What Do Children Read?
Emergent readers, like all learners, are encouraged by success. Success helps them gain and keep their momentum for learning. Thus, reading materials not only need to be worth reading but also need to be readable. Fortunately, these tend to be complementary rather than contradictory attributes (Moustafa, 1997). Old ideas of readability, based on controlled vocabulary and focused on specific skills, sacrificed meaning in the process. You may remember reading boring books in first grade; some people call them “dishonest books” because they are written to teach skills rather than to share ideas. Apparently a small number of youngsters benefit from controlled vocabulary readers (Cole, 1998), but most beginning readers get important decoding assistance from the context of meaningful content (Miller, 2002; Strickland, 2006). For instance, if Sukey is stuck on a word, Ms. Montoya asks her to think about what would make sense as the starting place for figuring it out. We also know that interesting content provides the motivation to press on. If a book was put together to give practice in certain words rather than to tell a story, it may be that nothing makes sense. Sukey’s attitude toward trying to figure out a word in such a book may be, “Who cares?”
Current uses of leveled books may be moving schools back into a focus on reading for skills rather than meaningful reading. Some teachers seem to have forgotten that the levels were created for the purpose of describing children’s progress as they read literature, not prescribing it. Those teachers use the levels to limit children’s choice of reading material, requiring that they read books at a specific level. Reading instruction should be driven by the reader’s interests and needs, not the leveled texts. Ms. Montoya values leveled books for the information they give her about what makes a book hard or easy for a child to read. She then uses this information as she helps children make wise choices, though she does not require that a child choose only from a certain level. Most children have a range of levels at which they can read. Sometimes these levels are described as instructional and independent reading levels. But the difficulty of the text is only part of the equation. The support provided to the reader is the other. The content of the story, the background knowledge of the reader, and the reader’s purpose and motivation all contribute to the readability of text (Miller, 2002). Sometimes, the interest or motivation to read a specific text, such as one of the Junie B. Jones books, becomes the catalyst for a child to read a book that is at a level above theirs (Strickland, 2000; Wickstrom, Curtis, & Daniel, 2005).
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