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Selecting Texts for Beginning Reading Instruction continued

Elfrieda H. Hiebert, University of Michigan


Guidelines for Selecting Texts

What does the information in this chapter mean for teachers such as Mrs. Grattan, whose classroom I described at the beginning of the chapter? All of the answers about elements of texts that assist beginning readers in becoming independent readers are not in. As teachers and researchers study particular choices of materials and effects of these choices on children's reading acquisition, many more descriptions and guidelines will be available. But there are guidelines available now from the practices of effective teachers.

Because of the longstanding use of readability formulas in selecting and designing beginning reading texts, I believe it necessary to preface the description of guidelines by contrasting the meanings of "guideline" and "formula". A guideline is "a standard or principle by which to make a judgment or determine a policy or course of action" (Guralnik, 1979, p. 621). By contrast, a formula is "a rule or method for doing something, especially when conventional and used or repeated without thought." (Guralnik, 1979, p. 549). In the past, formulas were applied to texts. A text was described as "1.4 grade equivalent" or "1.7 grade equivalent" difficulty. Texts were manipulated so that the elements that made them harder or easier were adjusted to fit the formula. I have already discussed the manner in which this manipulation distorted the language of the text for childrenand subsequently their ease in reading it. The application of formulas also disregarded the role of readers' knowledge and engagement in reading. Also left out of the text selection process was the role of instructional supports from teacher and peers. No matter how much more insight educators gain on the text features that support particular processes in beginning readers, there can never be formulas that precisely match a reader and a text. Children are sufficiently different in what they know about the world and about written language that selecting text will never be an exact science. Guidelines such as the four that follow, however, can support teachers and publishers in making the best possible selections of text for beginning readers.

In presenting the framework for text features, I stated that the source for the model lies in beginning reading processes. To reiterate: Text selection has to happen in relationship to the strategies and skills that young readers are acquiring in the moment, and those that they are moving toward learning. Features of the framework in Table 1 such as phonetically regular words or high-frequency words relate to aspects of written language. To make meaning from texts, readers need to be skillful with these aspects of text. Since children need to attend to particular high-frequency words, this means that the same group of words needs to be in many of the texts that children see. In the framework in Table 1, I have suggested that these high-frequency words initially come from the 20 most frequent words in written English (the, of, and, a, to, in, is, you, that, it, he, for, was, on, are, as, with, his, they, at). Since children are learning to extend the "rime" in phonetically regular words, this means that exemplars of common and consistent patterns. As presented in Table 1, the most common and consistent patterns for the children at the very earliest stages of reading instruction are those that have a V-C rime such as bat, cat, hat, rat, fat, sat as well as bad, mad, sad.

The guideline to emphasize the 20 most frequent words and words with V-C rimes is well and good. But there are many books with these features. After all, the 20 most frequent words, by definition, appear often in books for young children as do words with common patterns (i.e., V-C rimes). Let me illustrate the different choices that teachers have with two texts that have been offered as appropriate for beginning readers. One is Deming's Who is tapping at my window? which is the first passage in a literature-based program (Pikulski, Cooper, Durr et al., 1993); the other is Wildsmith's (1982) Cat on the mat, a text that is frequently offered as appropriate for beginning readers while maintaining literary quality (Cullinan & Galda, 1994).

In Who is tapping at my window?, there are five V-C rimes represented: at (cat, rat), at (tapping), og (dog, frog), ox (ox, fox), en (hen, wren). Except for tapping which occurs twice in the text, each word occurs once. Of the 112 words in the text, 10 words or 9% of the text offer beginning readers opportunities to attend to or apply knowledge about V-C rimes. In Cat on the mat, two V-C rimes are represented: at (cat, sat, mat) and og (dog). The appearances of these words are: cat (2), sat (6), mat (6), and dog (1). Out of 40 words in the entire text, 15 or 38% give children occasion to attend to or apply knowledge about V-C rimes.

A similar analysis can be conducted with the presence of high-frequency words. There are three words from the top 20 list in Who is tapping at my window?: the (15), is (3), and it (1). Out of the 112 texts in the text, 19 or 17% expose children to the most frequent words in written English. In Cat on the mat, there are two words from the top 20 list: the (12) and on (6). Out of 40 words, 18 or 45% give beginning readers exposure to the most-frequent words. For children who are at the very beginning stages of reading, these two texts provide contrasting opportunities to attend to and apply knowledge of phonetically regular and high-frequency words.

A teacher may find that a text has some of the information that he or she wishes to emphasize with a group of children. But the attention of beginning readers can easily be distracted from this information by other aspects of a text. Peterson (1991) proposes that unique placement of text or print types, such as the text Klippity Klop (Emberley, 1974) can confuse beginning readers. While factors such as text placement or print type need to be considered, two common obstacles are text that is too dense or long and text that has unfamiliar concepts.

