5.5 years old, Bilingual Journey, English Reading, Teaching Strategies

English Reading: Progressing to Chapter Books

Little Man made some nice progress in English reading lately. Thought I would share some notes on here for others who are supplementing English at home as well.

This is Part III of my English reading posts. Previous posts: How to Teach Phonics and English Reading: Road to Fluency.

After putting a halt to English reading for the last ten months to focus on Chinese, I’ve gradually introduced more English back into our lives. We live in the USA after all and English has always been my priority. Truth be told, I view Chinese as a second language and more “extracurricular”.

Little Man has strong reading ability in English but does not often choose to read. I have some friends who tell me their kids read for hours and hours with no prompting whatsoever. Lucky them! My son happens to be a very active boy with limited attention span for books. It’s not that he doesn’t like them, it’s that he would rather be doing something else.

Tip #1: Remove Distractions

My son used to have an hour of screen time in the morning. On the advice of some good friends, I cut out that screen time. I also stopped buying him as many toys as I used to. The effect of reducing screens and toys is… he now spends more time reading. Voila!

Tip #2: Read, Read, Read (duh!)

From the day my son was born, I followed the pediatrician recommended 20-30 mins reading to him every day. It was not until recently that I realized that is grossly insufficient! My new standard is doing what other successful parents do, aiming for 2-3 hours a day.

Tip #3: Build Good Habits

My son used to only read before bedtime and never at any other time during the day. Since reading this excellent post by Growing Hearts 123, I implemented reading 3x per day: when he wakes up in the morning, before afternoon snack, and bedtime. He quickly got used to his new routine, kids learn fast! My friend Julie @ Motherly Notes says it only takes 21 days for kids to develop a new habit.

I also got him a timer to keep track of his reading time. He absolutely loves this little timer from Daiso and uses it all the time. He wakes up in the morning and immediately sets the timer and starts reading.

We started a reading chart in June with a special treat every 1000 minutes he reads. He was really into it at first but now rarely remembers to color his squares. He is still reading >100 minutes a day, but doesn’t need the prize anymore!!!!! That is power of habit.

Tip #4: Illustrated Novels

Graphic novels (different from comics) and heavily-illustrated chapter books have turned out to be a good bridge for him towards text-only chapter books. It takes kids a while to develop the skills to comprehend longer and more complex plots, so having more pictures is helpful and of course fun to look at.

It also looks less intimidating. Many kids see a whole page of text and immediately freak out.

Little Man has been a big fan of Captain Underpants for a long time and he recently enjoyed Usborne illustrated books, Amulet (graphic novel), Boxcar Children (graphic novel), 13-Story Treehouse, etc.

Tip #5: Choices

I suggest you borrow from the library so you can try everything for free. I find that my son is not so good at selecting chapter books for himself at the library. Instead, I do a bit of googling to find out appropriate books and pre-select a few series I think he would like. It is much easier for him to choose from 2-4 options than the 1000 options at the library.

Note: I am often wrong about what my child might like. I thought he would love funny stories like Junie B. and My Weird School. Nope! Instead he likes stuff like Greek Myths and Bible stories. So try everything, even if you don’t think your kid will like it.

Tip #6: Audiobooks / Read Aloud

And finally, most important tip. The way to transition from illustrated chapter books to text-heavy chapter books is… read them to your kid. Be a salesperson! Sell the book! Suck them in! When I think back to all the books I loved as a kid, they were all “promoted” to me by others.

Highly recommend for all parents to read Jim Trelease’ The Read-Aloud Handbook. I’ve owned this book for a couple years and still gain so much every time I re-read it. In it he talks about how important it is to read chapter books to young children, starting from 3 or 4 years old, to train their listening skills. I wish I did more of this when he was younger.

True Story: Last week I got the A-Z Mysteries audiobooks to play in the car. After listening to it, my son is now zooming through the books, reading one every day.

The basic principle is, keep reading harder books to your kids and they will read harder books to themselves. I do this for Chinese as well.

Questions? Comments? You can leave me a message on Facebook or Instagram.

English Reading

Parent Guide to Teaching English Phonics

Teaching a child to read does not have to be a painful, difficult, expensive, or time-consuming process. If you know me then you know I like to do things FAST and only spend money when I have to. Like seriously why pay hundreds or thousands when you can do it for (almost) free. I routinely receive catalogs at work for reading programs that cost thousands of dollars, which is utterly ridiculous.

