Helping Struggling Readers with Environmental Print

I was recently visiting the website for Reading Rockets (1) and noticed that they had posted ten things that teachers and parents need to know about reading. What caught my eye was a reference to Marilyn Adams and her 1990 book, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print (2). I had the opportunity to work on some beginning reading initiatives in the state of Utah and nationally back in the late 1990s and early 2000. We used this book by Marilyn Adams as basic information for many of the decisions that were made. I particularly like how Reading Rockets summarized one of Marilyn’s analogies:

Reading is a complex process that draws upon many skills that need to be developed at the same time. Marilyn Adams (1990) compares the operation of the reading system to the operation of a car. Unlike drivers, though, readers also need to:

  • Build the car (develop the mechanical systems for identifying words)
  • Maintain the car (fuel it with print, fix up problems along the way, and make sure it runs smoothly)
  • And, most importantly, drive the car (which requires us to be motivated, strategic, and mindful of the route we’re taking)

Cars are built by assembling the parts separately and fastening them together. “In contrast, the parts of the reading system are not discrete. We cannot proceed by completing each individual sub-system and then fastening it to one another. Rather, the parts of the reading system must grow together. They must grow to one another and from one another.” (Adams et al., 1990, pp.20-21).
The ultimate goal of reading is to make meaning from print, and a vehicle in good working order is required to help us reach that goal (3).
We adults who have been reading for years forget how complex learning to read can be for a child. One thing we know is that when children are learning to read, it is essential for them to make connections between reading and the world around them. Recognizing what is printed in the environment is key. We look for familiar street signs, signs on the fronts of businesses that are familiar (think McDonald’s), labels on food and products, menus, magazines, newspapers, etc. The list is quite endless. One thing we also know is that many struggling readers don’t comfortably make that connection. A child that is challenged by on-level reading needs more support in environmental print. Drawing attention to print in the environment should not end when the child can read some words.
Here is a list of ideas that families can use to help their struggling readers make a strong connection between reading and life:

1. When driving around, ask the child to look for a sign that indicates the direction you need to go. For examples, “We need to exit the highway at Exit 25. Would you please watch for me and let me know when you see the sign that says ‘Exit 25?’” or, “We need to turn on Parkway Avenue. Would you keep watching and let me know when you see Parkway Avenue?

stop sign

2. When planning a trip to the grocery store and market, give the child a paper and pencil and have her write down the shopping list as you dictate. Then have the child find the items at the grocery story.

3. Implement the old standard of writing thank you notes when gifts are received. Writing is tied directly to reading, so when a child writes, it can be a strong reinforcement for reading strategies. My own children didn’t want to write thank-you notes at first because they didn’t think any of their friends did it. But, when it became a routine, it was easy to implement. And, it did help develop their reading and writing skills.

4. Instead of using the installed voice in a navigation system, have your child be the navigator (if his skills make that a possibility). Have the child enter the address information and then verbally explain the course that the navigation system suggests. Hint: You might want to check out the information beforehand so that you can be sure not to get lost. Don’t tell your child that you already know the path.

5. Have a yard sale or some other kind of sale. (I had a friend whose children sold rocks last year. I know, sounds crazy. But, they made $30.) Have your child create a list of the inventory to be sold and the price of each item (blue rocks 25¢, red rocks 50¢, etc.)

6. Pick up some commercial games that require reading and writing. I particularly like to play Pictionary with my grandkids. They must read the cards carefully or they will draw an incorrect item.

Children who struggle with reading need lots of practice, but it is better when it is not perceived as practice. Turning reading into fun and engaging activities will help your child be willing to participate in the reinforcement of reading. There are many activities families can do to help their children. The list above contains a few suggests that you may not have thought of as a means for reading support.
Additional information about environmental print:


2. Adams, Marilyn Jager. Beginning to read: thinking and learning about print. Bradford Books, CO. 1994.


Poetry and Struggling Readers

Look! Look!
by Jack Prelutsky

Look! Look!
A book!
A book for me,
A book all filled with poetry,
A book that I can read and read.
A book! Exactly what I need.

 Look! Look!
A book to open wide,
And marvel at the words inside,
To sit and savor quietly.
Look! Look! A Book!
A book for me. (1)

I was in the second grade classroom of one of my pre-service teachers recently, working with a small group of children who function below reading level. We were working on writing a short poem. It was an entertaining experience watching these struggling readers using words they knew to create a short rhyming poem. One of my favorites came from the “character” of the group.


