About a year ago, I was looking at book lists for ideas of read-alouds. As I was looking through lists for grades we’ve passed, it left me wondering what I would put on a must-read list. Since that time, I’ve done a lot of pondering. Here’s the first installment of my must-read lists–the preschool version–complete with 20 books by 11 authors divided into 0-2 and 3-5 age categories.
Have a fairy-loving kid on your hands? Since I have spent several months of near-constant scrambling, trying to find things my daughter would enjoy reading, I figured I’d log what I found in the hope that it helps someone else. I found five fairy-themed chapter book series and four series that involved enough magic to make up for the lack of fairies. These range from late-second to fourth grade reading level and include occasional pictures, since my visual kid loves illustrations. Several of them also feature a nice, big font, for those intimidated by small, crowded type. Continue reading
If you read my last blog post, you know that we found out that our youngest needed vision therapy, but the price tag was beyond what we could afford. Immediately after that revelation, I took my kids to gymnastics, where a former-OT friend informed me that she had been given a whole binder full of vision therapy exercises during her time working in a low-income school in South Africa.
We’ve now been doing vision exercises about 3-4 times a week for 9 weeks, and little Pookie has gone from only sounding out single, large words written in magnets or on the white board to eagerly reading Biscuit books for bedtime. (In case you missed the last post, he’s been able to sound out single words in this manner for more than a year, but he just wasn’t making any progress.) While correlation does not necessarily equal causation, I figured it can’t hurt to share some of what we’ve done with other parents who might find themselves in a similar situation. Continue reading
When Pookie was three-and-a-half, he started putting letters together to make words. Though I was surprised–he still only recognized less than half of the alphabet–I hauled out my early-reading materials and prepared for him to progress. Only he didn’t. At first I assumed it was a readiness issue; he was very young, after all, and though his siblings also learned to read young, perhaps the fact that he couldn’t remember all of his letters was holding him back. But after a full year with no progress, I began to wonder if there was more going on. After all, ‘Love’s childhood medical records indicated that he had received vision therapy for tracking issues.
After receiving several recommendations for a particular optometrist, I called and made an appointment. I had been warned that it would be pricey, but $250 (sans vision insurance) for a 75-minute-long, in-depth assessment that included a retinal scan didn’t seem too shocking. The first appointment confirmed my suspicion–there were a few issues that deserved more attention. A second appointment (another $350) involved another hour of interactive assessments for my little guy while I was provided with information on vision therapy and was told to expect a price tag of $3-4,000 for six months of treatment. At the hour-long follow-up appointment (included in the cost, thankfully), the optometrist gave us a report on the testing that had been done and how our son had performed. It was very thorough and helpful, and most of what she said made a lot of sense with what I had observed.
Then came the bombshell: the cost was going to be $6,400 for 34 weekly, 45-minute therapy appointments (plus one or two additional progress assessments). Reeling from the unexpected price hike, ‘Love and I walked out with heavy hearts. We had been braced to pay $500 a month for treatment we thought would have long-term benefits for our son; this amount would have been a stretch, but it was attainable. Finding an extra $750 a month, however, was simply out of the question. But how could we walk away from something that would help our child succeed in life? Continue reading
Through the years, I can’t count the number of times when “I read it somewhere” was the only answer I had to give others who wondered where I’d learned things.
Though I’m not sure exactly when it began, somewhere during elementary school I became a voracious reader. At one point I remember being frustrated with our town library because I had read any chapter books in the kids’ section that I found remotely interesting (that being a majority of them), and there was nothing new to read. So the notion of soaking up information through books is nothing new to me.
And yet, sometimes I am still surprised at the ways in which reading connects to other areas of learning. I was reminded yet again this week of the truly interconnected nature of skill-development.
After hovering forever around the A to Z Mysteries and Boxcar Children level of books (for something like a year!), Peatie has FINALLY increased the difficulty/reading level in what he selects to read during his evening free-reading time, and I’m in my glory. Why? There are lots of reasons to rejoice, but here are a few:
A) Because he’s as excited about reading these books as he was about the first A to Z and Boxcar books. (After the first few, it seemed like he read more of the same just because of momentum.) He now comes dancing out of his room every evening to report on the latest happenings at Castle Glower.
