How do I help my child figure out difficult words? She stumbles, stops and looks helplessly at me.

Many reasons exist for children stumbling on difficult words.

  • It could be “the code,” the way that certain sounds correspond to certain letter patterns in English. Sometimes a review of sounds and their corresponding letters helps children to figure out new words.
  • Young girl trying to read mysterious on a poster,It could be the number of letters (or syllables) in the word. Longer words are more difficult to read than shorter ones—more sounds, more word parts.  Covering up some parts of the word while revealing another part can help the child to focus on a little bit of the word at a time.
  • Many difficult words are actually words with prefixes and suffixes. Teach your child what prefixes and suffixes are, where to find them at the beginnings and endings of words, and what those word fragments mean.  You can find lists of words with particular prefixes and suffixes on line.  If the child is trained to look for these little parts of words, she can often figure out what a word means.
  • A word might be difficult because it has more than one meaning. The child might be familiar with a commonly used meaning, but not with secondary meanings.  When you are reading with your child and she stops, ask what that word means to her.  Then tell her there is another meaning she might not know about, and explain.  Words with the same spelling and different meanings are called homographs.  You can find common ones online.
  • Sometimes the context helps a child to figure out difficult words, but sometimes context is no help at all. Sometimes a dictionary becomes necessary.  When I tutor children, I make it a point to look up one word each lesson.  This teaches the students how to use a dictionary and that looking up words is sometimes the smart solution.
  • Too much information in context can baffle the child. What is important?  What doesn’t matter?  As an adult, you might know, so eliminate the distractors by covering them up with your fingers.  That leaves less information for the child to analyze.

Check the reading level.  The book might be too difficult for the child, replete with sentences that are long, with esoteric vocabulary words, with small type and with little white space.  If your child doesn’t have to read it, take the book away and recommend reading material better suited to her skills.  If she does have to read it, talk to her teacher about her struggles and see if there are alternative readings, especially easier ones.  Sometimes if she reads the simpler version first, she can gain confidence to tackle the harder version.  And sometimes the simpler version is good enough.

Fractured fairy tales

Being able to discuss characteristics of fiction—character, setting, motivation, and point of view, for example—is an advanced skill, something beginning readers and certainly nonreaders can’t do.  Right?


By using two versions of the same fairy tale, children are able to contrast the stories, telling what is the same and what is different, who is telling the story, how characters change, and where and when the story takes place.  Even writing styles of authors can be contrasted.

Another advantage of using two versions of the same fairy tale is to deepen the meaning of the original.  Just like reading one book of fiction and one book of nonfiction on the same topic deepens meaning, so does reading two differing fictional accounts of the same story.

Read about these examples and see what I mean (clicking on the cover graphic will enlarge it).

    • Mike Artwell’s Three Little Cajun Pigs Mike Artwell’s Three Little Cajun Pigs sets the porcine trio deep in Louisiana where Trosclair, Thibodeaux and Ulysse need to build homes in swampland.  Old Claude, an alligator, would like to lick his chops on couchon de lait—that’s Cajun for roast pig.  The basic elements of The Three Little Pigs are included in the story, but with changes children can easily notice, including telling the story in couplets.


    • Lisa Campbell Ernst’s Little Red Riding Hood; A New Fangled Prairie Tale Lisa Campbell Ernst’s Little Red Riding Hood; A New Fangled Prairie Tale finds Little Red Riding Hood in a red hoodie riding a bike through rows and rows of sunflowers on her way to Grandma’s.  Meanwhile, a vegetarian wolf wants to learn Grandma’s secret muffin recipe.  However, Grandma is meaner than the wolf.  Lots of details are the same, but enough differ to make finding them a treasure hunt.


    • Susan Lowell’s Cindy Ellen:  A Wild Western Cinderella Susan Lowell’s Cindy Ellen:  A Wild Western Cinderella offers a sweet cowgirl whose father has married the “orneriest woman west of the Mississippi.”  Cindy Ellen mends fences, milks cows and shovels a corral, attracting Joe Prince, the son of a cattle king.  Lots of changes make this tale a delight, but younger kids might need help recognizing the original Cinderella in this fractured version.


    • Laura Murray’s The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School  Laura Murray’s The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School lets the sweet cookie monster loose in a school, looking for the students who baked him while they are outside at recess.  The silly story is illustrated through comic book panels, unlike a traditional fairy tale.


    •  Leah Wilcox’s Waking BeautyLeah Wilcox’s Waking Beauty focuses on a prince who will do almost anything not to kiss the snoring Beauty—hollering, jumping on her bed, throwing water at her, even shooting her from a canon.  Not your Grandma’s fairy tale.


  • Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the 3 Little PigsAnd of course Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, one of the first of this type fairy tale and one of the best, tells the familiar story from Alexander T. Wolf’s point of view.

As starting points for discussion of literature with young children, these stories are great.

“Bring a Book” shower creates baby’s home library

Recently I received an invitation to attend a baby shower with a separate small note attached suggesting that guests bring a children’s book instead of a card.  The idea was well received, with guests of all ages bringing picture books.  “Now all the baby needs is a bookcase,” remarked one of the guests, admiring the stack of books the unborn baby had received.

