This post was inspired by a masterclass I attended – held by the wonderful Dawn Meredith (you can find her at http://dawnmeredithauthor.blogspot.com.au/) – where she addressed some of the generalities and nuances of writing books for kids. Dawn has been a slush reader for Scholastic, has had some of her own children’s books published and is a teacher specialising in children with reading difficulties. She’s also a fantastic, generous person to boot and kindly let me post some of the notes I made.
During her talk on children’s books, Dawn made mention of phonics and the developmental stages of reading education and how knowledge of how children are taught to read can impact upon the choice of words used in children’s books – particularly the more junior-level books like board books and also some picture books. They are not hard and fast rules (all reading levels can be present in any one age-group of kids), but I found them fascinating as a potential guideline for authors looking to pair appropriate word choices to particular reading ages and so thought I’d share.
Disclaimer – I am not a teacher. These notes are based on a lecture I attended and may not be applicable to all primary school learning modalities. Methods of teaching reading can vary from state to state and according to new theories of teaching and with changing school curriculums. I would welcome feedback and comments from teachers if this post has missed something crucial.
1 Single Sounds
When children first start school (kindergarten to year 1), they are taught the ‘sounds’ of the individual letters of the alphabet. These sounds are frequently taught using common words that start with the letter in question, paired with a picture of something the child can recognise – as in “A” is for “ant”, “B” is for “bird” and so on.
By the end of year 1, the students are generally learning the sounds created when two letters (initially a consonant with a vowel) combine. These are generally blends whereby the student can figure out the sound of the pairing by sounding out each individual letter in the pairing (contrast point 8 – more advanced – where the sounds are not able to be determined just by individually sounding out the letters).
For example, “ha” as in “hat” or “po” as in “pop”.
3 Consonant Vowel Consonant (CVC) Words
These are simple three-letter words, generally a combination of the single sounds and blends of levels 1 and 2. These also start to appear during year 1.
Examples include: “cat” – combination of the “c” for cat and “at” blend. “Dog” – combination of the “d” for dog sound and the “og” blend.
4 Initial Consonant Blends
After year 1, blends of paired consonants get placed on the front of words, similar to the CVC words, to create slightly more complex words and sounds. “Frog” – which is a pairing of the blend sound “fr” and the vowel-consonant blend “og”.
Board books generally do not go above the level of complexity seen in phonics points 1-4.
5 Final Consonant Blends
By year 2, the students are generally starting to learn words where paired consonant blends come at the end of words. For example – “nd” as in “hand” and “lt” as in “salt”.
6 Double consonant blend words
In year 2, ‘initial consonant blend’ principles and ‘final consonant blend’ principles are combined to tackle words with paired consonant blends on each end. For example “stalk” and “truck”.
7 Long vowels (CVC words with an ‘e’ on the end)
These generally start in year 3. Here the child learns to transform a short CVC vowel sound into a longer vowel sound with the addition of an ‘e’ on the end. For example, the short-vowel word “hop” (an ‘o’ sound) becomes the longer sound “hope” (an ‘oh’ sound).
8 Consonant digraphs
These blends generally start in year 3 and are pairs of consonants that generally cannot be sounded out by sounding the individual letters. They are truly unique sounds made by particular pairings, for example “ch” as in “chicken” and “th” and “ph” (a ‘fff’ sound as in “phone”) and “wh”.
9 Vowel combinations
Double vowel sounds (“oo”, “oi”, “oa” “ou” “ai” “ee”) and certain vowel-consonant combinations (“ey”, “oy” “or”) also begin to be commonplace here.
10 Complex combinations
By the end of year 3 and onward, children should generally be able to recognise the sounds and appearance of certain complex ‘sight’ combinations. These include but are not limited to: “ould”, “ough”, “aught”, “eight”, “igh”, “ight”, “dge”, “oor”, “mb” and “air”.
Picture books (except those intended for very early grade-school) generally involve words falling in the entire spectrum – from 1-10.
Again, these phonics guides should not be considered as hard-and-fast rules for writing picture books or children’s books. Part of the fun of reading is for children to encounter and learn new and more advanced words and ‘dumbing’ down a book to suit a certain level may not ultimately be helpful. At the same time, knowing a little about how the process of learning reading in Australian schools works can help you to guide your individual word choices more effectively towards the age group you are writing for.