“Grade-level” text for kindergarten and first grade: More on how reading is a team sport

If you’re a reading teacher, I’m sure you’re hearing loud and clear that we need to teach all kids with complex, grade-level text. Access to that text is an equity issue.

But wait: What about kindergarten and first grade? If we try looking up a Lexile® range in the Common Core appendix, we find some N/As on the chart for K­–1. So what should we use? Many of these kids can’t really read yet, so what does it even mean to think about text level?

Those tuned in to debates about best practices in literacy instruction know that all of this can feel as confusing as picking up two radio stations at once. We hear strong voices arguing for use of complex, grade-level text. But we also hear strong voices—often the very same ones—insisting that systematic, explicit phonics instruction using phonics-aligned text is both effective and a key equity issue. And research supports both assertions.

How do we reconcile these two when we’re trying to choose a book? For an early reader, which kind of text is right? Do we lean into phonics patterns, or do we lean into meaning-rich text? Should I get a “decodable” text, or an award-winning picture or chapter book with great themes? Once I’ve selected a text, how can I involve families in building a confident reader?

Let’s pull this apart a bit, tuning into one radio station at a time. First, let’s look at an example text for each assertion.

Two kinds of texts

Here’s a (fake) text that is all about early phonics patterns: Hats!, by Yours Truly. You’ll have to imagine some adorable illustrations.

Rat has a hat. Rat is in his hat.

Rat has a ham. The ham has a hat.

A ham in a hat? Hats, hats, hats!

And here’s a sentence from a real text that is rich with meaning, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer.

In a small village in Malawi, where people had no money for lights,

nightfall came quickly and hurried poor farmers to bed.

Here’s the spoiler: there is a role for both kinds of text for primary grades. One is for kids to practice the phonics they are being explicitly taught, and one is for kids to gain meaning, so they can develop their language, comprehension skills, and knowledge. Let’s look more closely at each.

Decodable text

Notice that the fake text hits really hard on the short A vowel sound, and it repeatedly uses words with either the -AT ending or the HA- beginning (or both). Filler words (“is,” “in,” his, “has”) are carefully chosen to stick with simple, short-vowel-sound spellings. If beginning readers try the most frequent sound for a letter as they try to read a word, they will be successful with this text. This makes this kind of text decodable for a child who has been taught only the first smidges of phonics.

Notice also that the meaning is pretty pointless. You often see this most starkly in the decodable books targeted to very beginning phonics. The language is far simpler than what kids hear in everyday conversations, too. Hats!, then, is no good for developing language, comprehension skills, or knowledge. While Hats! is an extreme example of this “no good” category, it’s not hard to find books for earliest readers that have this same profile.

We would prefer books that are decodable but interesting. But here’s why I think these decodable texts are critical at the very beginning of learning to decode, even if they are a little boring: they set kids up to succeed as they apply the phonics they are learning. This makes them great for helping beginning readers trust that the best way forward in reading is using sounding-out strategies. The best strategy to rely on is not guessing, hunting in the illustrations, or memorizing word shapes. It is using phonics.

We can teach kids to rely on their phonics knowledge by doing two things: 1) Teach them phonics, explicitly and systematically. 2) Give them texts where, to a significant degree, the taught phonics works for figuring out the words. Because success is an incredible motivator.

Complex, meaning-rich text

Now let’s talk about The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. In addition to having showstopping illustrations by Elizabeth Zunon, this book checks all the boxes as a read for focusing on meaning. It’s a nonfiction tale about a boy who figures out how to build a wind turbine in his hometown in Malawi, so it’s great for building knowledge about energy and geography and makerspace engineering. On top of that, it has layers of meaning and repeated themes (is it magic or science that helps the boy succeed?) and it has great word choice and language complexity.

Here’s that excerpt from earlier again, because I want you to notice a couple things.

In a small village in Malawi, where people had no money for lights,

nightfall came quickly and hurried poor farmers to bed.

See the sentence structure, which has a couple of dependent clauses before it arrives at the independent one? We don’t use that complexity of syntax in talking, especially to young kids, so we need written texts like this one to expose kids to these kinds of structures. Notice, too, how nightfall seems almost like a person as it hurries the villagers to bed. What a great chance to introduce personification!

Now let’s think about the box this book doesn’t check so well. Think about how “village” will sound for the beginning reader, who is applying a sound for each and every letter. No one taught them yet that -AGE at the end of a multisyllabic word tends to say “edge,” so they are likely to come up with something like “vill-a-geh.” No one taught them yet about -IGH saying “eye,” so sounding out “lights” is probably going to produce a messy tangle of letter sounds instead of a word.

For a very beginning reader trying to decode the words in this book on their own, the chances of success using letter sounds are low. That’s why we don’t use this book that way for kids at this early level of decoding. Instead, to let kids who can’t read it yet access that rich meaning, we read it aloud to them. As they develop as early readers, maybe we do some strongly supported practice at reading it, sure. But we don’t pretend that this is the book that will set kids who are just now learning simple short vowel sounds up for success.

Text choice is about purpose

Let’s get back to the question at the start of this post: What is the right text for kindergarteners and first-graders? It’s both kinds. It’s more-decodable text that explicitly supports the phonics currently being taught. And it’s complex, juicy text that offers opportunities for lessons that develop language, comprehension, and knowledge. These two start to converge more, in later grades: eventually patterns like -AGE and -IGH will fall into the decodable category. But in kindergarten and first grade, these are two different kinds of text with two very different levels of readability. Both are the right text level for these grades, when we let them work in collaboration.

If you’re a primary-grade teacher, you know this. You know to choose text according to a specific purpose, and you know to pair each selection with active and intentional instruction. But what about families, who are supporting student learning more than ever these days?

Teaming texts and teaming with families

Let’s remember that many parents or guardians are caring for a bouncy and fussy six-year-old all day while simultaneously working—or while stressing out about finding new employment that is safe. Most of them are on the verge of Tina Fey–style sheet caking.

via GIPHY

They want to find a way to help, but they need instructions to be clear. They need how they help to match their capacity.

It’s time for teachers and families to dive into some authentic, mutually supportive conversations about what each of us can do. Which of us can help the child practice with phonics-aligned decodable texts? Which of us can read meaning-rich books—mostly to the child, but gradually with them—and talk about meaning? In a strategic partnership, how can we capitalize on the specialized training a teacher has while also capitalizing on the special relationship—and the simple fact of co-location in the same room—that a parent has with a child?

In 2020, there is definitely such a thing as too much cake. But there’s no such thing as too much collaboration. Not when it comes to supporting my favorite kind of humans: the ones who are learning to read.

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