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Learning to read using little books

The types of books available here at Mustard Seed Books are often called “little books.” A number of publishing companies (Rigby, Sundance, Kaeden, etc.) publish extensive libraries of little books. At the most basic level, little books are designed to go immediately into the hands of even the most struggling readers. These books are based around a series of scaffolds or built in supports, that help a child read successfully. One significant goal of a well designed series of books is that almost any child could start with level one books, and with limited assistance, work their way up the levels.

Here at Mustard Seed Books, there are nowhere nearly enough titles currently available to make this possible. Little books like these range in difficulty from level 1 (for kindergarteners or seriously struggling 1st grade readers) to level 20 (roughly the equivalent of end of 1st grade reading level). A good set of books would have at least 10 titles/level. We’re working on getting more and more books available and increasing the quality of the books we have.

Given my background as an educational researcher, I start with a bit of theory about using little books (hopefully written in an accessible and interesting manner :-). After the theory, there is a list of 13 important strategies for getting started using little books with kids.


Increasingly Complicated Microenvironments
This might sound like an unnecessarily complicated title or description for some easy books to read, but the books are built around a theory, outlined by educational researchers Richard Burton, John Seely Brown and Gerhard Fischer. Interestingly enough, they describe their theory in the context of teaching people to learn to ski. The basic idea is that skiing instruction has benefitted greatly from a strategy of designing the learning setting to be as accessible as possible, to facilitate the act of skiing as much as possible so that, as much as possible, people learn to ski by skiing. Short skis that are easier to turn used on nicely groomed “bunny slopes” enable beginning skiers to learn the basics while skiing. As a skier progresses, the ski length, the incline of the practice location and the degree of grooming can be changed as needed to provide an appropriate level of challenge. Their work is a model for designing a collection of books that can serve a similar purpose -- learning to read by reading.

Appropriate Level of Challenge (Zone of Proximal Development)
Quite a bit of research has been done on the relationship between success and learning. Imagine  you are learning to ski but a buddy takes you to a fairly steep hill with icy snow and moguls. How successful do you think you’d be? How do you think that might affect your desire to continue learning skiing? The issue is quite similar with learning to read. When students spend most of their time attempting to read books that are too hard for them, it doesn’t end up inspiring diligence and perseverance, it tends to produce students who don’t enjoy reading and who see reading as not for them.

Give a student a book that is interesting and accessible, and you frequently get the opposite result. Lev Vygotsky, an early 20th century Russian psychologist developed an idea he called “the zone of proximal development.” The idea is that a child is capable of doing some things on their own, some things with help, and some things are just too hard. Make it too easy and a child gets bored. Make it too hard and they get frustrated. Instructional activities designed so that a child can accomplish the task with a bit of help tend to be the most productive. Marie Clay, an educational researcher from New Zealand came up with what often gets called the 95% rule. If a student can’t read 95% of the words in a book successfully, the book is too hard for them. At first pass, that might seem extreme, but 5% or 1 word in 20 in this text you’re reading here would mean every other line, you encountered a word you needed help to make sense of. 


A second aspect of this rule is that just because a student can figure out a word doesn’t mean it counts on the good side of 95%. If a student has to “solve” (i.e. use some strategy to figure out, decode, use the picture, etc.) too many words, their reading becomes laborious, their errors tend to go up, their comprehension tends to go down and enjoyment goes out the window. While it might seem strange, remembering the strategy from learning to ski, the goal is to help a child learn to read by enabling them to read successfully, confidently and enjoyably and gradually extend their capabilities.


13 quick ideas for getting started using little books:

  1. Learning to read with little books is pretty different than most other reading programs. I put this first mainly to encourage you to come to these books willing to try out some new ideas, some new ways of thinking and to see what comes out of it.
  2. It’s ok to read a book that’s too easy. Reading success is a great experience for struggling readers, hopefully the images and ideas are still interesting in some way and it can help a student to build a sense of what is the right level book for them.
  3. If a book is too hard or not interesting, it’s much better to put it back than struggle through it. The goal is never to “make it through” a book – that kind of idea leads to frustrated, soon to be ex-readers.
  4. A book introduction can help a child read successfully on their own later. A book introduction can show a child a word they might not know, help them get a language pattern that will be helpful, prime them to pay attention to some information that will be helpful. The goal isn’t to prop up a child to enable them to read a book that is too hard, but as a limited support to help the child be ready to learn.
  5. It’s great for a kid to get sidetracked by questions about the content of a book. Some teachers are so focused on “reading instruction” they discourage questions and talk about books. Try the opposite strategy. If a book doesn’t elicit some type of conversation or engagement, it’s probably not the best book for that child.
  6. Re-reading is ok, it’s way better than ok, it’s great. Educational tv discovered during the 80’s that kids wanted to watch episodes of a show multiple times before they wanted to see a new episode. Child learning doesn’t happen quickly or from a single exposure. Things sink in over time.
  7. Little books are designed to be gone through quickly. Expert skiers can handle runs stretching for miles, expert readers can read War and Peace. Beginning readers are helped by books they can move through quickly. Just because a child doesn’t spend a lot of time on a book, doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t getting something from it.
  8. Don’t fix every mistake. This one is huge and deserves its own 20 page article explaining why, but here are three quick reasons: 1, the goal is for the child to develop expertise, including expertise in figuring out if something is wrong. 2, since things sink in over time, a child will often fix their own mistakes (or notice a mistake they made) during re-readings. 3, it’s a lot less fun reading if someone is constantly pointing out your mistakes. Try this idea out and make yourself
  9. If you’re going to fix a mistake, be patient and pick an important one. If you’re a beginning skier learning to ski, odds are you’re making tons of mistakes. It just isn’t that helpful to have the instructor point out every one, often the same mistake over and over. Be patient, listen for a while, and after some thinking, try picking out one mistake the child made that you think if the child figured out, would be the most helpful.
  10. If one book reminds a kid of a different book, encourage that. Throughout the series of books, pictures get reused, animals get revisited, story lines get developed (or will as we design more books), all of this is part of the bigger goal of reading, making sense of and connections between things we read. We weren’t lazy or cheap, one big, meta-goal of reading is making connections. If a child is looking at a picture of a tiger and remembers a different book with a picture of a tiger, see if you can find it and let the child describe what triggered their thinking.
  11. It doesn’t take great literature to help a kid learn to read. Yes Goosebumps and Captain Underpants can be annoying, but a critical piece of this system is getting that these books are temporary supports for developing a life long skill. If you learn to ski and you like it, you take yourself off the well groomed bunny slopes to go find new terrains. But bunny slopes and short skis help beginners get started.
  12. Writing and reading go very well together. If you’re printing your own books, try printing one sometime without the text, or cut out some key words – turn a reading activity into a writing activity. The two systems are incredibly mutually supportive. Letting a kid make their own book using their own words is a great way to ensure interest and help them get the connection between oral language and text.
  13. In case you’re nervous, little books are not “whole language” . Obviously, there’s not a lot of literature content in a book that says, “a fish, a dog …”. Little books are designed to support decoding, attention to print, learning high frequency words, they just do it in a different way and with more of a balanced emphasis than a heavily phonics based program.