Someday I will fly,
Way up into the sky.
If I go up too high,
My friends will miss me,
And cry.

I have always marveled at how engaged young children become when they have composed something they think is great. Our poet, Mary, wanted to read her poem to anyone who would listen. In fact, one student asked her, “How high is too high?” Mary responded, “Until you can’t see me anymore. That is why you will be really sad.”

Education Series (sky high books)

This experience reminded me that poems can be wonderful for children who struggle with reading longer passages. I found a document written by Dr. Martha Walther, in which she listed reasons why poems make good reading material for struggling readers. Here is her list:

  • Poetry is short!
  • Poetry plays with language
  • Poetry is comprised of well-chosen words
  • Poetry incorporates rhythm and rhyme
  • Poetry contains rich vocabulary
  • Poetry is perfect for fluency practice
  • Poetry boosts comprehension
  • Poetry creates interest in a topic
  • Poetry sparks enthusiasm for writing (2)

Every element on this list supports working with children who find reading challenging. Take the poem, “Fly,” written by the second-grader.

  • It is short
  • It plays with language (her friends will cry if she flies too high)
  • “Way up” and “too high” are well-chosen words and very descriptive
  • ‘Fly’ does rhyme and there is a short rhythm to it. (I particularly liked line four, which did not rhyme, but was resolved with line five.)
  • Even though the words are simple, used with the adjectives (e.g., too high, way up) they can all be considered rich vocabulary for the age group.
  • There is enough rhyme and rhythm in the poem for great fluency practice.
  • Boosting comprehension is done with the poem and afterward. Think of the other student who wanted to know how high was “too high.”
  • The children were definitely interested in Mary’s poem.
  • Right after Mary finished, the entire group wanted to write and share their own poems

Poetry can be a supportive teaching strategy for struggling readers. There are many short, interesting children’s poems to begin the process. (3) As the children learn how a poem works, they will be inspired to write their own. What a great way to help children build stronger reading skills. Working with those children in second grade, I was delighted to be reminded about the value of the poetry-reader connection.

The Number One

Three of my grandchildren spent several weeks with me this summer. We decided to drive to a local mountain resort during their visit. While we were driving, the old song, “One is the Loneliest Number” started playing on the radio. After a few minutes, my eight-year-old granddaughter said, “That can’t be right. One can’t be the loneliest number. What about zero? It’s got nothing.”

I was reminded of this story when I was in one of my student teacher’s classrooms this week. She expressed her concern about a boy who was below reading level and was continually isolated and targeted for support services. The teacher was concerned that all of that isolation had to be lonely, and he had no reading role models or reading friends during the instructional time. Being by yourself, or being one, can be a lonely number.

Young Girl Reading

Recently, I read some research about reading specialists who were discovering that using only instructional level texts (the level at which the child is reading) with a child, especially a child who is reading below level, doesn’t seem to support the child in making progress toward a higher level. Experts believe that, when a child is only exposed to on-level texts, it can isolate her and make it difficult for her to progress.  In fact, some of those same experts are convinced that children learn many things from books on their frustrational level (print too difficult for their skills). The Common Core State Standards also encourage teachers to use frustrational level texts with students to help them dissect new words and vocabulary.

I have always believed this to be true. During the years that I taught school, I tried to teach as many reading skills during whole-group instruction. Of course I took children in small groups to work with books on their instructional level, but I didn’t limit their exposure to other texts outside that small group instruction. The entire group participated in shared reading experiences appropriate for their grade level and the interests of the group. My goal was to give every child a positive attitude toward reading and a feeling that each one could navigate that “tricky” world of reading.

Although each child is an individual with specific needs, I think there are suggestions I can make that will generally help struggling readers in a classroom setting.

  1. Even when extra support is available for children reading below level, be sure the child does not feel isolated and is allowed to participate in reading activities with the entire class.
  2. Use challenging texts with the entire group on a regular basis. The best way to do this is to read the book to the class, not requiring individual students to try to decode the difficult text.
  3. The reading block is usually divided into four instructional activities. Here are suggestions for each of the activities:

                    a. Read-Aloud: The teacher does all the print work. The teacher and students discuss the meanings together.
    b. Shared Reading: The teacher and the students do the print and meaning together.
   c. Guided Reading (small group): The student does most of the print and meaning work.
d. Independent Reading: The student does all of the print and meaning work, with varied texts-easy/challenging.

