The books young children are typically given at school are called “Levelled Books”, which are used in class for “guided reading” or “shared reading”, where a teacher and a group of children read a book together, and discuss it. They’re also used as home readers.
Teachers typically encourage children to use a range of different strategies while reading these books, including guessing words from picture cues, first letters and context (e.g. “what word would make sense there?”), plus sounding words out, though often only as a last resort (perhaps thanks to the lasting influence of Dame Marie Clay, author of Reading Recovery and the Observation Survey still widely used in schools).
The PM readers are one set of levelled books you can find in schools all over Australia. How these books “have been meticulously levelled to ensure there is a gentle learning gradient” doesn’t seem to be spelt out on the PM website. There is some evidence questioning the levelling systems used in such books. The PM website says these books:
- Introduce high-frequency words gradually,
- Have a close text-illustration match “to help children to interpret the story and derive meaning from the text” (i.e. it’s easy to look at the picture and guess the words),
- Have child-centred fiction with a classic story structure – introduction, problem, tension, resolution,
- Have child-centred high-interest non-fiction that’s clear, logical and superbly illustrated.
I’m happy about the last two points, good on them.
I’m very unhappy about the fact that these readers introduce sound-letter correspondences and syllable types in what can only described as a random fashion. They simply do not have a sound-letter link teaching sequence.
As I’ve said in previous blog posts (here, here and here), I also have a real problem with teaching children to memorise rather than decode high-frequency words, and introducing high-frequency words in order of frequency. The word “birthday” might appear more frequently in children’s books and free writing than the word “man” (numbers 80 and 157 on the Oxford Wordlist, respectively) but “man” is an easy word to decode and spell, so there’s no need to memorise it, and “birthday” has two syllables and three digraphs, so should be introduced later.
I’m also very unhappy about children being encouraged to “read” repetitive books by guessing from pictures rather than sounding out the words. This is what levelled books mostly seem to be set up to encourage. In fact, for little kids, there is no other way to read them, because they contain too many long words and hard spellings.
Many young children thus manage to mask their serious problems with sounding out words for a very long time by being good at guessing from first letters and pictures.
If you have an iPad, you can now download some free PM Readers from the apps store, and check them out as examples of typical levelled books for yourself. The first one in the Starters series goes like this: Big things. A truck is big. A bulldozer is big, then it repeats the “A…is big” sentence frame for other vehicles: train, fire engine, bus, crane, ship and plane. The pictures are very nice, much better than the ones in this blog post – I didn’t want to use theirs for copyright reasons.
There are one, two and three-syllable words in this book for absolute beginners. Let’s count how many different phoneme-grapheme correspondences there are if you’re a speaker of standard Australian English:
- b as in “big”, “bulldozer”, and “bus”.
- i as in “is”, “big”, “things”, and “ship”.
- g as in “big”.
- th as in “things”.
- ng as in “things”.
- s as in “things” and “is” (sounds like “z”).
- a as in “a”.
- t as in “truck” and “train”.
- r as in “truck”, “train” and “crane”.
- u as in “truck” and “bus”.
- ck as in “truck”.
- u as in “bulldozer”.
- ll as in “bulldozer”.
- d as in “bulldozer”.
- o as in “bulldozer”.
- z as in “bulldozer”.
- er as in “bulldozer”.
- ai as in “train”.
- n as in “train”, “engine”, “crane” and “plane”.
- f as in “fire”.
- i…e as in “fire”.
- r as in “fire” (in Australian English this is the unstressed vowel, pronounced “uh”).
- e as in “engine”.
- g as in “engine” (pronounced “j”).
- i…e as in “engine” (again the unstressed vowel, pronounced “uh”).
- s as in “bus”.
- c as in “crane”.
- a…e as in “crane”.
- sh as in “ship”.
- p as in “ship” and “plane”.
- l as in “plane”.
That’s 31 different sound-letter correspondences including several digraphs, one syllable words with five different syllable types (V, VC, CVC, CVCC, CCVC), two-syllable and three-syllable words, some incorporating the unstressed vowel. Most patterns appear only once or twice, so there’s not much chance to learn any of them.
On the iPad there are a lot of bells and whistles like voice output that make this more like a game or toy than a book. As a paper book, this sort of thing is really not suitable for beginning readers. I’d only ever use it as a picture book for a vehicle-obsessed younger child who is not yet starting to learn about sounds and letters.
Such books are based on the jump-the-shark Whole Language idea that reading and writing are natural and should be “caught not taught”. We now know that many kids won’t learn very well without explicit, structured teaching about how sounds in our speech are represented by letters on the page. This requires a proper teaching sequence for sounds and letters, and decodable books which contain the sound-letter links which have been taught, rather than levelled books of the type now widely used.