B) Because he also pokes his head out every evening to ask me a vocab word or two. He now knows about crenelations and retorts and griffins and privy chambers and any number of other glorious words. Have I mentioned how much I love words?
C) Because he’s incorporating the tone and vocabulary of the book into his conversation at times, which I think is awesome. The other night he was reporting in on the relative ages of the various characters when he informed me (with a smug smirk), “I don’t know Bran’s age, but I do know one thing for certain–he’s a wizard!” The deliberate pace, the turn of phrase, and the pregnant pause were perfect, and he knew it.
D) Because even his writing is improving. The story he started today sounded vastly more interesting and stylistically mature than what he’s written in the past.
A story he wrote a month ago started like this: “One time a bear lived in a tree. His name was Zub. He loved being up the tree, but suddenly Zub saw a hunter trying to get him! The hunter started racing up the tall tree. Zub raced into the high branches.”
His latest story begins, “The wonders of the different worlds spread across the worlds fast. Heartland (a world) had many towns, and one of them was Size (Named because it was HUGE)! In the town of Size the houses are small, and they have many stairs. In Rattle the Rat’s house the shows on TV were always watched on the 2594th floor. (Now we can’t go over what all his house was like, because it has 10000 levels.) So he was watching a show when he heard a sound.”
Earth-shatteringly brilliant writing? No, but in my opinion there’s definitely noticeable improvement, and I’m excited for him. (And for myself. His stories before were all rather formulaic, insanely improbable, and hard to follow–and I had to read them all.)
All these delightful effects (and more that I haven’t noticed, I’m sure!) come because he’s now read a couple more challenging books.
Isn’t it fun to watch your kids learn and grow, making connections and getting excited about new information and improving their skills!? I can’t wait to see what he learns next! I love this job! (Well, most of the time…)
**In case you’re wondering, he’s currently working through Jessica Day George’s Tuesdays at the Castle series.
So your child is reading—glorious! I’m sure you’re ecstatic. And you’ve slogged through the painful sounding-out-every-word phase, endured the agonizing repetitions of early reader books, and coasted in the golden waters of simple picture books. But now your little reader has really begun to take off. Either he’s begun demanding to read chapter books like some of the older kids he knows, or she’s gobbling through picture books so fast that you’ve worn out your library card. One way or the other, you’re venturing into the world of beginning chapter books.
Make no mistake—this road is not an easy one, either. If you’re like me, you’re pretty picky about what your precious little sweeties read: nothing too scary or gory, and I’d like the characters in the books to be generally likeable and preferably not sassy to their parents or unkind to each other. Even if you’re not as paranoid as I am, you’ll soon realize that while chapter books take your kids longer to read than picture books, they still don’t take that long. And then you need another one. And another one. And it’s not always easy to find something your child wants to read.
With picture books, the options seemed endless: take home a super-sized stack, and fully half of them would be appealing enough for your child to survive through 32 short pages. With chapter books, you may find that you soon gravitate toward books in a series. After all, it’s taken you eleven attempts to find a book that Junior likes beyond the first chapter. The others were too long or too short or had a bland cover or didn’t have an interesting first chapter or had too-small font or not enough pictures or too many pictures or too many animals or not enough animals or…. Having finally found something he enjoys, do you really want to go through the whole process again to find another one he’ll read?
Having slogged through this era myself—and finally getting one child to branch into longer, harder books while the second child loops back to re-read every picture book we own and each chapter book she has already enjoyed while building stamina for things with more pages and smaller fonts (and don’t even get me started on the third child, who has spent the last nine months stagnant in the sounding-things-out phase)—I thought I’d share the journey in the hope that it makes someone else’s life simpler.
Below you’ll find a chart illustrating the reading level range of each book series we’ve read (and some shoot-offs that I found out about as I was trying to chart the main ones we had read). The reading levels listed are the grade-level equivalents given by Scholastic’s Book Wizard; these are not necessarily the same as the AR level or any other level someone invented. (There seem to be at least three dozen ways to level books; I had to pick some way to sort this, and the Book Wizard sure is handy.) If the reading level of a series is mostly focused in a narrow range despite some outliers, then I have made that focus-range darker than the rest of the bar. I’ve also included very loose genre categorizations for each series, with A being a general adventure-type book, M being a mystery series, AN being an adventure series with a nonfiction element, and N being nonfiction.