Independent texts are critical for the activities in c and d. However, frustrational texts can be used in a, b, and occasionally d.

Finding a balance is the answer to good reading support, especially when helping struggling readers. We can shift some of the attention away from leveled materials and move toward creating what researchers call a productive effort. Productive effort provides challenge to children, and even struggling readers must be challenged to keep their heads in the game. When a child begins school, he is usually excited to learn to read. Most struggling readers have lost that excitement when they get behind and know they are struggling. Providing some challenge and excitement, allowing the child to participate with everyone in some reading activities, can help him redevelop the interest he once had in learning to read books.

When a child is continually isolated for reading instruction, he becomes a ‘one,’ which can be the loneliest number. Our goal should be to move him toward feeling part of the group of many, and not move backwards to actually become that ‘zero,’ who’s “got nothing.”

Burkins, J. & Yarris, K., break through the frustration: balance vs. all-or-nothing thinking. Reading Today, Vol. 32, Number 2. 2014. International Reading Association.
Croft, M. & Burkins, J. Preventing Misguided Reading. The Reading Teacher. 2010. International Reading Association.

Summer Book Activities to Keep Reading Fun

MC Summer Book Activities from Fun-A-Day! submitted by Mary Catherine from

As John Funk mentioned in Summer Reading Plan, children can lose valuable skills over the summer.  He suggested creating book activities to keep kids engaged in reading to prevent such a loss. I couldn’t agree more!  Meaningful learning happens every day, even when school’s out.

Below are summer-themed book activities for the kids to enjoy. The books listed can be read different ways, depending on the child’s reading strengths. Children can listen to a parent read the book in its entirety, kids can read the book out loud on their own, or parent and child can take turns narrating the action!

For Little Pirates

Read How to Become a Pirate by David Shannon. Ask the kiddo where she’d hide treasure if she were a pirate. I’m sure the answers will be entertaining! Then move onto “exploding” pirate treasure chests. Little pirates have to use science to find the hidden treasure!

For Little Beach Combers

Read My Shell Book by Ellen Kirk. Ask the child which shells are his favorites, or talk about shells found at a recent beach trip. Then break out the liquid watercolors to paint shells together! This open-ended art project is an easy way to decorate extra shells brought back from the beach.

For Little Campers

Read A Camping Spree with Mr. Magee by Chris Van Dusen. Discuss fun from past camping trips, or ask the child what she’d like to do when she goes camping.  Once all that’s done, work together to make a kid-approved camping treat.

Which book activities will your child enjoy the most? He doesn’t have to be limited to just one – maybe he wants to try all three! Be sure to check out Summer Reading Plan for more suggestions to help young readers over the summer months. And head over to Discount School Supply® to stock up your library for summer!

Summer Reading Plan

boy reading library

One of my student teachers recently shared with me an email that she had received from her site teacher just prior to the end of school. My student teachers begin their pre-service training in August and complete it at the beginning of April. They are a permanent part of their students’ daily experience during that time. The teacher in the class where this particular student teacher had been working shared with her the results of a writing activity in May. The assignment was to write about five things that they have learned during their second grade year. One of the students wrote, “I have learned that student teachers disappear and leave you missing them.”

I thought of this story when I recently discussed helping children retain the academic learning that they receive during the school year. Will some of the skills “disappear” without the child missing them? Maintaining and supporting learned skills during the summer months is an age-old problem facing teachers and parents. We can’t afford to have skills “disappear.” When I was a first and second grade teacher, I was often dismayed in the fall when it was evident that many of the students had lost their mastery of some of the basic skills over the summer. This seemed to be particularly true with children who struggle with learning, especially in reading and math. Because learning concepts has been such a struggle for them, when the summer months come, these children feel released from that “learning prison” and feel free to “not think.” When fall comes, they have often slipped even further behind and the struggle begins again. It is critical that parents and schools do everything possible to put a maintenance program in place for those summer months so that skills are not lost. One important element of any plan is reading.

The following list contains suggestions of ways to engage struggling readers during the summer. While the suggestions would work for all children, special attention has been given to struggling learners who need to feel engaged in books and build connections between reading and real-life excitement.

