of emergent-level books in which the illustrations do the heavy lifting in providing something to talk about.
Have You Seen My Duckling? Nancy Tafuri
A mother duck is looking for one of her ducklings, who is purposely eluding her. Tafuri’s gorgeous illustrations show the flora and fauna of a pond. Children get lots of practice with heavy-duty high-utility words, such as have, you, and my. Have them talk or write about
- how the mother duck must be feeling,
- why the duckling is hiding from its mother,
- whether there should be consequences for the duckling’s behavior,
- why there aren’t any consequences,
- why it is important for children to stick with their parents when they are on outings, and/or
- the character traits of the duckling.
If your students like talking (and writing) about this book, they’ll also like another book with the same characters, Goodnight, My Duckling (Tafuri 2005).
Have You Seen My Cat? by Eric Carle
This book will reinforce children’s knowledge of the sight words that appeared in Have You Seen My Duckling?> In this book, a little boy strolls through an urban park inquiring about his missing cat. The helpful people point him in the direction of cats that they have noticed, but none of those cats belong to him. Each of the “wrong cats” is an example of a wild feline. The people pointing out each wild feline are dressed in traditional clothing from the region of the feline’s habitat. Have students talk or write about
- losing a pet and the feelings associated with it,
- why pets run away,
- preventing pets from running away,
- strategies for recovering lost pets,
- the traditional clothing of the book characters and their homelands, and/or
- the distinction between the fictional and informational elements of the book.
Cat on the Mat by Brian Wildsmith
I know, I know, the title makes you suspect that it’s one of those deadly phonetically regular books. But it’s actually a charming little tale of reclaiming personal space. The cat is sitting there minding its own business when slowly but surely his mat becomes crowded by a menagerie of increasingly larger animals. The book has inviting, boldly colored illustrations that draw your eye right into the action. Have students talk or write about
- losing one’s temper—justifiably or not,
- small creatures standing up to big creatures,
- better ways to solve the problem, and/or
- the cat’s character traits.
Just because it’s a level B book doesn’t mean there is nothing to talk about.