This post is a prequel to my post English Reading: Road to Fluency. Sorry for posting them backwards. These phonics (or phonological awareness) skills can be introduced from a young age, around 1.5 years old.

A few things to note:

  • Follow your child’s pace. Step 1 took us several months to master, but Step 4 a single day!
  • Make use of down time, such as car rides, bath time, waiting time, etc. to review these skills. Most of these don’t require any materials and can be done anytime, anywhere. 🙂
  • Five minutes of practice 3-5x a week is far better than drilling for an hour 1x a week.
  • Steps 1-5 are commonly referred to as phonics or phonological awareness. These skills will not only help your child read English but are also transferable to reading pinyin, zhuyin and indeed any phonetic language.

The best age to start teaching is highly subjective – I will leave it to your parental judgment! I introduced the first few steps to my son when he was around 1.5-2.5 y.o. The concept of rhyming did not “click” with him until 3 y.o.

Step 1. Teach the letter names. Use refrigerator magnets or alphabet puzzles or flash cards and present 1-2 uppercase letters at a time. If your child is older, you can teach 4 or more letters at a time. Point them out in different places such as books, toys, and road signs, and repeat them over and over until your child remembers them. Gradually add a few more until the whole alphabet is learned. Repeat with lowercase letters.

alphabet puzzle
Alphabet Puzzle

Step 2. Teach the letter sounds. The easiest way to do this is to buy this Leapfrog: Letter Factory DVD for $7 at Amazon/Target, or watch it for free on Netflix. Sing the songs e.g. “M says mmm, M says mmm, every letter makes a sound, M says mmm” on repeat and be silly and dramatic when you do the actions. Since letter sounds are inherent in the letter names, it should not present much difficulty for the child to learn them.


The most important thing to note is to pronounce the sounds correctly! Many people make the mistake of saying B makes the “bah” sound. I have even seen YouTube videos of this! (Also note that pinyin/zhuyin is NOT pronounced bo po mo fo!) This is absolutely incorrect and will make your child unable to blend sounds later.

Step 3. Identify the first sound in words. Teach your child to listen for the first sound (not letter) in a given word. Use an exaggerated voice by really strreetching out or emphasizing the first sound to make it more obvious to the child. “What sound does dog start with? /d/, /d/, dog!”, “What sound does snake start with? /ssssss/, snake! Snake starts with the /s/ sound.” Do this with your child’s favorite toys and people’s names to increase interest and motivation

Step 4. Blending words and syllables. Play a guessing game with your child by saying “Did you know that you can join 2 words together to make a longer word? Hot and dog make… hotdog! Butter and fly make… butterfly!” You can use a printable to make it more visual, but I prefer to just do it verbally. Not only does it save you time and paper, but more importantly it trains your child’s ears 👂 to listen carefully and develop keen sound awareness.

After your child is able to blend compound words, the next task is to blend syllables, starting with 2-syllable words. Choose motivating words such as family members’ names or your child’s favorite characters, e.g. “Guess what this word is… Mic… KeyMic and key make… Mickey!”. Repeat this with 3-syllable words. “Guess this word… Trans… for… mer. That’s right, Transformer!

Step 5. Rhyming. Read lots of nursery rhymes and books such as The Cat in the Hat. Young kids love Dr. Seuss and they are a great way to introduce some rhyming fun! Point out the rhyming words e.g. “Cat… hat. That rhymes! They both end with at.” My favorite Dr. Seuss book to teach rhyming is There’s a Wocket in my Pocket. After reading the book a few times and the child is familiar with it, leave out the last word and let the child fill-in-the-blank. “There’s a Zlock behind the… (Clock). That’s right, Zlock rhymes with clock!”

Source: Pre-K Pages

Make up silly rhymes for everything. Your child’s name, your dog’s name, the teddy bear… Teddy Meddy Weddy Zeddy. The sillier the better. 😉 Also point out non-examples “Cat… hat… mat… jump. Wait a minute, jump doesn’t rhyme. It doesn’t sound the same at the end.”

After Steps 1-5, give your child and yourself a big thumbs up 👍 for completing all the necessary pre-literacy skills. Now you’re ready for the serious stuff.

Step 6. Reading lessons. Head over to Amazon and purchase the book The Reading Lesson: Teach Your Child to Read in 20 Lessons. You can also download the first two lessons for free on the authors’ website. It is parent-friendly, child-friendly, extremely affordable at around $20 (price fluctuates a bit), and really well designed.

