How digital ebooks—including picture books—are evolving

Is your young child using a laptop computer, a notebook or a tablet in the classroom?  One in three students are, according to a survey by Project Tomorrow based in Irvine, CA.

Young girl 's reading choices include a print book and an eBook.Young girl 's reading choices include a print book and an eBook.Until now, most of the ebook material available has been at too high a reading level for beginning readers, but that is rapidly changing.  (For example, Mrs. A and I created five ebook stories for children learning short vowel sounds.)

The narrative or story ebooks (picture books) that would attract grades preK-2 are becoming more sophisticated as publishers experiment with the features these ebooks can offer.

  • The first such ebooks were scanned versions of picture books in their original form—same cover, same font size, same everything except that these ebooks were available on a digital platform. Some features of picture books were lost, such as the tiny size of board books or the large size of some illustrations, but other features were gained, such as the fun of using a computer or phone to read a picture book.
  • Later ebooks took the Reading Rainbow approach—a voice reading the book aloud, and pictures zooming in or out as if to show action. Instead of the child being in charge of the reading, and moving through the book at his own pace, the film director decided what was important, what words to emphasize and how much time to spend on any one illustration.
  • The next step in the evolution of ebook picture books was interactive ebooks. The design of the print version was altered to take advantage of features like “Read to me” (the child presses a button and a voice reads the book), music, sound effects and animation.
  • More recently, tablets and smart phones allow children to move characters about so that the reader becomes part of the story. The child reader can “help” a character by performing certain actions, or at the end of the story, complete puzzles, word games and coloring activities related to and enriching the story or the child’s reading skills.  Many of these new picture books begin life as ebooks, bypassing the printed stage altogether.

What’s next?  I suspect ebooks will become personalized, with the child able to change the name of a character to a name of his choice, and to change the outcome of the story to fit his mood.  He might be able to change the color scheme or to select more advanced vocabulary as his reading skills improve.  Look to video games, to wii and x-box 360 for technology that will eventually work its way into ebooks.

What would Dr. Seuss think?

One example of how to teach a four-year-old to read

For several weeks I have been tutoring a four-year-old, teaching her to read.

  • I started with letter tiles, placing one before her at a time and asking her what sound each letter represented. She knew many of them, but not all of them.  As I expected, she couldn’t sound out “e” and “i” and was vague on “u” too.  The consonants “d,” “j,” “q,” “x,” “y” and “z” also were mysteries.
  • On a paper I had written all the sounds associated with individual letters, and as she said them properly, I crossed them out, to know which letters we needed to focus on.
  • Reading tutor with 4-year-oldSince she was confident about “o” and “a,” I used those letters to form CVC words, real and imaginary, spelling them phonetically. With the letter “a” I sandwiched two consonants, one on either side, separating the tiles and then moving them closer and closer until they looked like a word.  All the time I was pronouncing the sounds, such as “c” “a” and “t.”
  • Since the hardest letter sounds for beginning readers to hear are the middle sounds in CVC words, I kept using the same vowel sound, the letter “a,” for one half-hour lesson. I put a “t” after the “a” and kept it there for several minutes, exchanging one beginning consonant for another as she read the words.
  • My little student caught on quickly that the sound in the middle and at the end of the word didn’t change, so all she had to focus on was the beginning sound. When we encountered one of her difficult letter sounds, I would say it and then she would.
  • At our next lesson, I repeated much of the first lesson, asking her to pronounce the sound for each letter tile. This time she sounded the “q” consistently correct, so I crossed out that letter sound on my list.
  • I made CVC words using the letter “o.” Some words were real; some were nonsense words or real words spelled phonetically.  What she showed me was that she knows the sounds of various letters.
  • The next week I used both “a” and “o” words. This was more difficult because my student needed to keep track of two sounds in CVC words.
  • This past week I used “u” as the vowel. At first, my student would forget the sound “u” represents, but by the end of the lesson, she was remembering it.

Because the lesson lasts just 30 minutes, this student hangs in there, but by the end of a half hour she is losing interest.  I compliment her work often, telling her, “You didn’t know that letter last week, and now you do!” or “You figured out that word all by yourself.”  Sometimes she acts out a word or tells me what it means, and I compliment her on that too.

