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Start at the Very Beginning

A Conversation with Margaret Jensen
about Books for Beginning Readers

by Tana Elias

Margaret Jensen is a teacher of first and second graders at Huegel Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin. She has spent most of her 26 years as an educator focusing on new readers. Margaret also teaches children's literature to both young children and college students. A former president of the Madison Area Reading Council, Margaret was the first recipient of the Celebrate Literacy Award given by that organization in 1982. Margaret is also the former Director of Special Events for the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. and has spent a total of seven years on the board, including two terms as President. Many of the questions in this interview pertain to Margaret's Books for Beginning Readers bibliography and an related workshops that were held in the late 1990s.

TE: I’ve heard the Books for Beginning Readers workshop was so popular the first time it was offered in Madison that a second workshop was scheduled. Will there be a third workshop?

MJ: Not that I know of in Madison, though I’ll be doing it for the Winding Rivers Public Library System in LaCrosse soon.

TE: I’ve always regretted not being able to attend the workshops. What exactly did you cover there?

MJ: I cover the psycholinguistic elements and neurophysiology of a beginning reader in lay terms and also the characteristics of books - the text, layout, design, font, point, word use, patterns, and number of repetitions of a particular word - that foster an easy read or make reading hard.

TE: What exactly is the neurophysiology, in lay terms, of a beginning reader?

MJ: A beginning reader’s eye span is significantly different than that of an adult reader. When adults move their eyes across a line of text, adult readers focus - it’s called the fixation. Our eye span is typically two to three letters to the left and fifteen letters to the right of where we fixate. So we can see quite a bit. A beginning reader’s eye span is symmetrical; they can get in one to two letters to the left and one to two letters to the right, so they have to move their eyes many times in order to see full lines of text. Their words need to be shorter, so that they don’t have to move their eyes so often to try to remember what they see.

Also the space between words is important: if the space is too small, they don’t learn to move their eyes to the next significant part, which should be the first one or two letters in the next word, so that they can get the whole word in their eye span. If space between words is too small, they keep having to search for where the next word starts.

There is also the psycholinguistic element of reading. Children respond to repetition almost innately, and they respond to rhythm and rhyme naturally. They have inferred enough about the English language that they have a sense of how it flows. So if the text matches their sense of the language, it helps. For instance, Todd said, “I want to play.” is more easily comprehended than “I want to play,” said Todd. Beginning readers stop after “I want to play,” so “said Todd” seems to run into the next sentence, but young readers know we don’t start a new sentence with “said Todd.”

The way the text is laid out, and how it flows with the rhythm, rhyme, repetition and matches children’s knowledge of how language is organized are important. Their next step in reading words is to figure out how to attend to the left or right order of letters to help them blend the beginning, middle and end sounds to identify new words.

TE: Your bibliography lists books for each of six categories: Rhythm and Rhyme, Repetition, Picture Clues, Sight Vocabulary, Clear Context and Sight Vocabulary, and Putting It All Together. Is there anything you’d change or add to these since you last revised the bibliography in 1998?

MJ: One category I would change if I ever did a major revision of the bibliography would be to add what, in “reading teacher” terms, are called decodable texts. These are comprised of many words that you can blend sounds to read. When I first compiled the bibliography, those books were out there, but they were quite stilted. Now they’re reaching another level in those texts, using decodable words and rhythm and repetition to add interest to the story. I would probably include them in a revision.

TE: Which titles or series might you recommend?

MJ: One series is published by Millbrook Press, called Real Kids Readers (two titles are My Pal Al and Hop, Skip, Run, both published in 1998). Another series is by Scholastic and is titled Phonics Readers.

TE: One of the six categories you list is “Sight Vocabulary.” What is sight vocabulary?

MJ: Sight vocabulary is the words that are used frequently, words like “come” and “want” and “pretty” and many prepositions - words that are not necessarily phonetic but are something children have to master. Beginning readers use several ways of mastering them. One way is to see it enough that it goes into their long-term memory. Another way is to use the word in context repeatedly. The context is strong enough so children recognize what word would probably make sense at that place in the text.

