Read an extract from Raising Readers by Megan Daley

Award-winning teacher librarian Megan Daley’s Raising Readers: How to Nurture a Child’s Love of Books is an essential guide for any parent or educator who wants to help the children in their lives fall in love with books.

You can read an edited extract from the book below.


The mechanics of reading – where to begin?

If I have noticed one thing from watching my children learn to read it’s that reading will happen in its own time, so long as there are no identified literacy issues (see chapter 6 for more information). As a teacher I already knew this was the case, but when I became a parent, panic set in, as it does, and I spent much time crafting letter recognition and sight word games instead of just enjoying books with my girls. Maybe the sight word games helped, but I think what turned my children into ‘readers’ was surrounding them with beautiful words and images in picture books, and plenty of music.

My husband, Dan, and I also modelled a love of reading. I remember PudStar’s brilliant prep teacher telling me that Pud had a great vocabularly around books – she talked about authors and illustrators all the time, and she knew what genres she liked and didn’t like. Do not be discouraged if I have just described your home and yet you still have a child who is not ‘a reader’. You can have the same recipe and the same family and yet one child will avidly read while the other two seem to do anything to avoid it; a few examples of this existed in my own childhood home! It is not an exact science, but I urge you to not decide too early that you have a ‘non-reader’. Their time may just come – my youngest brother is now a voracious reader despite completely avoiding books as a child. Keep the structures in place, the modelled reading at a high level and the books strewn on every available surface, ready and waiting.

Phonics and sight words

I’m sure a few of us have experienced this scenario: child goes to first ever day of school pumped. Child comes home from first ever day of school sweaty, deflated and cranky, moaning, ‘But I didn’t learn how to read!’

Learning to read and becoming an independent reader is a process of incremental skill building. The first few years of primary school can seem to be a never-ending slog through sight words and frantic morning searches for those flimsy little school readers that teachers hand out daily with the reverence of a first edition Harry Potter. Those home readers often look like they have been through a washing machine or perhaps need to go through a washing machine, to remove the unidentifiable sticky residue on the cover. They appear lightweight in content and not particularly inspiring; yet teachers put great value on them, and on reading practice, so diligent parents play sight word games and churn through readers night after night.

There is a method in all of this and passionate teachers work tirelessly with their students in the teaching of this thing called phonics. Phonics is the teaching of letter–sound relationships. It is the understanding that there is a predictable relationship between the sounds of letters/letter combinations and the look of printed letters/letter combinations. The individual sound of a letter or letters (‘th’, ‘igh’, ‘ough’) is called a ‘phoneme’, and the letters that represent those sounds are called ‘graphemes’.

When teaching phonics, teachers may use any number of programs and there are debates over which one is the most effective. Basically, most programs use a combination of explicit and sequential teaching of skills, and incidental teaching through the reading of books and environmental texts. Whatever the method, the desire of the teacher is the same: to build up strong neural pathways in children regarding the sound and sight of letters and letter combinations.

Alongside this alphabetic knowledge, sight words are introduced. Sight words are those words that cannot be decoded using the sight/ sound approach. Lists of these words come home in the early years of school and give children the opportunity to build up a bank of high-frequency words and an understanding that not all words can be decoded (although there are various schools of thought on this and it is an ongoing educational debate).

Without knowledge of the alphabet, the letters and the sounds, as well as the blends that those sounds make, reading is impossible. Remembering words by sight will only get a young reader so far – soon enough they will need some strategies to decode unknown words. This is why sight words and phonics instruction are taught together.

Phonics lessons occur in all levels of primary school education but are at their most focused in the early years of primary school, with trained early childhood teachers being the experts in phonics instruction. As children move through to the middle years of primary school we talk more of spelling instruction, morphological elements like Greek and Latin roots and structural analysis of words.

Phonics is just one of many strategies used to teach reading and it should be handled with care and used sparingly. It is very easy to assume that teaching a child to read is merely a matter of practice, persistence and focus on accuracy, but these things are just part of the mix. The very best teachers plan for the reading needs and interests of their students, constantly monitor their progress and adjust teaching methods to support and extend as needed.

For suggestions on how to engage in collaborative play with sight words at home or in your early education setting, see ‘How to play with sight words’ (page 207). The emphasis should be on learning through collaborative play and shared discovery – a mix of incidental and planned activities is ideal.

Reading comprehension

I am a passionate advocate of young people reading for pleasure. Reading is a chance for some downtime, and being motivated to read and being enthusiastic about reading has also been shown to have an important influence on the development of students’ comprehension.1 As young children decode words and sentences, they learn to construct meaning from a text by developing skills, making inferences, verifying understandings and making repairs to their reading.2 Talking about books is one of the earliest ways in which parents and educators can engage a child in reading and encourage their comprehension of what has been read. Reading with young children should not always be a formal learning experience; however, it is great to get into the habit of creating dialogue around literature by asking questions and having informal discussions about the content, context or connections you have or can make with a book.