Under the chart, you’ll find a quick summary of each series (in ABC order, to make life simple, with author’s last name referenced parenthetically after the series title) along with any information I thought might be pertinent or helpful. Beneath that, I’ve included a list of book series about which I have heard good things but haven’t actually had in my home—in case you need still more fodder. Obviously, you’ll want to be sure any books your kids read are a good fit for your own family’s values.
Handy Chart o’ Chapter Books for Reading Levels/Grade Levels 1-4ish
- A to Z Mysteries (Roy): Dink, Josh, and Ruth Rose—the older siblings of the protagonists in the Calendar Mysteries—always manage to get to the bottom of tough situations in order to help folks in their town. Though I was skeptical of some of the titles since my kids are pretty sensitive, the series handles even ghosts and zombies in a manner that was not frightening. (Spoiler: It’s always someone dressed up who’s trying to scare others away for some reason.) These books are just slightly longer than those in their siblings’ series and can be read in any order. My son’s favorite feature was the included map of their town, which allowed him to track the kids’ every move!
- Andrew Lost (Greenburg): A 10-year-old boy gets sucked into his atom-shrinker invention along with his cousin Judy. They end up going all kinds of crazy places—beginning with the inside of a dog’s nose—learning about them from Andrew’s tiny robot friend as they go. My nonfiction-loving son was fond of these.
- Boxcar Children (Warner): Four children whose parents have died (off-camera and completely un-distressingly) decide to strike out on their own rather than risk being split up or sent to live with an unknown grandfather. The first book is an adventure, while the subsequent books in the incredibly-long series are all mysteries. There’s also a secondary series, The Adventures of Benny and Watch, which has a bit lower reading level, ranging from 2.3-3.6, though only one is above 3.2.
- Calendar Mysteries (Roy): Bradley, Brian, Nate, and Lucy—all first graders at the start of this series—untangle a variety of mysterious happenings around town in these innocuous little chapter books. Surprisingly, there are 13 stand-alone books in this series—one for each month, and a final one with a New Year’s Eve theme.
- Clifford Chapter Books (Scholastic): Great for early readers, these books have big text and an image on almost every page. While the guidelines say ages 7-10, I don’t know any 10-year-old who wants to be caught reading Clifford; on the other hand, these were perfect for my preschoolers who were reading at this level.
- Flat Stanley (Brown): This one is tough because there are three different groups of books going by the same series name: there’s the original series, the Worldwide Adventures, and the I Can Read books. The original six-book series, in which Stanley not only becomes flat but also turns invisible and has a variety of other (very unlikely, as my son points out) adventures, is pretty solidly a 3rd grade reading level, split between early- and late-3rd grade. The Worldwide Adventures series, featuring about a dozen more stories in which Stanley visits famous locations around the globe, is mostly in the upper-3rd to lower-4th grade range (though there’s one upper-second and one lower-5th book in there…), while the I Can Read (Level 2) books range from early 1st to late 2nd.
- Fly Guy (Arnold): These silly stories follow the adventures of a boy named Buzz and his brilliant pet, Fly Guy. While it’s a stretch to call them chapter books—each page of the extremely short chapters features a large image and only a sentence or two of text in large, cartoony print—they do contain chapter headings, and the subject matter will appeal to even older readers. I didn’t love all of the subject matter, but many of them were great. There is now a sub-series called “Fly Guy Presents…” which are humorous informational books.
- Jigsaw Jones Mysteries (Preller): Seven-year-old Theodore Jones—better known as Jigsaw—has a talent for solving mysteries. All of his friends ask for his help whenever there’s something they can’t figure out, and he and his friend Mila work together to solve the cases. A couple dozen titles will keep your kids busy testing their wits on these mysteries.
- The Littles (Peterson): The Littles, a family of tiny people-with-tails who live hidden in the home of a normal-sized, tail-less family, have to be inventive to meet their needs, and their tiny lives are full of adventures. There are two groups of books here, the original dozen or so Littles titles, which are mostly early-to-mid 3rd grade level, and then a handful of the Littles First Readers, which are almost exclusively level 2.1.
