I got into a conversation with someone on Twitter recently about her younger sister’s problems with reading. She said, ‘My 10 year old sister struggles to understand books that are age recommended, but is reluctant to be seen with a book she’s more comfortable with.’
If you’ve spent time in the world of children’s books or teaching, you’ll know this is a common problem. Talking to my Twitter-friend, I delved a bit deeper to try to get a sense of where exactly her sister is with her reading ability. I asked if she’d read Mr Gum, and my friend said, ‘She’s read Mr Gum but didn’t understand what she had read. She can say if it’s good but can’t say why it is or retell it.’
As I learnt more, I started to empathise with how difficult it must be to encourage a child who is already behind with their reading and therefore feels really negative about it. The older sister went on, ‘She’s not going to be able to do her SATs because she just doesn’t understand what she reads or is being asked to do. I keep trying to encourage her to read but she prefers being in front of a screen because she finds reading hard.’
I’m no expert in literacy - I’m just a writer and keen reader. But I so wanted to offer whatever ideas I could to help this girl become more confident in her reading, and enjoy books as much I do. I found out what she’s particularly into - ‘She likes to draw but she mainly plays video games like MineCraft and Dragon City. And she’s into weird and disgusting things’ – and started coming up with ideas. I also asked on Twitter for suggestions, and soon had too many for one blog post. So I’ve split the suggestions up into different categories. In this first post, I’m going to focus on where to start if a child is struggling with reading any words at all. I think my Twitter-friend’s sister is past this point, but others may not be.
In later posts in this series some of the suggestions are my own, but here they all came from people who know much more than me. I’ve linked to them and you should all definitely go and follow them if this is a topic that interests you – they’ve been amazingly generous with their recommendations.
- ‘Can she sound out words?’ asked David Williams, a Literacy Coordinator and Lead Practitioner (I don’t really know what that is. But it sounds impressive). If she can’t, he recommends buying the Read Write Inc. flashcards - there are two levels, here and here - and some phonics books.
- Which phonics books? Clare Helen Welsh, a teacher and children’s author, recommends the Dandelion Readers from Phonic Books Ltd. Another friend of mine, a maths teacher, is also a fan. She once went to the house of a 7-year-old girl expecting to tutor her in maths, only to find she couldn’t read. Her home language was Turkish and my friend soon realised she wouldn’t be able to do any of the maths, or any other school work, until she could read English. Using the Dandelion Readers, my friend helped her read her very first book within about two hours.
- Retired specialist reading tutor Susan Godsland particularly recommends the Totem series and the Talisman series from Phonic Books Ltd (the same company as the Dandelion Readers). They're aimed at struggling readers aged 8-14 and are a step or two up in difficulty from the Dandelion Readers, so it’s worth exploring that site until you find something that’s at the right level.
- David Williams also tells me that lots of phonics books are available at great value from The Book People, including the Read Write Inc. Phonics Collection and the Songbirds Phonics Collection, which is another set recommended by teacher and author Clare Helen Welsh as well as teacher Liz Plane. Annoyingly, both of those two sets are, at the time of posting, showing as 'out of stock' from The Book People - perhaps a sign of a good deal! But they are available from plenty of other shops too - or you could try the library.
- Librarian Liz Rose is a fan of the Usborne phonics books because, she says, 'They're very clear, with good stories and nice illustrations.'
- Finally, for pointers on how best to read along with a struggling reader, retired specialist reading tutor Susan Godsland gives some straightforward advice here.
Just a word of explanation for anyone who is confused by something that confused me: Songbirds and the Oxford Reading Tree are two different sets of books, both published by Oxford University Press. The confusion comes in because often when you search for one on a bookseller website, the other seems to come up. Author and teacher Clare Helen Welsh explained to me that the Songbirds are written in a way that means a child can use the phonics sounds they've learned to decode every single word in the books, whereas the Oxford Reading Tree is slightly more old-fashioned, using some words that are not 'decodable' in this way. The current thinking on literacy is that 'decodable' is best. To make matters even more confusing, apparently OUP has also brought out decodable phonics books under the banner of the Oxford Reading Tree. (And if you're feeling a bit exhausted by all that, you're not the only one.)
So. This list is by NO means comprehensive. It's just a starting point, but hopefully one where lots of clever, experienced people have helped you start in a half-decent place. Thanks again to everyone who contributed.
That’s it for this post – in the next post I’ll be thinking about books and other materials that are heavy on pictures as a way to engage struggling readers.