'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Friday 15 November 2013

Guest Post: Early Readers and Phonetic Chapter Books

KBR is delighted to welcome Shelley Davidow — teacher, author and passionate advocate for children's literacy.

A few years back, I was teaching primary school in the USA, and looking for easy, phonetic readers for my first graders. I’d been in the classroom teaching every age group from 4 up to university level on five continents for more than a decade by then, so I knew what I wanted for my kids … but I couldn’t find it. 

One day, I called a small publisher of children’s books in the USA. I explained that I wanted stories that weren’t condescending, with engaging narratives, and many other things that may have made the woman at the other end of the line roll her eyes heavenward. 'Did she have something like that?'

‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘No. But if you know of someone who would write something like that, I’d be interested.’ By the end of the conversation, I had a six-book contract for early readers. (Being an author already, perhaps I might have seen that coming, but I was desperately looking for a solution that was a bit easier than doing it all myself!)

Nevertheless, that was the beginning. Working with a reading specialist, I created Len Bug and Jen Slug as my ‘test reader'. I gave it to my first graders, my first critics. They loved it. You can always rely on kids to be absolutely frank about what they like.

Subsequently, each new reader was trialled in class with my children. By the end of book 6, all of my students were reading … and writing. 

The readers were published and went on to be a success. To date, more than 60 schools worldwide use them as part of their reading program. They also work well, I’ve heard, for ESL students.

Using phonetic principles (young readers can sound out every word with only a few ‘sight words’ thrown in), each story is designed to be immediately readable and to build on the knowledge gained in the preceding book. And, of course, to engage the reader … the ‘protagonists’ do things that young readers can relate to: a pig and a dog splash in the mud, two snails have races down wet rails, etc.

My next mission was to develop chapter books that worked on the same principle: every single word had to be part of a targeted word family, easy to sound out. So here was an impossible ask: write a complex and engaging story with more than a hundred pages around a very simple word list. It was this author’s ultimate challenge. The Secret Pet and The Secret Door were the result.

The Secret Pet is about Tim, a boy from the Early Readers, and Jake the talking Snake who becomes Tim’s pet. Tim takes Jake to school and gets into all kinds of mischief. A funny thing happened with The Secret Pet: one of the publisher’s book distributors read the draft and was very concerned that the story might encourage children to pick up dangerous snakes! She wouldn’t stock the book, she said. I promised we’d put a disclaimer on the front page, which we did. It explained to kids that snakes were wild and that you should keep a safe distance from them. But, the disclaimer I was itching to write was, 'Hey kids, if you do ever encounter a speaking snake, please approach politely and ask non-discriminatory questions so that you won’t be accused of specie-ism at a future date!'

The Secret Door, luckily, didn’t need a disclaimer, even though a 9-year-old goes out of her house in the middle of the night, and down into a secret basement. The story plays with a fairly advanced concept: young Mina finds a box of unfinished stories in a basement written by her uncle. She reads them and then finds a door into one of the stories, where the characters demand she finish the story and release them from eternal limbo.

The reading age for these books is from ages 5–12, although at one school I visited after we moved to Australia, a girl of 14 who had learning disabilities told me she loved The Secret Door and read it on her own cover to cover. Her teacher said the girl was so empowered afterwards that she went on to try other books. By the end of the year she was (goodness!) reading Twilight!

As a teacher and writer, I’m always moved by the sense of achievement when children finally finish reading their first ‘real’ book. I know that when we give kids confidence at the very beginning, they become engaged readers and learners and we set them up to feel empowered as human beings.

Shelley's books are available online or direct from the publisher and you can find out more about Shelley at her website.