TE: So “sight vocabulary” really means recognizing words on sight rather than sounding them out?

MJ: Right. Children use a variety of ways of recalling these frequently-used words. No one really knows how they categorize the words to recall them. I think often times we [teachers] fall into the habit of just giving the word to them often enough so they have to remember it, kind of like a stimulus-response formula. But I think a lot of kids categorize words by meaning and by position in a sentence; they are predicting what the sentence might be, and say those words.

TE: That might explain why I’ve noticed that when young children read, they see the beginning letter or ending of a word and come up with some word other than the one that’s actually written on the page.

MJ: It’s the “I have a guess what makes sense here and that’s the word I say” strategy. Children need to learn self-monitoring skills to help them use their reading strategies successfully. Paying attention to the print demands so much from the beginning reader, mentally and physically.

TE: What additional reading would you recommend for people who are interested in learning more about the neurophysiological or psycholinguistic aspects of the beginning reader?

MJ: Beginning to Read by Marilyn Jager Adams (Bradford, 1994), Every Child a Reader: The Report of the California Reading Task Force (California Department of Education, 1995), the new Catherine Snow report (Snow, C., M.S. Burns, & P. Griffin. Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. National Academy Press, 1998), and they should get in touch with Ciera (Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement) at http://www.ciera.org

TE: Any final advice for people who are not quite so skilled at working with emergent readers or for someone like myself, a generalist in a branch library?

MJ: As far as choosing books, I first count the number of words in a sentence. There should be five to seven words. The type should be laid out in one line, as the change from one line to two lines make a difference. Really understand that the physical aspects of a book are crucial to the success or failure of these beginning readers. Make sure that there are big white spaces between words. And then see if the text and the picture match. Can you look to the picture to predict the text? Then look at the text to see if it is natural language, not an inverted kind of literary language.

TE: Is it important to have the text always appear in the same spot from page to page so that the beginning reader can always predict where to find the text on the page?

MJ: That’s less important except that there are some children who will expect that and then you’ll have to point it out. Really recognize that everything about reading has to be instructed. Either a child is so alert to looking at readers that it’s been instructed by demonstration or it has to be pointed out. If I were a librarian using a book with a new reader, I would say “oh, look, here, I’m looking here at the top of the page and it’s only three words and I think it’s going to be about a horse, what do you think?” Give them a lot of input: talk about the book instead of just opening the book and asking the child, “can you read this?” Children approach a book thinking it could be any kind of story. If they have all the physical parameters clearly labeled for them they’re much more successful.

TE: Do you have any advice for parents or caretakers of beginning readers?

MJ: I am concerned about adults who look at a text and say “oh, that’s too easy” instead of understanding that kids have to exercise their young eye muscles, and they can exercise them on easy books. For a child, reading a challenging book is like asking their leg muscles to run four miles. An adult would never expect that. Be patient with them. It’s critical - their confidence is so important. Many fun, easy books will build a stronger reader than reading material that is too hard. You can easily err on the side of being too demanding in the beginning. I think that the second an adult says “oh, that’s too easy for you,” the kids start second-guessing themselves. A lot of the beginning readers I use I find in the toddler section. This is the time for children to take small steps and enjoy all the reading they can possibly enjoy. They will give you signs when they are ready to try something more challenging, but don’t put away the easier texts right away.

TE: I think the format is really an issue, because at my library parents often look at a picture book and say “oh, that’s a picture book, and my child should be reading books for older children.” I was surprised to find that most of the selections on your list were picture books, which are often categorized with books for “little kids” (though that’s less true now with the growing trend of picture books for sophisticated readers). I wonder if librarians encourage that perception when they group books by format rather than by age level.

MJ: This question is asked all the time after my workshops. Participants ask me, “what do you think?” and my answer is always, “well, what do you think?” They often suggest purchasing two copies - one for the beginning reader area and one to be shelved with the picture books. Another suggestion would be to offer lists of beginning readers that parents and caregivers could use to find the books in any area of the collection.

Reprinted from Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 1999, Number 1 with permission of Tana Elias and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©1999 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.


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