Widen that reading to create better readers.
I spend a lot of time with students teaching them how to read. For most dyslexic learners, that means a lot of work on phonemic awareness, and direct, explicit, and systematic teaching on decoding words.
But that’s not the end of the story. Most teachers will rightly point out that this is only a small part of learning to read. Children need to also learn fluency, vocabulary and have a good grasp of comprehension. After all, the whole point of reading is to learn the author's point of view and then relate it back to the world we live in.
Research has told us that wide reading is one of the most effective and easiest reading strategies to implement. Andrew Johnson, writer of 10 Essential Instructional Elements For Students With Reading Difficulties: A Brain-Friendly Approach says that extensive reading has been linked to improvement in general knowledge, vocabulary, spelling, verbal fluency, and reading comprehension (Cunningham & Stanovich, 2001; Krashen, 2004). Also, the amount of reading students do is positively correlated with word identification skills, academic achievement, comprehension, reading fluency, and writing (Cunningham & Allington, 2007; Guthrie, Wigfield, Metsala, & Cox, 2004).
And this is where I see young readers get stuck - both the dyslexic learners I work with and their more neurotypical peers. I’ve seen it in my own children - they tend to find an author or a series they love and stay with them. For my students, this is David Walliams, Roald Dahl, Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I was so excited when my daughter read the 35 odd books in the Warriors series, until I thought about it a little harder. Over the series of 35 books, she was exposed to only one author’s range of vocabulary, only one author’s version of creativity, and I’m pretty sure there wasn’t much exposure to how the world works. And so the wide reading project began in our household. It’s something that every family can achieve (if you haven’t the time/energy/ability to read yourself, you can download Libby the Library app onto a device and download audiobook after audiobook). This is how it goes:
I read to my kids most nights. But we have a new rule. When I read to the kids, I choose the book. That means I get to read something I enjoy (and I can assure you that is not Warriors), that we can talk about, and that exposes them to different authors, ideas and opinions. I mix it up - there are biographies, historical fiction, futuristic fantasies, NZ authors….the list goes on. If they want to read something else, they can read (or listen) to it themselves.
For those who are stuck, I’ve created a small book review below to get you started. My kids are 10, 13, and 15, and the books are suitable for all of them, and I even enjoyed the stories. I’d suggest these books are great for Year 5 and up.
Once - Morris Gleitzman
This is a story about a young Jewish boy living through the Holocaust. It is very different from most similar stories as he is so naive and you can really hear his voice. It’s an easy read, not too long, and the characters are all very engaging. It made me cry, but that’s a good thing. You should probably cry reading about the Holocaust. There are more in the series, following the life and adventures (?) of Felix. I read the series in 2 days start to finish, so definitely a page-turner.
The Last Paper Crane - Kerry Drewery
A novel about the bombing of Hiroshima. This story is different as it is written in both regular prose and free verse (with the odd Haiku thrown in for good measure. It follows the experiences of Ichiro, a Japanese teenager caught in the bombing, and his lifelong search for his friend's sister Keiko. It’s less about war, and more about love, guilt, and redemption. After I finished reading it, my daughter took it to her room and read it again. One of my favourite books of all time.
The Giver - Lois Lowry
A novel set in a dystopian future where society at first appears to be utopian - there is no pain, fear, or differences and people live comfortable but bland lives. One boy, Jonas, is chosen to receive the memories of the world ‘before’ and he learns of joy, love, pain, and violence. A big thumbs up from the kids, and a great introduction into this genre. Warning: the story does talk of euthanasia.
Refugee - Alan Gratz
A story about three different refugee children - one escaping Nazi Germany, one escaping Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and another escaping war-torn Syria. The characters are engaging, their plight is heart-wrenching, and they had me hoping for the best outcome for all of them. Great for understanding that everyone in the world isn’t as privileged as we are.
Uglies - Scott Westerfield
The story of a dystopian world where teenagers are turned from Uglies to Pretties on their 16th birthday. The main character of the story runs away to join a group living outside of the society and avoids the beautifying (but mind-controlling) operation. Loads of great themes about control, free will, and the environment. Again, I read the rest of the series for myself because I really enjoyed it.
Pounamu Pounamu - Witi Ihimaera
This book of short stories has a few gems, amongst which I loved The Matriarch, Game of Cards and Before the Tournament (which is probably the funniest thing I have ever read). Witi Ihimaera has a uniquely NZ voice, reminiscent of Taika Waititi’s films. Great for conversations about Maori culture.
And while I’m on Witi Ihimaera, the audiobook of the Whale Rider is amazing. Definitely a great option for those long car rides.
Fish in a Tree - Lynda Mullaly Hunt
The story of a young girl with dyslexia who gets a new teacher who finally gets her and helps her. This is such a heartwarming book with wonderful character development and a great message of accepting and embracing differences.
There’s a boy in the girl’s bathroom - Louis Sachar
Another story about embracing differences - this time Bradley is hated by everyone including his teacher. A new school counselor and a new boy at school help him to change. This story is funny and quirky and embraces themes of acceptance. One of my favorites in this genre.