Monthly Archives: November 2022

Reading books for beginners

I’ve been looking at (and writing) phonics and other beginner books for learning to read and wanted to make a few notes here.

Most systematic controlled beginner reading books are based on phonics, slowly introducing the different letter-sound combinations in the English language. (I say English, as I haven’t looked thoroughly or found books for other languages). There is more than one systematic phonics system out there, starting with slightly different sets of letters and words, but they all achieve a similar goal of gently and methodically introducing children (and sometimes illiterate adults) to the skill of reading.

Amongst some interesting innovations I have seen are the book Cat and Rat by Doug Oglesby, Melinda Thompson, and Melissa Ferrell. This book tells the story, which is well indicated by the illustrations, first with pictures only (where the child tells the story in their own words), then by gradually adding more words each read. Designed by the authors to help a child with reading difficulties, it is no doubt useful for many in the same situation.

A second innovative book series I have seen are published by Usborne. I read Pirate Pat by Mairi Mackinnon, which is a book that allows a child to read with an adult, with each taking a page in turn. The child would be able to handle their pages after only two weeks of Phase 2 in the Letters & Sounds phonics system plus the word “I”. The alternating pages approach allows a more complicated story to be told than possible with the letters s a t p i n m d constrained to words of up to three letters in length.

Most other phonics readers start with stories that are told via the illustrations, but with captions or short sentences that are possible with the highly constrained set of words and letters. As a result, one ends up with variations on “The cat sat on the mat” (for which the earliest reference I have found is 1863), many stories being OK, but some being clever. Stories get a bit easier to write by the end of Phase 3. The constraints tend to continue in that authors try to ensure enough repetition of the target letter-sounds (grapheme-phonemes) of the stage, such as “A win at the well”, a story written to introduce “w”.

For all these beginner readers, it is crucial to have attractive illustrations and some narrative. After all, we want beginners to be motivated to read more.