- Magic Tree House (Osborne): As you likely know, there are about a zillion of these books about Jack and Annie and their travels through time in the Magic Tree House; many kids tire of the plot formula after a while, but my daughter was happy to read every one she could get her hands on—and then go back and read them all over again. I have to admit, though, that I’ve been delighted at the tidbits of history she’s retained from these and brought up at random moments. It’s best to read at least the first few in order; the stories do build on one another (referring to previous events, especially within each multi-book mission), but it’s not a big deal to jump around, either. The later books tend to be a bit higher reading level, though this is not universally true. The companion nonfiction research guides vary widely as to reading level, with the early ones being about as hard as the books they’re written to accompany, and many of the Fact Trackers being 4th or 5th grade reading level.
- Magic School Bus Chapter Books (Scholastic): Like the videos and picture book series, these twenty stories feature Ms. Frizzle’s class going on field trips in their Magic School Bus. The characters and general plot-style are the same; these are just more text-heavy. My nonfiction-loving son enjoyed plowing through these and learned a surprising amount.
- Marvin Redpost (Sachar): Third grader Marvin Redpost struggles with the typical kid issues, from wonderings about his place in his family to accusations of nose-picking to ill-advised feats of bravery.
- Mercy Watson (DiCamillo): This super-silly series about a pig named Mercy who thinks she ought to be human features a nice, big font and colorful, hilarious pictures on nearly every spread.
- Mr. Putter and Tabby (Rylant): A quirky retiree and his cat bumble through a variety of everyday adventures like dancing, racing, and baking. My daughter was charmed by his antics. Oddly, the series is mostly either 2.1-2.2 level books or 2.9 level books.
- Wayside School (Sachar): The setting for these books is the top floor of Wayside School, which was supposed to be one long hallway with thirty classrooms but instead was built with 30 stories, each containing only one classroom. Sachar pulls out all the stops in these books, coming up with the zaniest scenarios that leave kids in fits of giggles. This one can be a little dark, though, so you may want to take care with these. For example, the first chapter of the first book features a teacher who turns children into apples–and then accidentally turns herself into an apple and gets eaten by the janitor.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list of chapter book options in this reading range; it is merely the list of chapter books that my kids have enjoyed. Though I hesitate to advocate for series with which I have no experience, I will provide a list of other options that I’ve heard recommended on numerous occasions but for one reason or another my kids didn’t get around to reading:
- The Kingdom of Wrenly (Quinn): The protagonists of this one are an eight-year-old prince and his friend, the seamstress’ daughter. Though these aren’t carried by Scholastic (and thus don’t have a reading level listed there), the Lexile system places them roughly on-level with the upper Magic Tree House or lower Magic School Bus books; I’m guessing around 3rd grade-level. I did see one of these, though, and it has a huge font and numerous illustrations, which means I ought to pick it up to expand the repertoire of my small-text-averse daughter. **Edit: My daughter LOVED these books, devouring each one of the seven we got several times over the course of two weeks. Pookie was enthralled by her enthusiastic descriptions and had me read them aloud to him. While I didn’t find them gripping, the stories have positive messages and laudable protagonists, and the pictures on every page are nicely done.
- Rainbow Fairies (“Meadows”): These seem to be pretty narrowly in the 2.7-2.9 range and strongly appeal to kids who enjoy magic, with female fairies for protagonists. My sister said she was surprised that these weren’t as cheesy as she expected. Upon some investigation, there seem to be more fairy books after the seven rainbow colors—Weather Fairies, Dance Fairies, Fashion Fairies, Animal Rescue Fairies….
- Pony Pals (Betancourt): For the horse-lovers among us, there are several dozen of these books ranging pretty evenly from 3.1-3.9 and featuring female pony-lovers and their horse-themed escapades.
- Secrets of Droon (Abbott): Though I’ve heard of these, I’ve somehow never run across them. There are a couple dozen of these stories, though, which feature magic and are mostly early-third-grade level.
- Geronimo Stilton (Piemme/Scholastic): These heavily-illustrated books featuring mouse characters appeal to those who love comic books because of their frequent use of fun fonts and small images in the text. They range widely from early-second- to early-fourth-grade level.
- Cynthia Rylant has written several series for young readers, including Mr. Putter and Tabby (listed above), a second-grade-level series about a pig called Poppleton, and the third-grade-level Lighthouse Family series.