I turn again to the two texts, Who is tapping at my window? and Cat on the mat to demonstrate this guideline. When a text has more than a 100 words as Who is tapping at my window? has (112 words altogether), the instances of high-frequency and phonetically regular words can be difficult for beginning readers to find. Children whose book experiences have been negligible may be struggling to figure out what the squiggles on the page are all about, much less attending to the differentiations between "og" in frog and "ox" in fox. Of the 28 unique words in Who is tapping at my window?, there are 3 high-frequency words that fit the criterion in Table 1 and 8 phonetically regular words. That means that, among the 112 words in the text, another 17 unique words need to be pointed out to children.

By contrast, 50% of the 10 words in Cat on the mat pertain to the content that a teacher might emphasize at the beginning of children's reading acquisition. Of the other five, four can be easily identified through picture. The final word sssstpppt! represents the sound that the cat makes to scare the other animals off the mat.

The familiarity of the content in Cat on the mat demonstrates a second way in which children's attention can be directed to the critical content, rather than distracted from it. All of the animalscat, dog, goat, cow, and elephantare easily identifiable from the pictures and are common to games and materials for young children. While Who is tapping at my window? is also about animals, some of the animalsespecially wren, cony, loon, and oxare not common ones to children. Even after a discussion about what these animals are, children will not automatically make the association when they see the picture in subsequent visits to the text. While texts should be a means whereby children's world knowledge is expanded (Hiebert & Raphael, 1997), texts that are used for beginning reading instructionespecially during the very earliest lessonsshould require less explanation than a text such as this.

Clear and salient illustrations of the key concepts in a book are a primary means whereby children are "invited" into books. The repeated phrases and episodes of predictable books are a second scaffold that allows children who are new to understand what reading is all about. However, possibly because of the powerful contributions of illustrations, they may potentially be overused. Children with few print strategies may rely on the illustrations, rather than text features, to decode and verify words (Samuels, 1970). Beginning readers may well be sharpening their auditory and memory skills, but not acquiring word recognition skills.

Even at the very earliest stages, children should see a variety of texts. A varied diet of text in which features other than the predictable text are "exaggerated" allows children to apply their emerging word recognition strategies. For example, some texts might emphasize V-C rimes (and other rimes, with time) in the manner that Dr. Seuss (1960) did with Green Eggs and Ham. Other texts might exaggerate high-frequency words in the manner that Minarik did so successfully with her Little Bear books.

To turn once more to the texts that I have been using to demonstrate these guidleines, the literature-based program that begins with Who is tapping at my window? provides only one text without a predictable pattern for the first six weeks of reading instruction. Any diet that emphasizes only one featureas the texts based only on high-frequency words, such as Tiny, and those based only on phonetically regular words such as the Bad Fandoes not give beginning readers sufficient opportunities to apply their knowledge. So, too, a diet based on only predictable text can create problems.

The difference among beginning readers in prior experiences with texts is substantial. These prior experiences become apparent quickly in a first-grade classroom. The children who have had 1,000 or more hours of lapreading at home or in preschools (Adams, 1990) often become conventional readers within the first few months of first grade. They have seen enough texts that an introductory story such as Who is tapping at my window? may be challenging but sufficiently familiar in style and form that the difficulty of the text does not deter them from learning to read.

Children whose book experiences have been few are often measured by the same yardstick. Their teachers are reluctant to involve them with new texts because they haven't learned the words in texts such as Who is tapping at my window?an expectation that is fostered when a text such as this is the primary reading material for an entire week of instruction. But seeing many different texts was precisely the way in which successful early readers learned to associate oral and written language, to understand the functions and forms of written language, and to distinguish the language of books from typical speech. Even though some children may not be able to visibly learning the words in particular books, they require exposure to many different books if they are to grasp fundamental concepts that underlie word recognition (Juel, 1991).

In programs where children with few prior text experiences learn to read well, the number of books that children encounter before becoming conventional readers may be in the vicinity of 100 or more (Martin & Hiebert, 1997). These texts have characteristics such as Cat on the mat rather than Who is tapping at my window? in the number of unique words and the presence of phonetically regular and high-frequency words. Children are guided in tracking print and attending to particular words in the text. They practice writing words that they have seen in the text. Teachers have expectations about their learning and attention to print. However, learning to read is not viewed to be rigidly sequenced with children required to master elements of one text before moving to the next. Teachers in these programs recognize that children need to be involved in many texts to understand what reading is all about.

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