Home library of children's illustrated books  being admired by soon-to-be mom.Many guests brought a copy of their children’s favorite book.  Many wrote personal messages to the new baby inside the books’ covers, as did I.

What a great new concept, I thought.  But from friends, I hear that this idea has been around for at least a half dozen years.

My niece, whose first child was born six years ago, said guests at her baby shower brought picture books for her expected son.  In her case, bringing a book as a gift was not suggested in the invitation,.  But in the past three years, the practice has become more formalized either as part of the invitation, or as a little note added to the invitation.  My niece’s choices for the recent shower:  Skippy Jon Jones (“The best imagination and rhyming book ever!” she says) and Boynton board books (“Great for smaller people”).

One of the shower guests was a young librarian who brought not one book but a half dozen, including The Other Dog because the mother-to-be has a beloved dog.  She said since a card can cost $4 or $5 these days, buying a book was a much better value.

A male cousin of the mother-to-be picked out I Will Love You Forever because he remembers his mother reading it to him as a child.  His wife thinks the book gift idea is a charming one because each guest brought a book with sentimental value.–Mrs. K

My favorite books to “read” to my kids were the Richard Scarry books.  I say “read” because most of the time we looked at the books and talked about the pictures.  I would point to an object and my son would name it, or vice versa.  The drawings are fantastic and each page is loaded with visual information.

Scarry has a few books about trains, planes, and cars that my boys liked.   He also has books on manners which I loved!  One of them is called Huckle’s Good Manners.  In this book he would show both good manners and BAD manners!  It was so much fun to read about a character behaving badly…lots of laughs.

My kids loved the Where’s Waldo books too!   Even though I have moved a few times, I have held onto the Where’s Waldo books.  Now that I think about it there are no words, just incredibly detailed pictures filled with hundreds of characters.  I remember one year my son had to dress up as a book character for a school event.  He was Waldo.  His nana knitted him the hat.  When my grown up kids come to visit, they still look at the Waldo books.  –Mrs. A

Is recognizing patterns important for little kids?

I was working with a rising first grader over the weekend, using a hands-on parts-of-speech activity to help kids learn nouns, verbs, article adjectives, etc. The student’s job was to manipulate the parts of speech words over the appropriate words in printed sentences. For example, in the sentence, “The stinky dog farts,” the student put the word “article adjective” over the word “the,” “adjective” over “stinky,” “noun” over “dog,” and “verb” over “farts.”

Young boy sorting buttons.

Click graphic to enlarge it.

In a few minutes, however, my student did what all my students seem to do: she organized piles of the word “noun,” piles of the word “verb” and piles of other parts of speech. “That’s not important right now,” I told her, but she persisted as if the organizing of like words became as important to her as identifying parts of speech.

So what?

Recognizing patterns is a skill all human beings do. When doctors listen to the complaints of patients, they hope to find patterns to identify ailments. Quilters repeat sizes, shapes and colors to create pleasing arrangements. Mozart repeated patterns in his music for harmony and to tie elements together. When I was a three-year-old, I would sort my grandmother’s box of buttons by color, or by size, or by the number of holes in each button. There is something about being human being that seeks out patterns.

Finding patterns in groups of words helps children to read. I was working with a four-year-old this weekend, using letter tiles to construct letter sounds which when moved close together, created words. I said the sounds for “c,” “a,” and “t,” slowly moving the letters representing those sounds closer and closer until the child could say “cat.” When I took away the “c” and put a “b,” the child quickly said “bat.” For other words—“hat,” “rat,” and “sat,” she was even quicker. She had recognized a pattern in those words and realized she didn’t need to figure out the middle or ending sounds because they stayed the same.

Later a child will learn how patterns are important in alphabetic order; or how words with the same roots show a pattern in meaning; or how most words which end with –ly are adverbs. He will learn that stories show a familiar pattern—beginning, middle, and end, or that in fairy tales with princesses, “they all lived happily ever after.” He will learn that pronunciation of words follows patterns as do spelling rules most of the time.

If you are looking for fun pattern-building activities to do with your child, I recommend you check out the Reading Rockets website which suggests four easy activities to do with your preschooler to develop pattern thinking. This site also lists and describes five picture books which focus on pattern thinking. While you’re there, look at some of the other great information Reading Rockets provides for parents and teachers of young children learning to read.

Eye-tracking affirms the importance of vocabulary in learning to read

Eye tracking studies confirms importance of vocabulary building. In a previous blog (Is a child’s vocabulary destiny? From July 25, 2013), I pointed out that vocabulary acquisition is the single greatest predictor of reading success. Children from professional families grow up hearing 32 million more words than children from poor families by the time they are four years old. Most of these words are repeated words, but even so, the number of familiar repeated words is enormous for some children who begin to read with that oral vocabulary advantage.

Research using eye-tracking technology confirms how important a rich vocabulary is for good reading skills. With eye-tracking, the child’s eye movements are monitored using state-of-the-art technology. This technology records the jumps the child makes between words and the pauses the child makes while figuring out meaning.