Hopefully this list will give you enough fodder to keep your voracious little reader going for a while…until she’s ready for some longer chapter books. Perhaps I’ll have to make a list of those next.
Little Pookie surprised me the other day by walking up to his letter cards on the wall (as mentioned in my literacy activities for pre-readers) and pointing to “c” then “o” then “t”–which were not posted in that order on the wall—and saying their sounds. When I asked him what that made, he said, “Cot! Like I had at Grandma’s!” While my older two did this same thing—spontaneously sounding out words—it took me off guard coming from Pookie because he STILL can’t tell all his letters apart. (I know, he’s barely three-and-a-half, but the older two had them down by two or two-and-a-half!) Nonetheless, since he has pleased-ly been looking for words to sound out since then, I guess it’s time to haul out my early literacy activities. In honor of this auspicious occasion (what’s more exciting than your kids learning something new and difficult?!), here’s my go-to list of activities for early readers–in no particular order. I hope someone finds them useful!
- Word Bingo – I made my own bingo cards with simple—and similar-looking—words. Including words like “pen,” “pin,” “hen,” “win,” “hat,” “hit,” etc. forces new readers to look closely at each letter of the word, ensuring that they are not simply guessing based on beginning or ending sounds or the shape of the word. And who doesn’t like playing Bingo? I’ve made four sample PDF WordO Boards you can download–two with simple, three-letter words, one with initial blends and one with ending blends. (By using the “cover all” rule, you can practice more words, and they won’t notice if you make the card 4×4 for a shorter game. Otherwise, lengthen your traditional row/column based game by making your board 7×7.)
- Surprise Words – Early readers are typically thrilled with their new ability, eager to display their prowess. I’ve had great success at encouraging their skill by leaving words around the house for them. A pair of words spelled on the fridge with their letter magnets has a seemingly irresistible pull, drawing the new reader over to puzzle out their meaning.
- Word Families – This was a little silly, but it was fun. I paged through some magazines and cut out people, arranging them into families of various sizes. I then glued each person onto an index card and wrote a simple word on each card. Each family had one word ending (or “rime”), so the kids could match the families based on which words rhymed. (Matching rimes rhyme!) For example, the “At” family had hat, cat, fat, bat, and sat in it. The “Ig” family consisted of pig, big, and wig. Matching the words to their families allowed the kids to see that words that were spelled the same often sounded the same and also allowed them to work on their fluency at reading common letter combinations.
- Name Match – Hunt around your house for a variety of small objects with easy-to-sound-out names: a cup, a hat, a pen, a doll, a toy dog or cat… Write the name of each object on a piece of paper, and see if your child can match the object to its name.
- Spelling Stories – This is a fun activity to do if you have letter blocks or magnets. I would start to tell the kids a story, stopping every sentence or two to spell out a new word for them to read. So, for example, a story might begin like this:
Once upon a time there was a [spell out “cat” for child to read]. Now this [point to “cat” again] was a black-and-white stripey [point to “cat”] whose name was [spell out “Sam”]. One day our [cat] friend named [Sam] was going for a walk in his neighborhood. It was a lovely spring day, and he was enjoying the warm air and the smell of damp earth. Suddenly, in the middle of the sidewalk, [Sam] spied something. It was small and [spell out “red”].
You get the idea. The more suspenseful or silly the story, the more eager your readers will be to participate, so keep the comedy going and the intrigue high!
Spelling Puzzles – I owe this idea to the authors of Reading Reflex, a book I happened to get from the library as my older kids were learning to read. They suggested creating word puzzles. I used blank index cards laid horizontally. I wrote each word, spacing the phonemes so they could be cut apart. On each card, I also had a picture to match the word. Then, I cut the card so the picture was on one slice, and each phoneme had its own slice. Using the picture as their clue, my kids were able to assemble the matching word by sounding it out. Be careful that your words are decodable for early readers! You can begin simply, with three-letter words, and progress to words with beginning and ending blends (like “clap” or even “plant”).
- Word Building Games – Drawn from a vaguely-remembered activity I assisted with as a fourth grade classroom aide during college, this word building helps kids to focus on each sound of a word. In order to play, you create a list of words that are all one letter different. Then, gather your necessary letters and tell your child the first word. After that, make sure they only change one letter—don’t let them build from scratch! Leaving the word intact forces kids to distinguish the precise difference from one word to the next. If you want to add difficulty, you can have them add a fourth letter to their words or change two letters at a time.