  1. Create a fun and challenging game with an incentive at the end of the experience. Three of my grandchildren attend a school that challenges their students to read a certain number of pages each summer. When school begins in August, the children bring their individual reading logs back to school and they are totaled for each classroom. The classrooms with the highest number of pages earn a half-day outdoor activity and treats. This has proven to be very successful for that school. For struggling readers, I might change the activity slightly and use a total number of books instead of pages. Since they struggle with reading, counting books may be more appropriate. I think this activity could be adapted to a family situation, with a visible chart in the home to record progress and an appropriate fun experience at the end.
  2. Turn books into projects and activities. Some of my fondest memories as a parent came while helping one of my children build a project centered around one of the books that we had read together. I remember helping one of my sons build his own bow and arrow after reading The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks. There are so many great books out now that invite project development. I recently read, Sophie’s Squash (1) and thought how much fun it would be to plant a squash plant in a garden area or even in a pot as a follow-up to this engaging story.
  3. Visit the local library on a regular basis during the summer months. Public libraries often have displays and other activities that encourage children to read particular books. Sometimes, visiting the library can be an adventure. We have a spectacular main library in downtown Salt Lake City that is right on the train line. When my grandchildren are visiting, they love to ride the train from my house to the downtown library. Whatever the situation, make going to the library a fun adventure.
  4. Read with the child. It is very critical for the adults in a child’s life to model reading and display excitement and joy in reading. I read to my children routinely from an early age. Even with all of that reading time, I still had one child who struggled with reading early on in school. I know it was the constant modeling of good reading and having someone else share excitement about the contents that helped him overcome his difficulties. When a child is able to read, the adult should take turns with him. Reading books also gives the adult a chance to have discussions about various topics. Book discussions offer opportunities to talk about subjects that are difficult to discuss out of context. I remember having a discussion about families coming in different sizes, colors, and configurations with one of my children. The discussion was more natural and had a connection for her because of what we had read. It was more powerful than discussing the topic without any particular references. During the project I mentioned in #2 above, my son and I were able to have a great discussion about stereotypes and the Native American culture.
  5. Choose a comfortable place to read. By suggesting this I am not saying that summer reading can only take place in one spot. I am suggesting a comfortable place in the house (or even outside if the child has a yard) that makes reading comfortable and regular. Having a familiar place that quietly says, “Reading Time,” may make reading more pleasant for some children. I know a family that has reading time at 11:00 a.m. every morning when they are home during the summer. The children go to their “reading nook” and pick up their reading where they left off the day before. This is especially effective in this home because Dad sometimes reads at the same time as a model, or he reads with them individually.

We know that children who read regularly during the summer months are more likely to retain their reading skills from the previous school year. In fact, in many cases, the child is able to even improve on skills by regularly practicing what she has learned.

Here are a few recently published books that would be fun this summer:

Younger Children

(1)  Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller

Rufus Goes to School by Kim Griswell

Moo by David LaRochelle

If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown

Bully by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

Count the Monkeys by Mac Barnett

That’s Not a Good Idea! By Mo Willems


Beginning Readers

Check out the Elephant and Piggy Series from Mo Williams. There are lots of titles and the books are easy to read and very engaging and fun.


Older Children

Mr. Orange by Truus Matti

Paperboy by Vince Vawter

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

On Came Home by Amy Timberlake

Prisoner 88 by Leah Pillegi

Reading the Room

This post is authored by John Funk.

This academic year I have spent extra time in a second grade classroom where one of my student teaching candidates is assigned.  The group is challenging for her because the host teacher in the classroom has not been successful in maintaining good classroom management.  I have tried to model and build positive relationships with some of the ‘special’ children in the group.

boy reading red shirt

One boy in particular is not only a behavior challenge, but he is also struggling with reading.  Recently, I was model teaching in the classroom to help my candidate master more management strategies.  I was working with this special child, and he was stressing about not being able to read his library book. He did not even want to make any attempt at the words, because he “couldn’t do it.”  Placing his library book aside temporarily, I challenged him to point to any words in the room that he could read.  He pointed and we read and we counted how many words he could read as we moved around the room.  He was thrilled about the 21 words he found.  His attitude toward reading turned around almost instantly.   He displayed great enthusiasm as we moved to decoding activities with his library book.  He was now confident he could do something.

