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My Favorite Words for Beginner Readers and Beyond

Posted by Catherine Young Morris on

Originally posted July 11, 2022 on Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers

My favorite words for a beginning reader would be the ones that allow them to practice the alphabetic knowledge they have (decode) to develop fluency, and those words that help them unlock a new aspect of the alphabetic code. The term ‘beginner reader’ is pretty general and can mean a lot of different things to different people. When writing books for beginners I often lean on Linnea Ehri’s phases of word learning, as the phases are readily recognizable and help me imagine how a book will be read. I believe certain kinds of words can have special appeal for beginners at each phase.

Bearing all that in mind, here are my top words (or at least word types) for beginner readers… and beyond.

1. Fizz! Pop! Tick, tock, clock!

Readers at the partial alphabetic phase can match some letters of the alphabet to sounds, and already start to enjoy the rewarding experience of reading short silly sound words. Onomatopeias (sound words) have a certain universal appeal both before and after reading begins (my middle son was almost entirely unwilling to sit through any book that did not contain animal sounds for almost a year). What’s great about sound words is simply that they sound like what they mean, which is both silly and meaningful. At the same time, they tend to be read in an exaggerated way which, in my opinion, may make them especially helpful for honing phonics and phonemic awareness skills. Pepper in some text emphasis (e.g., bold/font size/caps/punctuation) or repeated sounds and you’ve got the makings of some irresistible text.

Great authors who have understood this?

Mo Willems. Who can read “Fr-ip! Br-ip! Vr-ip!” in Listen to My Trumpet without having a bit of fun?

Robert Munch. It’s hard to sit still reading lines like this from Smelly Socks, “So Tina got in the boat and rowed slowly SPLISH SPLASH SPLASH. and the boat went in slow circles SWISH! SWISH! SWISH!”

Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss). Sometimes the English language hasn’t come up with the word you need yet. Highly decodable words like zizzer-zazzer-zuz add great humor, while also taking some of the pressure off a child to recognize all words automatically. Interestingly, researchers have even been able to quantify how funny a nonsense word is based on how close it is to existing words.

2. Best not eggspect a slithy lupper.

A little nonsense is suitable for all ages, but in my opinion the judicious use of portmanteaus, or word blends, start to get traction with children at the full alphabetic phase (matching all letters of the alphabet to sounds, while still engaged in slow, conscious sounding out of words). This phase can be a tough slog, and learning any new skill requires taking risks and making mistakes. It can embolden kids to have a fun reminder that they are developing the skills to read unknown words, and that it’s OK to stop and take a minute to think about what they’re reading – reading is not about fluency at all costs.

Moreover, encountering a word like ‘eggspect’ is a great opportunity to model playful curiosity. How is the word similar or different from other words? Is this suspiciously recognizable word a conventional one we can find in the dictionary? What makes a word real or made up anyway?

Lewis Carroll is well known for bringing us some great sensical non-sense words like slithy (slimy + lithe) and frumious (fuming + furious) in Jabberwocky among other works. The words are a reward in and of themselves.

3. May bee lawsuits? Maybe law suits?

Last, but not least, there’s nothing more sofishtocated than a good pun. Call them corny, but there’s a reason why this kind of word play is perennial. And for the consolidated alphabetic reader (reading by letter chunks and learning more advanced spellings), they’re a great way to have fun exploring spelling conventions and word meanings.

So, the next time your beginner reader is feeling frustrated with a text, be sure to remind them to take a deep breath or break and try again. You know they’re going to snail it.

You're going to snail it. Illustration credit: Kelly McCarthy

Illustration Credit: Kelly McCarthy