I’ve had excellent book conversations with toddlers and they relish the opportunity to chat with a trusted adult about a story they have enjoyed. With slightly older children who are just starting their ‘learning to read’ journey, it is really important to continue these book conversations. When your child starts to decipher words in a text, we adults can get so caught up in the excitement of this that we momentarily forget that comprehension is an essential element in the ‘learning to read’ process. I see plenty of very young children who are capable of reading the words but if you ask them a few questions about the content of the book, they are at a loss; their deep understanding of a book is not at the same skill level as their ability to decode words. Comprehension is central to reading development.

The following questions or conversation starters can be used with toddlers right through to independent readers. Modify as needed and add your own questions into the mix. Asking a question or two without making it a chore gives you an insight into your child’s level of comprehension and encourages them to be critical readers of text.

The idea is not to work through this list of questions after each book is read – that is so not fun. If your child is in the mood, just casually ask one or two questions. To make this activity playful, I have written questions on paddle-pop sticks and put them in a bottle and turned it into a lucky dip game. Another suggestion is to make paper chatterboxes where your young reader can pick the question. Get creative and make up board games, or cardboard dice with questions written on them. There are no rules and you know your own children. The following questions will get the dice rolling (so to speak).

Reading comprehension question ideas:

  • Can you find the author’s name on the cover?
  • Can you find the illustrator’s name?
  • What do you think of the illustrations in the book? Are they painted? Drawn? Is it a collage? Photographs? Are they black and white or coloured? How is colour used?
  • Which is your favourite illustration? Why? Can you describe the illustration?
  • What do you think might happen next in the story?
  • If you were the author of the story would you have finished it the same way?
  • What did you like or dislike about this book?
  • What do you think the author was trying to say to us? What helped you figure out the message?
  • What part of the story was the most exciting or interesting?
  • Which character was your favourite? Why?
  • Did any of the characters remind you of anyone you know?
  • Can you think of any other books that are similar to this one?
  • Look at the cover. Did it give you clues about the story?
  • Point to the parts of the book when I call them out: spine, front cover, back cover, blurb, title.
  • How did this book make you feel? Was it a happy book? Thoughtful? A bit scary? An adventure?
  • What would be a good food to eat while reading this book?
  • What is the setting of this story?
  • Can you ask me a question about the book we just read?
  • Can you retell the story?
  • Who is telling the story?
  • Can you think of a friend who might also like this book? Why do you think they would like it?

Another strategy to increase discussion about books and the way they work is to search out books that are about books. I have two favourites – Parsley Rabbit’s Book about Books (Frances Watts and David Legge) and Lucy’s Book (Natalie Jane Prior and Cheryl Orsini). Full disclosure: I am the image of the librarian in Lucy’s Book.

Even after ten years I am still very fond of Parsley Rabbit’s Book about Books and regularly use it in library lessons. Written for an early childhood audience, Parsley Rabbit walks us through a book that is all about books and along the way he points out the title, endpapers, spine, the way the words move from left to right on a page, and the many more parts and workings of a book. Utterly brilliant.

Lucy’s Book introduces young readers from early childhood to middle primary to the concept of libraries but also the idea that a book can be loved by many and is a resource to be shared. Even if I were not pictured in this book (complete with pink hair and some of my favourite clothes!), this would be the best book I have found that captures the essence of libraries and love for a special book.

(1) Guthrie, J. T., Hoa, A. L. W., Wigfield, A., Tonks, S. M., Humenick, N. M. & Littles, E. (2007), ‘Reading motivation and reading comprehension growth in the later elementary years’, Contemporary Educational Psychology

Lysenko, L. & Abrami, P. (2014), ‘Promoting reading comprehension with the use of technology’, Computers & Education

Shanahan, T. (2006), ‘Relations among oral language, reading, and writing development’, in C. MacArthur, S. Graham & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of Writing Research

(2) Cain, K., Oakhill, J. & Bryant, P. (2004), ‘Children’s reading comprehension ability: concurrent prediction by working memory, verbal ability, and component skills’, Journal of Educational Psychology

Lysenko, L. & Abrami, P. (2014), ‘Promoting reading comprehension with the use of technology’, Computers & Education

Megan Daley is passionate about children’s literature and sharing it with young and old alike. She has been awarded the Queensland Teacher Librarian of the Year, as well as the national Dromken Librarians Award. She blogs about all things literary, library and tech at Children’s Books Daily.

Raising Readers: How to Nurture a Child's Love of Books

Raising Readers: How to Nurture a Child’s Love of Books

Megan Daley

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