The experience reminded me of the “Reading the Room” strategy that I used with my students on a regular basis when I was a classroom teacher.  I had forgotten how excited children feel about finally experiencing success when success has been eluding them.  Reading researchers continually remind teachers to display letters and words around the room. In a well-established and well-organized classroom, there should be print everywhere!  This does not negate the fact that visual picture reminders of classroom schedules, rules, etc., are critical to the social and emotional development of the children.  However, words should be placed next to any visual clue to help the children understand about print.  As the children become school-age, those words will eventually become more important than the visual clues.  Here are ways that a teacher can create a print-rich environment:

  • Posted Alphabet.  There should be at least two alphabet sets posted in every classroom.  These charts should be at the eye level of the children from preschool to 2nd grade.  I know that it is a bit challenging for classrooms with limited space.  However, keep in mind that items posted at eye-level or below are great learning tools for children.  Items posted above the child’s line of sight are decorations.
  •  Name Labels:  A child’s name is one of the best ways to teach about print.  A child’s name should appear at least 4-5 times throughout the classroom.  Attendance cards, cubby labels, helper boards, apron hooks, center tags and name puzzles are just a few possible ways to display each child’s name.  Even after the child becomes a reader, displaying his name, written correctly, continues to serve as a great model for writing and spelling.
  •  Item Labels: A good early childhood teacher will label every part of the classroom from the doors to the sink.  Block shelves, listening centers, writing tables and group areas should all have written labels indicating the word that best describes that area.  Each word displayed in an early childhood classroom should be accompanied by a picture of the item as a visual reminder about the word.
  •  Teacher Writing:  Teachers should look for every opportunity to model writing for the children in the group.  This can be an important part of a rug or circle time activity.  The children should be able to observe the teacher writing simple words and short sentences about something related to the topic of the day.  The teacher should say the words and talk the children through the writing during these modeling sessions, mentioning writing on the line, spacing between words, and the correct way to form letters.  A teacher’s handwriting should be as neat and clear as possible, even if the teacher is writing on a smart board.
  • Every Opportunity to Model Print: I knew a teacher who had everyone coming into the classroom ‘sign in.’ When a parent helper came in, she printed her name on the board to ‘sign in.’  I adopted this activity when teaching because I thought it was such a good model of print and gave the children another opportunity to read.

“Reading the Room” is great support for the development of reading skills.  It can also be a wonderful strategy when working with struggling readers.  We know that children’s attitudes directly impact how quickly they can pick up the components of reading.  It is sometimes a challenging task to get a struggling reader to feel positive and excited about reading.  It is difficult and daunting for her. Reading the Room just may be a way to spark enthusiasm for working on reading skills.

Snow, C.E., Burns, S., & Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Mastropieri, M.A. & Scruggs, T.E. (1997). Best practices in promoting reading comprehension in students with learning disabilities: 1976-1996. Remedial and Special Education, 18, 197-213.

Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Slavin, R.E., Lake, C., Davis, S., & Madden, N. (2009, June) Effective programs for struggling readers: A best evidence synthesis. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University, Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education.

Music and Reading

This post is authored by John Funk.

When I was a classroom teacher, I used music and songs for a variety of reasons. I found that music helped children become engaged in classroom activities. Most children enjoy music and songs, if they are fun and upbeat. Children respond to the presence of rhythm, beat, and physical actions. This type of music is different than forcing children to memorize a lengthy song for a program, which can be very tedious and inappropriate. However, for me, fun classroom songs are a wonderful transition tool to help maintain positive behavior standards while the group moves from one activity to another. Once I understood about the importance of phonemic awareness to pre- and beginning readers, I used music to help children listen for specific sounds and rhyming. I always believed that music and song would help children in many facets of life.

Songs with words have always been a tool for helping children learn to read and increase their reading skills. When a teacher teaches a simple song to the class, it is helpful for the teacher to have the words on a chart or board. This can help children associate the written word with the spoken word they are singing during the song. Repeating the song over a period of days supports the child in recognizing the written words of the song. Many teachers may give the child her own copy of the song lyrics and allow her to illustrate parts of the song. There is a growing body of research that indicates how singing has the potential for improving reading skills. (**Iwasaki, 2013).  From my personal experiences, I can attest to the fact that songs add enjoyment and a visual memory to the reading process.