- Partner Reading – For early readers, the act of reading is exhausting. Each letter must be translated into a sound, each sound remembered as the next one is added, and the whole string of sounds blended together to create a meaningful word. That’s a lot of effort! For this reason, my early readers delighted in partner reading. As I read aloud to them, I would choose a word or two per page that could be easily decoded. Even contributing “and” or “it” to the story can be satisfying for newbies; as a child becomes a stronger reader, he can be in charge of every “the” in the story, or simply assigned to more and more words per page. This method also serves to eliminate the need for early-readers, which my kids (and I) found stilted and painfully boring.
Spelling Cards – I made a series of cards with a picture on one side and a corresponding word on the back (on cardstock, so the word doesn’t show through!). My kids enjoyed trying to puzzle out how to spell each of the words with letter magnets, checking themselves by looking at the back of the card. Once again, I started with simple three-letter words and increased the difficulty as they became more adept. I’ll have to see if I can find the file to upload for this one…
- Treasure Hunts – This was definitely a kid favorite—they still enjoy treasure hunts! If you haven’t ever done one, it’s simple: Select a treasure to hide. (Ours was often our afternoon snack, but anything will do.) Hide your treasure, and then hide a clue to finding the treasure. Hide another clue and another…and then give your child the last clue you write. So, for example, you give your child a clue that says, “On Sue’s bed.” On her bed, Sue finds a paper that says, “In the tub.” In the tub is a paper which says, “On the T.V.” There she finds a clue that reads, “In a pan.” Finally, she discovers her treat inside a pan in the kitchen cupboard. These are great for rainy days, especially if you make sure to keep the kids running to opposite sides of the house (or upstairs, then down, then back up) with their clues. As your kids get better at this, you can make more complicated clues or find more devious hiding spots to increase the challenge.
- Labels – As your reader gains more competence at sounding things out, you can increase their reading vocabulary and phonic knowledge by posting labels on things around your house. “Lamp” may be a fairly simple word to sound out, but lots of words—like “light” or “knife” or “coat”–can spark helpful conversations about how letters work together, giving your kids a boost into more complex phonics. Besides, the more words your child has puzzled out and sees regularly, the more words they will be able to read easily in stories.
- Internet Resources – The internet has a wealth of resources on every topic, but here are a few of my favorite freebies for use with kids at the beginning of their reading journey.
- Starfall – While this website has a plethora of varied content (and at a surprisingly reasonable rate), the learn-to-read material is available for free. After you have mastered the individual letter sounds (doable via interactive animations and short games for each letter on one portion of the site), you can move on to the phonics section. There, short, animated phonics storybooks, games, and songs gradually teach more phonemes. These were too intense for my kids at the very beginning (Reading four words per page for five pages in a row!? Whew, exhausting!), but may work better for older (or more patient? More motivated?) readers. Even so, my kids enjoyed some of the more difficult stories once they were more competent readers, and they have silly seasonal stories with fun interactive features. In addition, the site has more content for kids who are at higher levels of reading competence.
- Progressive Phonics – This website has dozens of truly silly leveled readers, available for free download. Begin with the Alphabetti books for a young reader still working to distinguish every letter, or start with the Phonics Beginner books if your child is already confident in all their letters and sounds. The best part of these books (besides the stories that will have your kids giggling) is the fact that they are made for partner reading, with kids reading only the big, red words on each page—perfect for beginners! Many of these books also have matching downloadable activities, if you’re looking to extend the lesson.
- Teach Your Monster to Read – This super-cutely-animated website—free of charge via the Usborne Foundation—is perfect for your just-learning reader. Letter sounds are taught via games—your customized monster has to herd sheep into the correct pen or choose the correct letter for each sound to rescue the princess. From there, you move on to sounding out simple words. While the super-sensitive mouse in-game and the fact that each activity has to be repeated three times (with slight variation) to move on were initial deterrents, the gradual addition of more game options and the fun animations kept my kids going. One minor drawback here is the British accent of the narrator. This might cause confusion for some (For example, “o” ends up sounding more like “aw” than the American standard “ah”), but my kids adjusted okay. (Perhaps it’s because we’ve had to get used to wrapping our ears around southern accents!)