Reading came easily to two of my three children, with little effort on my part. I do remember a game I played for a short while with my oldest. I made a series of cards with short sight words written on them. I arranged them in a circle at the kitchen table and placed an M&M on each. Nate rolled a die, moved his piece around the circle and if he could read the word on the card, he got to eat the M&M! He missed so rarely there was no need to continue.
With Daniel, though, it was different. By the time he was entering second grade at the age of eight, he still couldn't read. I was concerned, but even more, I was puzzled. I had read countless picture books with them all, recited hundreds of nursery rhymes, and sung songs night after night. Moreover, all three had attended the same company-sponsored Montessori day care throughout their preschool years, where they had access to all sorts of phonics and word-building activities.
I don't know what early reading books were offered to Nate and Rebecca there, but for Daniel it was the Bob Books, and he found them insufferable. As he volunteered to me yesterday, recalling his experience two decades before, "The Bob Books are to the intellect what sawdust is to the stomach. While you can consume them, you probably shouldn't." If that was all there was for him to read, he wasn't interested.
So I made it my mission to find an early reader that would engage his interest. I looked long and hard, and I still remember the excitement I felt when I discovered a copy of Reading-Literature: The Primer at Reader's Corner on Hillsborough St. in Raleigh, NC. Turning to the first story, "The Little Red Hen," I noticed an engaging illustration of a hen with four short lines of text beneath. That looked like it might capture his interest without appearing too daunting!
I introduced him to the first story that very evening, saying that we would read a page or two every night until we finished it. The ground rules were simple: anytime he encountered a word he didn't recognize, he could tap me lightly on the shoulder and I would supply it. With so much repetition in the text, he learned some words quickly, ten taps typically being all he needed to cement a word in his mind. By the time we got to the 11-sentence summary of the story on page 10, he pretty much knew all the words. Boy, was that a confidence booster!
Over the course of the next month or two, we slowly made our way through the other eight stories in the book, until we finally reached the end. The next night, I told him we were going to read the whole book again. He groaned that he couldn't possibly read it again, it was so hard the first time! Yet once he started reading, he was amazed at how much easier it was! He breezed through one story a night in the second go-round, and was ready and eager to launch into the First Reader on completing it.
His progress through the First Reader, though it was considerably longer, seemed much less laborious. After completing the book, we reread it, as we had done with the Primer, but this time with no protests on his part. Moving on to the Second Reader, we read the first couple of stories, then Daniel turned to me and said, "Mom, we don't need to do this any more. I can read it myself!" And he could!
Frederick Richardson has a real knack for creating illustrations that appeal to children. His animals and people all have distinct personalities, drawn with a touch of humor.
Illustrations are a critical component of these readers. In representing the actions described in the text, they provide clues to the reader as to what to expect, making it easier for him to make sense of the text. When a squirrel is pictured, the child is primed to decipher the word squirrel when he encounters it on the page.
Illustrations abound in the early readers, with an illustration on nearly every page. There are fewer illustrations in the later readers when the support for meaning provided by illustrations becomes less necessary. The font size is appropriately large in the Primer, and decreases gradually thereafter. Number of words per page increases significantly through the series, as does the number of pages in the book. In all volumes, though, the text and illustrations are arranged pleasingly on the page.
Beginning with simple folk tales, progressing through fables, fairy tales, mythology, and wonder tales, and coming at last to hero tales and legends, the stories and poems for these volumes are exceedingly well-chosen to match the interests of children at each particular age.
According to the authors, the purpose and plan of the Reading-Literature Readers is to train children in reading and appreciating literature through the reading of the best literature. By encountering top notch literature in their reading course, children experience the joy of reading the best in the language, while forming their taste for all subsequent reading.
The Reading-Literature Readers consist of seven volumes prepared by Harriette Taylor Treadwell and Margaret Free: The Primer, The First Reader, The Second Reader, The Third Reader, The Fourth Reader, The Fifth Reader, and The Sixth Reader. Two additional volumes, The Seventh Reader and The Eighth Reader, compiled by Thomas H. Briggs in a way different from the Free and Treadwell readers, are not included in this discussion.