The key is to choose songs that have words which will assist children on their reading levels. Even though we should strive to choose songs that reflect the child’s reading level, songs can also increase a child’s vocabulary by introducing new words that he may not yet find during reading instruction. I also know that music sticks in our memories. Many of us hear a song on the radio or in a production and continue to sing it or hear it in our heads for the rest of the day, especially if it has a catchy rhythm or lyric.  In a recent article in The Reading Teacher, the authors suggest that music can help with reading in the following areas:

  • Regular repeated singing of songs seem to help struggling readers progress in reading
  • Singing increases time spent reading when children can see the words of the song
  • Melody and rhythm help children remember
  • Songs help with the development of phonemic awareness (see our earlier posts)
  • Songs help teach word families (rhyming words)
  • Singing can model reading fluency
  • The ability to sing and read a song is an accomplishment for children who struggle with the ability to read a paragraph.  (**Iwasaki, 2013)

My personal philosophy has always been to find as many teaching strategies as possible to help children succeed. Multiple strategies are especially important for struggling readers. Most of them, including those with a true learning disability, are struggling because they have not been able to master reading under the strategies that have been used in their past. Music could be one more strategy that will help the pre-, beginning, and struggling readers in your classroom. Music that is used in an interesting and engaging manner in the classroom can add a lot of joy and fun to learning. Although there are many different types of music available, I have listed a few of my favorite age-appropriate resources at the bottom of this post. I do believe that music is an additional resource and strategy that can assist a child when learning to read or improving his reading skills.

**Iwasaki, B., Rasinski, T., Yildirim, K., Zimmerman, B. (2013) Let’s bring back the magic of song for teaching reading. The Reading Teacher,  67 (2), pp.137-141.

John’s Favorite Early Childhood Music CDs:

Hand Me a Picture Book!

This post is authored by John Funk.
We Are in a Book

One day, my granddaughter and I were reading, We Are in a Book!* by Mo Willems. We could hardly finish reading because we were laughing so hard. In the book, Gerald and Piggy discover that they are being ‘read.’ The illustrations show the two looking out at the reader and becoming excited. At one point they celebrate and shout (in large print), “THAT IS SO COOL!”  My granddaughter found the pictures more engaging and funny than the text. This happens with picture books, no matter the book or the age of the reader.

The “art” in a book is “text” to read, rather than merely pictures to accompany the story. (1) Books in which the illustrations are at least as important as the text is the very definition of a picture book. When I first started working as a teacher, I was cautioned not to allow children to use clues from the illustrations to try to decode the print on the page because it might lead them to guessing instead of decoding. Researchers now strongly indicate that the opposite is true. ‘Reading’ the artwork or picture cues in an illustrated book will help children develop a more complete understanding of the story. In fact, picture books offer wonderful examples of text structure, story composition, vocabulary development, and writing, in addition to many other reading skills. Picture books are not just excellent for pre- and beginning readers, but they also model skills for children who are already readers. (2)

Picture books are essential for the beginning reader and struggling reader. Using picture clues provided in an illustrated text does help the child decode the text. When sounding out or using other word clues does not decode an unfamiliar word for a child, looking at the illustration can often provide additional information for decoding the word. That is why beginning reader picture books, such as We Are in a Book, are so useful to children learning to read. The books not only use short, simple words, but they provide visual clues to what the text is saying. While allowing my granddaughter to read part of the book with me, I noticed that when she struggled with a word she immediately glanced up at the illustration and then returned to the word she was decoding. It was almost like a natural instinct to see where she could find additional information to help her figure out the word that was challenging her.

Besides helping children decode words, picture books serve as wonderful models of story structure and are essential for vocabulary development. Children who are read to often simply know more. Reading picture books to children, even accomplished readers, is an essential part of reading instruction and support. I personally know middle school teachers who use picture books with their students on a regular basis. Children’s discussions after reading/listening to picture books increasingly demonstrate they are reading the art and integrating that meaning with the written text. (1)

I recently read an article written by a retired professor of children’s literature about how she used picture books with her mother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  She and her mother shared many wonderful moments of clarity and discussion over picture books. Since her mother had read to her as a child, the connection was revisited again when her mother was losing touch with other portions of life.  During their experiences, the illustrations caught her mother’s attention and became the focus of most of their discussions. Even as her mother was slipping further away, she would pick up a book they had shared, and, after looking at the pictures, she would start reading the text again. The connection between the illustrations and the text in a picture book lends itself to life experiences. (3)

We are so fortunate in 2013 to have an abundance of picture books at our fingertips. Never in history have there been so many resources. Good teachers and parents should continually use picture books with children. Picture books will help a child become a strong reader and increase her/his understanding of the world in general.

