On Early Reading

In a comment on my apocalypse post below, designermama wants my "tips" for early readers.

I don't really have any tips, but here's our story.  (It's good for me to write about it today because one week from today is Nat's first day of school and the early reading thing is causing me some consternation–do I mention it to the teacher?  or not?  if so, how?  will she think I'm an ass? etc.)

Nat has always had an interest in letters and words.  It was right at 17 months that we realized she knew all the upper case letters and most lower-case ones, too, because that's when she started hollering them out to us from the back seat of the car etc.  At 18 months she was fingerspelling N-A-T and declaring "Nat!" whenever a stranger asked her name.  By 2 and a half or thereabouts, she was sight-reading about two dozen words.  But if I showed her a word two or three times, she'd have it locked in for the next time she saw it.  I remember the first word I noticed her reading and recognizing out of context, as we drove by a truck stop and she read the side of the building "look, Mama Shannon, T-R-U-C-K, truck!"  This was when Selina was about 9 months old that would make Nat just at 3 years.  After that it just went rolling like a tumbleweed and she was picking up words far faster than I could keep track.

She could also sound out words phonetically before she turned three, but didn't distinguish between real words and nonsense sounds.  We had a wheel at the playground with three letter combinations you could spin for–it would come up "cat" or dog" or "net" or "cap" and Nat would read these out, spelling the letters then announcing the word.  But she'd also announce non-word, like "D-I-T, dit!" for example.  So I didn't consider any of this real reading.  Certainly some fab pre-reading skills, but not reading per se.

It was when we were in our rental loft last fall (Nat three and a half) that I started seeing that she was really starting to read for context and meaning.  "Duck for President!" she read, "like Barack Obama!"  Or a sign on the wall near the grocery store, "Let.  Us.  Help.  You.  Let us help you!" she lit up when she realized these word combinations meant something and were giving her information.

After that–about September of last year, her reading for meaning took off and she has progressed by roughly a half grade-level per month in her reading skills ever since.  I keep track by putting text from various books she's reading into various reading-level analyzers online.  Thus "roughly," but it keeps me abreast of her progress and remembering that she is progressing quite rapidly.  I'd say she's at about a rising 4th grade level at this point (at 4 and a half, a week before beginning preschool).  She reads almost exclusively by sight these days and so is quite fast.  If she comes across a word she doesn't know by sight, she'll hastily rush through it and kind of make something up that has the correct first two or three sounds.  I sometimes stop her and help her read it one part at a time by covering all but the first syllable, the the first two, etc. until she's got them all and put them together.  Sometimes I stop her and just tell her the word.  Sometimes I let her move on.  I try not to spend too much "teaching" energy on it, because obviously, she's fine.

As she began this bizarro journey, I did a few things that encouraged it (though again, I have NOT spent any energy trying to get her to read.  I have always, always, always, let her take the initiative and just kind of poked her in directions she was already headed).  Here are a few:

1.  I put ABC magnets on the 'fridge' that spelled out N-A-T.  Then, under the N, I put a bunch of other consonants that would make A-T words.  Every now and then we'd play the game of changing the initial magnets and reading each Nat-rhyming words.  Works great with the name Nat.  Not so much with Selina.

2.  When I'd be watching the News Hour, and Nat would be on my lap, I'd magna doodle whole words for her and she'd read them.  That's why she knew a couple dozen at two.  "B-O-O-K" she'd read as I wrote, then "book!"  We used all familiar words from her immediate environment, plus the names of family members.

3.  When reading aloud, I'd sometimes stop and point to a word in the book–usually one of the ones I knew she could sight-read.  I did this more and more as she got more and more literate.

4.  I tried buying some of those early reader books, but (and this is still true) the ones at her social level were way below her reading level and bored her to tears.  And I don't want her reading stories geared to 3rd or 4th graders yet.  She doesn't (and shouldn't) get them.  So we have given up on that.  We like Frog and Toad but she's blown those out of the water for months now.

5.  When we read bedtime stories (etc.) now, I ask her "do you want to read it, or me to read it, or us to take turns?"  If we take turns, it's by the page.  I totally defer to her on the choice.  Most often, she wants me to read it.  But if I do ask her to, she'll take turns or read it herself.  I guess I don't totally defer, because about once a week I want to checkin with where her skills are and I ask her to read something for me.  If she gets tired or bored I let her stop, though.  Burn out is probably the number one danger with an early reader, from what I've heard.

