By Becky Cerling Powers
Our son Erik was a visual learner who picked up the skill of reading quickly as a kindergartner after only two or three weeks of simple home phonics lessons. Once he “clicked” on reading, he read all the easy reading books he could lay his hands on. He usually read them through several times. I thought he was ready for something harder the summer after first grade. By then he read easy books fluently, and he had a hardy attention span. He could sit attentively for a half hour or more at a time while we read him long children’s classics at bedtime like C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. So I suggested he try reading The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, a book he was familiar with because I had read it aloud to him.
He was ecstatic to find out he could read a novel length book. Every day he reported his progress: “Mom, I’m on page 67!” or “Mom, I’ve read 200 pages!!”
Not every child is ready to tackle such hard books at age 7. Two children, both equally bright, may achieve reading readiness at varying ages—even five or six years apart. Our son Matt was a late bloomer who finally “clicked” on reading at age 10. Yet he, too, was reading novel length books within two years after he really began reading.
For both boys the key to moving on to the hard books was twofold. First, as parents we built up our children’s vocabulary by reading them many stories that were written well beyond their reading level. Second, as novice readers the boys developed fluency in reading by reading many easy books over and over.
Author and educator Ruth Beechick states that encouraging reading fluency is an important step that parents (and schools) tend to skip by pushing children on to harder and harder reading materials.
This is a mistake, she says, because reading lots of easy books helps developing young readers in several essential ways. First, it gives them practice with decoding skills until these skills become over-learned and automatic. It also helps them learn and relearn the common words that make up a large percentage of all books, including difficult ones. It helps children read more smoothly and rapidly. It also helps them develop comprehension, instead of losing the sense of a passage while struggling to deal with difficult vocabulary and decoding at the same time. Finally, reading lots of easy books helps youngsters find out that reading can be fun.
But what is an easy book? The answer varies from reader to reader.
Beechick explains that every child has three reading levels at all times: a frustration level, a learning level and a comfort level. (These levels provide a way to rate books, not a way to rate individual children.)
To rate a book, she says, mark off a section of about 100 words and ask your child to read it to you aloud. If he or she has trouble reading more than five words, the book is at that child’s frustration level. It has so many new words that the child cannot follow the sense of the story. This book should be set aside for a while. Pressuring children to read books at their frustration level makes them want to give up on reading.
If your children miss three to five words in the 100-word section, the book is at their learning level. This is a book for you to read together, taking turns reading every other paragraph or every other page. Whenever Junior bumps into a problem with a word, you can help him solve it.
If your children miss two words or less in the 100 word section, the book is at their comfort level. It’s an easy book. They can read it independently and understand the story well. It’s a good book for a child to read alone or to a younger brother or sister.
Reading a lot of books at this comfort level will noticeably improve a child’s reading fluency.
You can teach children how to use a form of this test themselves when choosing library books. Tell them to read a page in the book (assuming that a page will have from 100 to 200 words on it) and use their fingers to count the words they don’t know. Whenever they run out of fingers on one hand, the book is probably too hard.
If parents using this test find out that the simplest books in the library are on their child’s frustration level, it means the child does not really know how to read yet. In that case, parents need to back up and teach their child to read over the summer using a good phonics program—that is, if the child has reached reading readiness. Beechick’s manual, A Home Start in Reading, includes information about ways to tell when a child is ready to read.
Resource: A Home Start in Reading, by Ruth Beechick explains the reading process simply. She gives directions for providing reading readiness activities, introducing phonics, teaching children to read using real books, testing children’s reading level, and tutoring spelling. The manual is also sold as part of a set of three manuals (The Three R’s), which includes a manual on teaching language skills and another on teaching elementary math. Both the stand-alone manual and the three-manual set can be ordered through Amazon.com
originally published in the El Paso Times May 21, 1995