(1)   Martens, P., Martens, R., Doyle, M.H., Loomis, J., Aghalarov, S. (2012). Learning from picturebooks. The Reading Teacher, Vol. 66. Issue 4. Pp. 285-294.

(2)   Lewis, D. (2001). Reading contemporary picturebooks: Picturing texts. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

(3)   Poe, Elizabeth. Reading with my mother. (2013). The Horn Book Magazine, Sept/Oct 2013. Boston, MA.

A Few Suggestions of Newly-Published Picture Books
That is Not My Hat – Jon Klassen
A is for Musk Ox – by Erin Cabatingan
Extra Yarn – by Mac Barnett
Goldilocks and the 3 Dinosaurs – by Mo Willems
*We are in a Book and That’s Not a Good Idea!  – by Mo Willems
Goldilocks and Just One Bear –  Leigh Hodgkinson
Oh No, George! – by Chris Haughton
Bear Has a Story to Tell – by Philip and Erin Stead
The flying Books for Morris Lessmore – by William Joyce & Joe Bluhm
Each Kindness – by Jacqueline Woodson
Island – by Chen (non-fiction)
Forgive Me, I meant to Do It –  by Gail Carson Levine
Chloe – by Peter McCarty
Last Laughs – by Lewis & Yolen **
Sadie and Ratz – by Sonya Hartnett
Sophie’s Fish – by A. E. Cannon
Penny and Her Song – by Kevin Henkes
And Then It’s Spring – by Julie Fogliano

Close Reading: Helping Children Dissect Books

mother daughter reading

There is a lot of dialog in the reading world right now about a strategy called, “Close Reading.”  Close reading is an instructional routine in which students critically examine a text through repeated readings.  It teaches children to look for story structure patterns, new and specific vocabulary, key details, arguments, and inferential meanings.  Close reading can help children develop the habit of dissecting stories and information to understand the critical concepts and how the information contributes or relates to the child’s life.  Close reading is not currently happening in many classrooms, but it is becoming a strongly suggested method with the advent of the Common Core State Standards Language Arts skills.  Close reading can provide a wonderful opportunity to teach the difference between narrative (in story form) and informational (just the facts) texts and their uses.  The key components of close reading include:

  • Who Is Reading?  For preschool through first grade classrooms, most close reading experiences will begin with the teacher reading the story to the children.  For older grades, it usually begins with the students independently reading the texts prior to the close reading discussion.
  • Frontloading.  Background knowledge could be useful to children prior to reading the story.  The teacher should determine when this is appropriate and when the children should experience the text without any background information.
  • Developing Text-Dependent Questions.  We often use books to begin a discussion about a subject.  However, during close reading, the questions generated should be answered within the text. Those questions should be divided into general understanding questions, key detail questions, vocabulary and text structure, author’s purpose questions (informational/narrative, etc), inferential questions, and opinion questions.
  • Annotation. Reading with a pencil, whether it is conducted by the teacher or individually with older readers.  Making notes about critical information during the reading.

I strongly believe that close reading can be a wonderful teaching tool, even in early childhood settings and special needs situations.  I use close reading in preschool and kindergarten classrooms to help children think about the story or information beyond just listening.  I was once teaching a kindergarten group and was using a book called “The Stupids Have a Ball” by Harry Allard.  It is a silly book about a family named Stupid who decide to have a ball.  My purpose for reading the text was to help the children understand that there are narrative books that are meant exclusively for entertainment.  At one point in the picture book, Grandfather Stupid comes down the chimney, dressed as the Easter Bunny, carrying a pumpkin, and saying “Ho, Ho, Ho!”  As we were discussing the book, one little girl yelled, “I can’t believe you are reading us that book!  His bum is hanging out!” After using that book with groups for many years, I admit it was the first time I noticed that the only pink on the page was Grandfather Stupid’s face and the pink fluffy tail on the bunny costume.  Before I could respond, one of the boys in the group said, “No, no, look really closely.  It is his pink bunny tail.  You just have to pay very close attention.”