6.  Another way I encourage literacy without reading lessons, per se, is to ask her what she think is going to happen next as we read stories, or asking her what happens in a story we have already read, or asking her to pretend to be in a story we've read, etc.  She initiates the pretend part.  One of her favorite things to do a few months ago that was super cute was pretend to be a North-Going Zax and asking you to pretend to be a South-Going Zax and walk slowly toward each other until you bumped heads and got stuck like that.  Simple, but funny!  Now she and Cole make up their own stories with a set of stock characters every night.  Nat tells a piece, then Cole tells and piece etc. until Cole falls asleep.  Nat has also started invented spelling on her own and writes mostly single words this way but has also written a few sentences.  I was trained in teaching literacy with invented spelling a million years ago in a former life, so when she reads her words to me, I say "that's great!" then rewrite them the correct way beneath her inventions.  Last week, after I did this, she copied my corrections (while I was paying her no attention cleaning the kitchen or something) and she came and showed me.  She likes now, to have me write words and simple sentences that she dictates, then copies them herself.  Given her fine-motor limitations, I have not really attended much to correcting her handwriting, with the exception of making a connect-the-dots "S" for her now and then to practice writing S, as her Ss are more like Zs left to her own devices.

And there you have the story of Nat's reading journey thus far.  You can all say you virtually knew her when she's the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court with dreadlocks to her butt.

16 responses to “On Early Reading

  1. Tell the teacher. Send the whole story above to her in an email or letter. Face-toface, tell her Nat is an advanced reader and you want to make sure the teacher is aware.

  2. Thank you for your no-nonsense directive Holly. I will email and forward her right to this.

  3. How are the dreads coming along? :)

  4. Does Nat have locs now?! Please share! Sparkle just had his hair loc’d a few weeks ago.
    You might try the Mercy Watson series by Kate Dicamillo. Nat might be able to read quite a bit of it, but it’s definitely beyond Frog and Toad difficulty. The storytelling is great for about a 4-5 year old, just the right subtlety and humor.

  5. No locs yet. I’ve been picky who I ask to do it and those folks have declined saying her hair is not mature enough yet. Bummer.

  6. Shannon, as Holly said, by gosh, share this story with the teacher! Almost any district has email these days… send the teacher an email with the link to it, or just copied. And gauging by your great writing, she has had excellent modeling! Congrats, Nat! See you at the court! (My daughter will be a lawyer, I think, so…. ya never know!) Good luck!

  7. Actually, I had better clean up the typos if I forward the teacher here. Wince.

  8. Nat might also like some older stories- if they are okay with you (lots of gender stereotypes, not any diversity) like The Secret Garden or The Five Children and It. I’ve read some out loud to my kids (4 and 5) and they seem to enjoy it.

  9. Hi! Thanks for writing about this, we are going to get out the early learning books and keep reading while pointing out words. Its amazing how quickly they pick up new words-I overheard A. saying to herself, m-a-m-a for mam, n-o for no. I love hearing about your girls learning styles!

  10. Have you thought about the two of you writing stories for other kids who are advanced readers? You are obviously very creative and would have a great helper. Funds from the books could be placed in her college fund! If you didn’t publish them then she could always have them to look back on as she got older.
    Kimberly Johnson http://www.simplycreativeworks.com.htm is a friend of my family and has a very supportive publisher. If you wanted to pursue writing stories check them out.

  11. What an exciting story — and if you’re looking for good book options (I’m guessing the teachers are helping you now), you might try either the websites for gifted kids (personally those are not my cup of tea, but I didn’t have a super-early reader, either) or you could just try picture books with lots of words. As I’ve just been discovering again this year, many of them actually score very highly on the leveled-reading measures, but their topics are often quite age-appropriate for Nat.
    You’ll just have to keep a lot of them on-hand!

  12. Try Find-a-Book with Lexile at
    You can just say that Nat’s a third-grader who finds her books challenging but not difficult. Then choose a topic (default is fiction and literature). It will take a while, because there’s thousands of books in that category and the lexile range is huge.
    Once you get the first list, there are a series of narrowing functions on the right: page count, age, and a slider bar to narrow the lexile score. I tried narrowing down to age 6 and under, and a page count below 48 (to get that picture-book sweet spot of 32) and there were still more than 1000 choices. Once I checked the “award winners” box, it dropped to 616.
    I know from experience that kids who can read well tend to dismiss picture books as “baby books” and only want to read chapter books, but Nat might be too young to have “learned” that lesson yet, and our reading teachers have really been trying to convince the third-graders to tackle more picture books.
    There’s a non-fiction tab, too, btw.

  13. Wow, that’s a great resource, Jody. Nat does not think picture books are baby books. She’s really very much a social 4-year old. She pretty much still prefers to sit on a lap and be read aloud to, given a choice. So that’s good!

  14. Thanks for the great ideas! My three-and-a-bit year old has a bunch of sight words too, and I guess is shaping up to be an early reader and because his fine motor skills aren’t up to writing letters we let him type. I’ve written about how conflicted I felt about it here: http://kedakeda.blogspot.com/2009/02/reading-writing.html (eight months on I’m a lot calmer).

  15. Pingback: Homeschooling Notes from August and September | Peter's Cross Station

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