These early lessons focus on letter sounds and how combining sounds gives us words.  It might seem boring to an adult, but brain research shows that there are no built-in pathways in our brains for reading, the way there are for movement and speech.  A novice reader, like my student, must activate much more of her brain to read “cat” than an experienced reader like me.  Over years of reading, my brain has built shortcuts to figuring out words that this child’s brain hasn’t done yet.

At our next lesson, we will do more CVC words using “u” as the vowel, and then exchange the “u” for “a” and “o.”  We will focus on letter sounds my student is still learning.  Her progress may seem slow, but it is steady.

Help your child make bookmarks to encourage reading

Are you looking for an activity to do with your child that will promote reading?  How about making bookmarks together?

Bookmark cut from a gift card.Bookmarks are usually long rectangles, about two inches by eight inches.  Traditionally they are made from card stock, available at your office supply store.  But you can also cut up file folders or those plastic covers of three-ring binders.  Notebook or computer paper works well too if you later reinforce it with clear tape or laminating.

What kinds of bookmarks can you make?  How about these?

  • A small picture of your child with her name and the date in her own handwriting. With a hole punch, put a hole at the top or bottom and attach a ribbon.
  • A drawing your child has made. He could do a large drawing and then cut it apart and paste parts to form a bookmark.
  • Tiny flowers from the garden taped to the bookmark. If they are laminated, they will last for years.
  • A list of words your child can read, or a list of books your child has read. Include the date so the child can appreciate her progress.
  • A drawing of her favorite book character downloaded from the internet.
  • A timeline of the child’s life.
  • The ABC’s in the child’s handwriting with the date, of course.
  • The child’s name in her own handwriting.

The child will be thrilled to use her hand-crafted bookmarks when reading her own books, whether she needs the bookmarks or not.  Or she can give them as gifts to Mom and Dad, grandparents, teachers and friends.  Inside a gift book, a bookmark makes a fine birthday present for another child.  Bookmarks can be saved for the future too, when they will become treasured artifacts from the child’s past.

Can English spelling b impruvd?

The English language’s antiquated spelling patterns make English difficult to learn.  Way and weigh, threw and through, Phil and fill—English is replete with spelling patterns that inhibit reading and spelling for young children and ESL students.

Can anything be done about it?

Daniel Webster was the last to have had a small success.  He studied the first English dictionary, written by Samuel Johnson in 1755 in Britain.  Webster found much to dislike.  In particular, he thought a dictionary should reflect the words and usage of the public, not of another country’s aristocracy.  His American dictionary of 1825 simplified some British spellings—eliminating the “u” in “colour” and “honour”; he changed some French spellings to better match their English pronunciations, such as “centre” to “center” and “theatre” to “theater.”

In 1837, Isaac Pitman, and in 1848, Alexander John Ellis proposed a phonetic alphabet.  Their efforts garnered interest but little support.

In 1876, the American Philological Society reformed eleven spellings which the Chicago Tribune started to use.  However, the changes didn’t take with the public.  They are


In 1883, the American Philological Association made 24 spelling reform rules, but to no effect.

In 1898, the National Education Association created a list of twelve spelling changes which were to be used in all its writings.  They were

Suggested spelling changes of 1898

(Spellcheck on my computer accepts all the old-fashioned spellings but two, and rejects all the recommended changes but three, showing how few of these changes have been implemented in the past 110 years.)

In 1906 the Simplified Spelling Board published a list of 300 spelling changes.  President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the Government Printing Office to make the changes, but Congress stopped it with a resolution to keep the old spellings.

And so it goes through the 20th century and into the 21st.  Some small changes have crept into the language—cigaret for cigarette, dialog for dialogue.  But substantial improvement hasn’t come.

However, there is hope from an unexpected source:  technology.  Texting is doing what hundreds of years of reformers have not:  making phonetic spelling commonplace and acceptable among large numbers of readers and writers.  And because Americans text so often in a phonetic language, they are bringing their easier, more logical spellings into everyday English.  Not into standard English—that hasn’t come yet.  But into everyday English, yes.

Texters use the word “tonite” rather than “tonight” because it is shorter, and takes fewer keys to press for a quick message.  “Because” is also changing to “becuz.”  I suspect that this bottoms-up approach—changes introduced by young Americans—will bring more change to spelling than the top-down efforts of the past two centuries.  And about time!

What do you think?  Is texting making inroads into standard English?  Or is it just a fad?  –Mrs. K

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