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A strong reason for using close reading with children is to help them develop the habit of paying very close attention.  Using close reading in preschool and kindergarten will help build a foundation for the Common Core standards in Language Arts that the child will need to develop during elementary school.  For special needs children, it may open up additional doors to help them decode that difficult task of reading.

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For further information on close reading, check out the following resources:

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2012). Close reading in elementary schools. The Reading Teacher, Vol 66(3), pp. 179-186. International Reading Association.

Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2003). Critical thinking…and the art of close reading (part 1). Journal of Developmental Education, 27(2), 36-37, 39.

Phillips, E.C. & Scrinzi, A. (2013). Basics of developmentally appropriate practice: an introduction for teachers of kindergartners. National Association for the Education of Young Children.


Writing to Become a Reader


Throughout my years of working with struggling readers, I have become convinced that one of the factors that contribute to a child becoming a struggling reader is inadequate support for his early writing. I have often observed inappropriate activities and instruction in preschool and kindergarten classrooms which illustrate this point. I shudder when I see a teacher have the children copy words written on the board as a ‘writing’ assignment, when — at best — it may be a fine motor handwriting practice.  I become equally as concerned when I hear a teacher tell children to use ‘invented spelling’ or ‘kindergarten spelling,’ when it is evident from the blank stares that the children have not made solid connections between alphabet letters, words, and writing.

I recently read an article in The Reading Teacher, the journal of research for classroom practice from the International Reading Association (IRA), called, “How Do I Write…? Scaffolding Preschoolers’ Early Writing Skills’ (Cabell, Tortorelli, & Gerde, 2013).* I enjoyed the article because it articulated early writing skills and how teachers can support children on their developmental levels.  At one point in the article, the authors state, “Effectively incorporating support for children’s varying writing skills provides a gateway to developing other critical literacy skills.”  I was a kindergarten teacher for many years, and these early writing skills are an essential part of helping a child develop as a reader and a writer.  Those early skills can be of great benefit to the child as he is supported at every stage of development while he moves from drawing pictures to eventually writing words.  The research in the article indicates that there are four main stages of writing development a child goes through:

  • Drawing and Scribbling. The child usually doesn’t understand the connection between writing and speech.
  • Letters and Letter-Like Forms. The child makes attempts at writing letters, although at first they don’t necessarily resemble the actual letter.
  • Salient and Beginning Sounds. The child begins to make the connection between speech and writing and knows enough about letters that she begins to write a letter for a word (e.g., B for ‘baby,’ or V for ‘elevator’).
  • Beginning and Ending Sounds.  The child has enough phonemic awareness to attend to individual sounds and begins to use her knowledge of letters to use invented spelling (e.g., CT for ‘cat,’ or AT for ‘ate’).

Within a classroom of children, you may have students functioning at all four of these levels. Different support is needed at each stage for helping the child develop a strong foundation for writing.   Think about the two classroom scenarios I mentioned above. The first one — having children copy letters off the board — would not support any of the four stages above.  The second situation — telling the child to use invented spelling — would be very confusing for any child who was still in one of the first three stages.  She wouldn’t have enough skills to use invented spelling.

What does this have to do with reading?  Everything. As a child receives early reading instruction and begins to understand how the alphabet works on paper, each one of the four writing stages can assist the child in developing a foundation for reading. Having solid support at each one of the stages will help the child learn the connections between reading, writing, and speaking.  Without that solid support, he will be missing critical bricks in his reading foundation.  Although there may be numerous reasons why a child is a struggling reader, lack of support in writing is certainly a major factor.  Struggling readers are also struggling writers.

Teachers should support the child through all four stages of writing and not force him to write under unrealistic expectations.  I was visiting a kindergarten recently and the teacher was convinced the children could ‘edit’ the stories that they had written (or attempted to write).  Reading research tells us that a child should not be ‘editing’ writing until the latter part of first grade and only if he has been taught basic conventions of writing sentences and has been introduced to enough spelling words. He would also have enough reading skills at that point to make a strong connection.  This is the natural and developmentally appropriate progress of writing for young children.  Supporting the four writing stages will assist the child in becoming a writer as he becomes a reader.

*Cabell, S.Q, L.S. Tortorelli, and H.K. Gerde. How Do I Write…? Scaffolding preschoolers’ early writing skills.  The Reading Teacher, Vol. 66, Issue 8, International Reading Association, May 2013.

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