Monday, March 10, 2008

Bridging the Gap: Moving from Picture Books to Independent Reading

Most parents hope that their children will learn to love books, knowing that reading is a critical skill that bears tremendous weight on their children’s chances for success later in life.

But what does a parent do when that child is a bit too old to enjoy listening to The Velveteen Rabbit for the eight hundredth time, but lacks the ability to read and grasp a full-fledged novel like Anne of Green Gables?

That’s where early chapter books and “Middle Grade” books come in. Aimed at emerging readers who are just getting their “reading legs” underneath them, Middle Grade (MG) books are perfect for children as they try to go from listener and early reader to independent reader. The age range varies depending on who you talk to, but MG books cover roughly ages 6-11.

Since the range is several years, MG books come in a variety of styles, and they range in difficulty, so children can still get frustrated when a book is too hard. It’s easy for them to assume that not being able to read a book means they’re a bad reader, when the reality is that they’re simply reading at too high of a level.

In that case, back off and find an easier book. You want your child’s experience reading to be one of success rather than failure and frustration. As their skills—and confidence—improve, move them up in difficulty. Also, be aware of books that just don't pique their interest. Don't force a child to read a book that bores them to tears, or they'll be less likely to pick up anther book on their own later.

A basic way to gauge your child's reading ability is listen as they read aloud from a book for about 50 words. If they struggle with more than about 5 of them, the text is too hard. Find something easier until their fluency improves.

A different—and sometimes overlooked—problem shows up in children who are grades ahead of themselves on decoding but may lack other reading skills. For example, some first graders may technically “read” at a sixth grade level because they can easily figure out what the words are and read them aloud fluently. But the vocabulary, sentence structure, and plot lines might still go right over their heads. Some of the comprehension will come with age and maturity, and more will come with the more they read.

In these cases, be sure to have the child read on their informational level and work on improving comprehension, retention, and inference skills rather than just on decoding harder and harder words.

After your child reads a chapter, ask them questions, such as:
—What just happened?
—What do you think will happen next?
—How does [character] feel?
—Why did [character] do that?

And so on.

One great technique for gauging your MG readers’ ability level—and helping them to improve—is to read aloud together. As the parent, you read the first page, then your child reads the second page, and so on.

Doing this together, you’ll discover several things:
—Is the book is too hard, just right, or too easy?
—Does my child comprehend the story?
—Where are my child's reading strengths and weaknesses?

Below are some great Middle Grade books to look into for both boys and girls:

The Magic Tree House series, by Mary Pope Osbourne
A terrific set of books (numbering in the dozens) about a brother and sister who travel to new times and places through the magic of their tree house. These short books are exciting for both boys and girls—and they get a fun lesson in history, geography, or science to boot.

Junie B Jones series, by Barbara Park
Kids enjoy Junie B.’s silly personality and knack for always getting into trouble. Read all the books as she moved from kindergarten up to first grade.

The Boxcar Children series, Gertrude Chandler Warner
The children from the original Boxcar Children book have gone on to star in loads of new stories that children are eating up.

The Magic School Bus books, by Joanna Cole
Another set that teaches kids about science, these books come in a couple of formats: easy chapter books and more of a picture-book style but with a MG reader level.

Arthur books, by Marc Brown
The beloved aardvark now stars in not only a PBS show and picture books but in MG chapter books as well.

Captain Underpants series, by Dav Pilkey
This is a completely ridiculous set of books, but ones that are worth investing in for getting reluctant boys reading. Enjoy the pranks of George and Harold—and watch their mean principal turn into the hero Captain Under-pants, billed as, “Faster than a speeding waistband . . . more powerful than boxer shorts.”

Encyclopedia Brown series, by Donald J. Sobol
A classic series about a genius boy who helps his father solve mysteries.

Cam Jansen mysteries, by David A. Adler and Susanna Natti
Written at a very easy reading level, these books have fun but simple mysteries about things kids care about, each solved by whiz kid Cam Jansen.

The A to Z Mysteries series, by Ron Roy
A series with fun and adventure, the titles starting with A and going through the alphabet. Harder than Cam Jansen, but still still relatively easy.

Fancy Nancy books, by Jane O’Connor
A series of “I Can Read” books perfect for the early reader.

Fairy series, by Daisy Meadows
Meadows has written several delightful series that young girls love, among them: the Weather Fairies, Jewel Fairies, Fun Day Fairies, and Pet Fairies, each with their own cast of characters and fun (and magical) stories.

Nate the Great, by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat
Another fun mystery series that’s easy to read. Roughly on the level of the Cam Jansen books.

Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew, by Carolyne Keene
This is a relatively new series for younger readers who might grow up to enjoy the original Nancy Drew. The books follow a grade-school aged Nancy as she and her friends solve mysteries around their neighborhood.

Deltora Quest, by Emily Rodda
An 8-book fantasy series about a young boy and his friends who face daunting odds and frightening situations as they seek to gather hidden magical jewels that will help overthrow the evil ruler and restore the true heir to the throne. A great adventure that while is still MG, has a somewhat more complex storyline and vocabulary than the early reader books. A great series to help bridge the gap between Middle Grade and Young Adult.


As you can see, the number of books for early readers is greater than ever. You can almost certainly find books that will interest your Middle Grade reader.

For additional titles, ask your librarian and children's school teachers.