For each of the Free and Treadwell volumes, we offer below an introduction to the title from the book's Preface, followed by its Table of Contents, and then our thoughts about it.
"Experience proves that all children are interested in and enjoy the simple folk tales, which are the literary products of many minds, and which have survived the centuries because they represent universal human experiences and satisfy certain common needs of childhood. Through countless repetitions, from one generation to another, they have assumed a form marked by simplicity and literary charm.
The Primer contains nine of the best folk tales, true to the original, and yet written in such a simple style that children can begin reading the real story during the first week in school."
Many of these stories will be familiar to your child, but some may be brand new. All of them have lots of repetition which makes it easier for the young reader to proceed with the reading. Whether it is a cumulative tale like The Gingerbread Boy, in which a little bit is added to the story in every scene, or one like the Three Billy Goats Gruff where the setting is the same, but the characters are different, your child will find much to enjoy in every story.
"The First Reader contains thirteen similar stories, of gradually increasing difficulty, and thirty-three of the best rhymes and jingles suitable for young children. This book, together with The Primer, constitutes a course in literature, twenty-two stories and thirty-three child poems, as well adapted to first-grade children as are the selections for 'college entrance requirements' to high-school students."
Of the folk tales in The First Reader, some will likely be old friends and others will be unfamiliar. On the whole, these stories are longer and more involved than the selections in The Primer. Many are humorous, which is sure to delight your young reader. This volume includes a stellar collection of poems and rhymes, some of which your child may commit to memory with little or no effort.
"The Second Reader introduces fables and fairy stories and continues folk tales and simple poems. The material is organized: a group of fables, several groups of folk and fairy stories, a group of Mother Goose, of Rossetti, of Stevenson, and so on; so that the child may get a body, not a mere bit, of one kind of material before passing to another. Thus from the first he is trained to associate related literature and to organize what he reads.
"In each of the First and Second Readers one story is put into dramatic form to encourage presentation as a play. Some of the other stories are quite as dramatic in character, and can be dramatized by the pupils with very little help from the teacher. Pupils always enjoy this work, and there is no better way of securing feeling and freedom in oral expression."
The Second Reader may awaken your child to the wonders awaiting him in the reading realm. This is a good time to start stocking his personal library, beginning with Milo Winter's Aesop's Fables, and then adding a couple of books of fairy tales. For Norse fairy tales, we recommend Thorne-Thomsen's East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon and for Grimm's fairy tales we are partial to Wanda Gag's Tales from Grimm. If your child appreciates the story of Peter Pan in this volume, you may want to read aloud to him the full story by J. M. Barrie.
"The transition to The Third Reader will be found easy and to accord with the normal interests of the children. In prose the folk and fairy story is retained, but is merged into the wonder tale, which becomes a dominant note, while the fable gives place to more extended and more modern animal stories. The poetry begins with the group from Stevenson, whom the children have already learned to enjoy. Then follow selections from Lydia Maria Child, Lucy Larcom, Eugene Field, and a score of others dealing mainly with children's interests in animals and other forms of nature."
The Third Reader introduces some classic children's books with several of its selections. You may want to check your local library for full length editions of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, and Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies. These are probably better suited for reading aloud at this point unless your child is an exceptional reader.
"The Fourth Reader has been made essentially the book of myths and legends, because it is believed that these stories represent the next step in the development of the child's interests in literature. In this year's work the child studies eighteen of the best myths and legends, including some from Greek, Norse, German, Austrian, and American sources.
"The poetry is selected with the same care as in the earlier books, with special reference to the child's feeling for rhythm, love of animated nature, and enjoyment of fun."