Eye-tracking technology has confirmed ideas about how children read.

–When children encounter words they know well, the eye skips along briskly.

–When children encounter new words, or words used in unfamiliar ways, the eye pauses.

Researchers have concluded that children seem to have reading word banks in their brains. These word banks are organized by how frequently the child has encountered a word. The more often a child has encountered a word (e.g. “cat”), the quicker the child can understand the word. The less often the child has encountered a word (e.g. “waltz”), the more skills—and time—the child needs to identify it.

Eye-tracking technology reaffirms for me the importance of reading to our young children so that they will hear a wide variety of words. It reaffirms the importance of talking to our children frequently, using adult vocabulary right from birth, and helping children to use specific vocabulary as soon as they are able.

It also shows that there is so much more to learn about how children read, and that technology will be important in that research.

What’s a graphic novel?

One of the biggest trends in children’s literature in the past ten years is the rise of graphic novels.  Not sure what I mean?  Think Captain Underpants and The Wimpy Kid.  Graphic novels are

  • Two boys reading a book entitled "Graphic Novel."comic-strip-like stories with a beginning, middle and end (not a continuing saga).
  • fiction and nonfiction stories told as much in colorful drawings as in words.
  • a hybrid form of action literature that appeals to 12 to 18-year-olds but now is working its way to much younger readers.
  • a newly recognized form of literature by the Young Adult Library Services Association, part of the American Library Association, which has been selecting the best graphic novels for teens since 2007.
  • a form of children’s literature reviewed in respected journals such as School Library Journal.

Graphic novels, like all novels, cover many themes such as romance, sci-fi, fantasy, super heroes, and modern warfare.  Not all graphic novels are novels.  Recent nonfiction titles include Pride and Prejudice, a biography of Thomas Jefferson, Poseidon, landing on the moon and the great apes of Africa.

When graphic novels started appearing, said Mary Tyner, a media specialist from Peachtree Elementary School in Peachtree Corners, Georgia, they were inferior literature and she did not buy them for her school library.  But as they improved and as they were reviewed by respected journals, she began buying, and now she can’t keep the 153 titles on her library’s shelves.

“They are an extremely motivating literature that encourages children to read,” Tyner said.  Over time, she has seen the reading level of graphic novels press downward, but there are few for beginning readers, perhaps because it is hard to have a meaningful story line in beginning reading books, said Tyner.

Another advantage of graphic novels is that they teach synthesizing skills, said Deb Schiano, media specialist at Loundsberry Hollow Middle School in Vernon, New Jersey.  “In our society children must be aware how to read images,” said Schiano, and how to combine the images with words to form meaning.  She compares graphic novels to storyboards from which the student can pick up story arcs by reading the drawings.  Combining the pictures with the words creates more complex meaning.

Graphic novels also attract disabled students, said Schiano.  “For the dyslexic student who can’t decipher words, graphic novels are another way to learn.” In her school last year one teacher used them consistently with learning disabled students.

Both media specialists said graphic novels also encourage children to write and illustrate their own stories, sometimes using online sites.

What has all this to do with beginning readers?

  • Young children will see their older siblings reading graphic novels, and will enjoy paging through them to study the drawings.  The joy that that the older child shows might encourage the younger child to want to read.
  • With time, graphic novels will probably reach down into first grade reading levels and attract younger and younger readers.
  • As a child’s reading ability improves, he might want to buy these books or to borrow them from the library.  Parents unfamiliar with this genre might scorn graphic novels as inferior, but it is worth remembering they have advantages over text-only books.  For reluctant readers, or disabled readers, or boys, they can be a way to motivate the child to read.
  • Graphic novels can also be found on iPhones and Android phones.  Expect your young children to be intrigued when they find them online, and eventually, to want to buy them this way.

Will watching TV help my child learn vocabulary or do better at reading?

Most studies of the effects of television viewing by young children show negative effects, but it is hard to single out effects on only vocabulary or reading readiness.

Child sitting in front of a large screen tv.

  • Kids two to five years old spend 32 hours a week—almost five hours a day—watching TV, DVD’s, DVR’s, videos, game consoles, tablets, and smart phones. Most of that time is spent watching live TV programs.
  • Toddlers 29 months old who spend two hours daily watching TV risk lower vocabulary and math skills, and by the time they go to kindergarten, have lower attention spans and are physically weaker.
  • Many homes (as many as 51%) report a TV on in the background most of the time. In such situations, children watch more TV and read less often than other kids. They are less likely to be able to read. One, two, and three-year-olds have shorter attention spans. Parents and children interact less frequently than in homes without constant TV. (the University of Michigan)
  • When the TV is on, adults speak 75 fewer words per hour compared to when the TV is off. Children speak 25 to 50% less when the TV is on. (the Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute)

What can you take away from this research?

  • The more time children watch TV, the less time they devote to reading, academic work, physical play and social interaction—all important for a healthy, well-rounded childhood.
  • The more time the TV is on, the less time adults talk to children, and the less time the children talk—all detrimental to healthy, developing children and especially to vocabulary building which is so important for learning to read.