My kindergartener wants to read chapter books. What features should I be looking for so she doesn’t get discouraged?

Congratulations! Some early readers are ready for chapter books, but that doesn’t mean all chapter books are right for them. Here’s what you should be looking for.

  • Characters whom the child relates to and cares about are really important. That means child characters, ones the same age or just a bit older than the reader, or characters who behave in child-like ways, such as Toad in the Frog and Toad series. The characters in books for young readers must be encountering situations that the reader can relate to—like Junie B. Jones fearing to take the school bus, or of Nate the Great visiting his friends’ houses in search of a lost cat.
  • girl reading Junie B. JonesCharacters should be different from one another—their names, gender, and personalities. Junie B.’s friend, Lucille, is prissy and wears pretty dresses while her classmate, May, is a tattletale. Frog’s friend, Toad is a short, brown scared follower while Frog is a taller, green, organized leader.
  • If the chapter book is part of a series, familiar characters or activities should appear. Children delight in recognizing these patterns. They know that when reading Nate the Great stories, for example, Nate always takes a break to eat pancakes. His friend, Rosamond, always appears with her four black cats. Nate’s dog, Sludge, helps him solve crimes, while another dog, Fang, always makes an appearance.
  • Asian girl reading book Plots should be straightforward with no flashbacks or complicated subplots. If the story concerns finding one of Rosamond’s cats, then that becomes the whole focus of the story. Good books remind children what they have learned. A character like Nate might think about the clues he’s uncovered, and a list of them might appear as an illustration. The plots are shallow and move quickly through a series of events.
  • Good chapter books for young readers should contain illustrations. A page of text will appear harder to read than a page with a line drawing on it. The drawings should provide additional information that the text might not dwell on. For example, drawings of Junie B. show her with fly-away hair and one sock up, one sock down, telling us in pictures about her personality. Illustrations don’t need to appear on every page, but more illustrations make the book appear easier to read.  Also, illustrations lengthen the number of pages, so the child thinks she is reading more than she actually is.
  • girl looking at book displayPicture books are printed with large type, but chapter books have reduced size type. To offset this change, good chapter books for young readers will increase the space between the lines of type and increase white space by making margins larger. This makes the text easier to read and the page “friendlier.” Good children’s books use dialog too. Dialog is usually short, so more white space surrounds it. Hyphenations will not be used at the ends of lines to split words, and sentences will end on the bottom of a page rather than being carried forward to the next page.
  • Discouraged child thinks there are too many words in a book she is readingThe vocabulary of chapter books for young readers should be easy enough to read so that the child can read for enjoyment, without help. New words can be introduced, but in context, and should be repeated during the story so the child can master them.
  • Sentence structure should be normal, that is, subjects followed by predicates. When complex sentences are used, the dependent clause should come second. That is the way children speak and write, so that pattern will be easy to understand. Sentences should be shorter than adults would expect. Not all sentences need to be short, but longer sentences should make sense on the first read through.

Right now I am working with a second grader who is reading his first chapter book, Charlotte’s Web. It was assigned by his teacher. Some of the characters’ names are similar (Avery, and Mr. Arable, for example). The vocabulary is advanced. The pig is called “radiant”; he is put into a “crate”; he is watched by “goslings.” For a suburban child, these words are mysterious. The sentence structure is too sophisticated. Even though Charlotte’s Web is an excellent novel, it is not an appropriate first chapter book for my student. He is not ready to read it without help.

In my public library, chapter books for elementary school aged students are grouped together. Within those books, some are labeled on the spine, “First chap.” Those books are perfect for children reading their first chapter books. Or if you are lucky enough to have a children’s librarian, ask her what books she would suggest. Or phone or visit your school librarian and ask her for help.

Hundreds of wonderful books are appropriate for your kindergartener. Good luck!

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