The Norse myths in The Fourth Reader are adapted from Hamilton Wright Mabie's Norse Stories from the Eddas, while the Greek myths have their source in Nathaniel Hawthorne's A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales. The adventures of Theseus come from Charles Kingsley's The Heroes. Your child may want to read these very fine collections of myths in their entirety!
I am struck by what a marvelous exposure to poetry the child will have who reads this volume, poems to fit every mood.
"The Fifth Reader has been made essentially the book of hero-legends, the type of literature of especial interest to children at this stage of development. While all of these stories are adaptations from longer versions, they are complete units, and are long enough to train children in habits of sustained interest and attention.
"In part the poetry has been selected to reinforce the prose, but always with special reference to the child's feeling for rhythm, love of animated nature, and enjoyment of fun."
As Katherine Cather asserts in her Educating by Story-Telling, "The national epics are splendid sources of story material for children in the heroic period." The Fifth Reader offers an engaging introduction to seven heroes from various traditions. Two have their source in Ancient Greece, namely Jason and Theseus, and one from the Mahabharata of Ancient India. Four derive from the Middle Ages in Europe and the British Isles: Sigurd (also known as Siegfried) from Germany, Cuchulain (spelled phonetically in this volume as Coohoolin) from Ireland, and Beowulf and Robin Hood from Britain. For more about the importance of reading hero tales, refer to our post "Why Read Robin Hood."
As with earlier volumes, these selections may whet the student's appetite for further reading. Here are some titles we recommend for fuller accounts of these heroes: Stories of Sigfried Told to the Children by Mary Macgregor, The Story of Siegfried by James Baldwin, The Odyssey for Boys and Girls by Alfred J. Church, Stories of Beowulf Told to the Children by H. E. Marshall, and Stories of Robin Hood Told to the Children, also by H. E. Marshall.
"The Sixth Reader continues with hero-legends, the type of literature of especial interest to children at this stage of development. With the hero-tales are interspersed some of the best humorous stories that have established themselves in literature. While all of these stories are adaptations from longer versions, they are complete units, and are long enough to train children in habits of sustained interest and attention. In part the poetry has been selected to reinforce the prose, but always with special reference to the child's feeling for rhythm, love of animated nature, and enjoyment of fun."
In The Sixth Reader, we have seven more hero stories, well-suited to this age because they demand a little more maturity on the part of the reader than the hero stories in The Fifth Reader. Again, we have three from ancient traditions: Siddartha from ancient India, the Iliad from Ancient Greece, and hero tales from the Hebrew Bible. From the Middle Ages come the stories of King Arthur of Britain, Roland of France, and The Cid of Spain. Also included in this volume are two heroes from works of fiction set in the Middle Ages: Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and Cervantes' Don Quixote. The child who has progressed through both The Fifth Reader and The Sixth Reader will have a solid familiarity with heroes from the epic tradition.
If you child is eager to read more about these heroes, consider adding some of these titles to his personal library: The Iliad for Boys and Girls by Alfred J. Church, Stories of Don Quixote Written Anew for Children by James Baldwin, Stories of Roland Told to the Children by H. E. Marshall, and The Story of Roland by James Baldwin.
After reviewing the Table of Contents for all seven of the readers, I am struck by what a well-rounded course of literature this is! Prose progressing from the simplest folk tales to fairy tales full of twists and turns, with wonder stories as well as myths and legends introduced at just the right age, and concluding with over a dozen hero tales to inspire the child approaching adolescence. Each selection is like a pebble cast into a pool, with ever widening circles beckoning onward.
Similarly with poetry. Mother Goose comes first, followed by Christina Rossetti over two years and Stevenson spanning three. Next come Longfellow and Tennyson along with a strong cohort of other poets contributing poetry in a variety of genres. Humorous and lyrical poetry abound, with ballads and narrative poetry added in the upper years.
The titles in this series are a fine choice to use as readers through the sixth grade. But beyond that, they would also serve well as family read alouds, as independent reading, and for an older child to read to a younger.
Have you used any of The Reading-Literature Readers with your family? What has been your experience? Please share in the comments!