The authors recommend doing one page a day for kids age 5 and under, but being a little impatient and a tad bit overzealous, I chose to cover two pages a day. At that rate we finished the book in four months. That’s right, from reading ZERO words to reading 1st grade level in four months!

$20 book that taught my child to read

Step 7. Celebrate! 🎉 Congratulations, you now have a reader! The satisfaction of teaching your own child to read is pretty darn amazing. You have given him or her a gift that keeps on giving for a whole lifetime. 🙂

HAHAHA! I miss his baby face!

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English Reading, Learning to Read, Teaching Strategies

English Reading: Road to Fluency

One of my friends asked me the other day what my son is reading now (in English) because she wanted some ideas for her kids. This made me think that I should document the books Little Man read from when he was a beginning reader until now, as a reference for parents teaching their kids to read in English.

Background: I taught him English phonics between the ages of 1.5-3 years old, then taught him to read at 3 years 2 months old using the reading curriculum The Reading Lesson: Teach Your Child to Read in 20 Easy Lessons. It took us four months to complete it, by the end of which he could read at about first grade level.

From 3.5 y.o. on, we practiced reading increasingly longer and harder books (see our reading list below) and it took him approximately 12 months to become a fluent reader. What I mean by fluent is he can read without thinking/hesitating and can read books by himself that he’s never read before.

Around 4.5 y.o., he could read a few chapter books Magic Tree House and Boxcar Children but he did not really enjoy those. He then fell madly in love with Captain Underpants (and Super Diaper Baby and Dog Man by the same author), which skyrocketed his reading ability to around 3rd grade level.

Now at 5 y.o., he desperately wants to read “grown up” books like Harry Potter, which he has tried three times (unsuccessfully) to read. He is able to read the words but cannot comprehend the complex plot and flashbacks because he is after all only 5 years old.

But, I am happy to report that he has now found a happy middle of reading books that are appropriate for his age and ability. I am absolutely thrilled that he has taken to reading non-fiction lately, which he has never shown interest before.

Back to what this post is about. Here’s a list of books that he read from 3.5-now. I don’t keep track of all the books he read, but these ones stuck out in my memory as being significant. FYI just borrow the beginning readers (BL 0.7-1.7) from the library. Libraries have hundreds of beginning readers and they are not worth buying IMO because 1) the stories are dumb, and 2) they get outgrown quicker than you can blink.

ATOS Book Level are shown in parenthesis, e.g. 0.7 level means can be read by a typical kindergartner in the 7th month of school, 1.2 means 1st grade 2nd month. I find ATOS levels to be inflated and always mentally take a year or two off. For example, Magic Tree House is listed as a 2.6 but most kids I know read it around K-1st grade.

To find the ATOS book level (BL) of any given book, go to this website and search the title. As you can see, “One Fish Two Fish” is listed as BL 1.7.


Some publishers (e.g. Usborne) provide Lexile measures instead of ATOS. They can be converted using the chart here, e.g. Lexile of 440 corresponds to ATOS 3;0.

Books Little Man read, in order of difficulty:

Starfall Learn to Read (N/A)

Scholastic Sight Word Tales (N/A)

I Can Read, Step Into Reading, Scholastic Level 1 and Level 2 readers (BL: 0.7-1.7)

Elephant and Piggie series (BL: 0.7-1.1)

Dr. Seuss Beginner Books series (BL: 1.2-1.7)

Dr. Seuss I Can Read It All By Myself series (BL: 1.5-2.1)

DC Super Friends Story Collection (BL 1.2-1.6)

Fly Guy series (BL 1.2-1.7)

Lego DC Comic Readers series (BL 2.4-2.8)

Katie Woo series (BL 1.9-2.2)

Amazing Adventures of Superman series (BL 2.7-3.1)

Nate the Great series (BL 2.0-3.1)

National Geographic Readers (BL 2.9-3.9)

Magic Tree House series (BL 2.6-3.3)

Captain Underpants series (BL 4.3-4.7)

Dog Man series (BL 2.6)

Where the Sidewalk Ends (N/A)

Wayside School series (BL 3.3)

Currently reading: 

Usborne One Hundred Illustrated Stories (BL 4.1)

Usborne Stories from Around the World (BL 3.1)

Usborne Non-Fiction Beginning Readers (BL 2.9-4.5)

National Geographic First Big Book of Space (BL 4.1)

Random Notes:

  1. There is no point in pushing too high of a reading level. This is because books that are of higher reading levels are often of inappropriate content for young children. It appears to me that 3rd grade reading level is where he will stay for a while and it will not get any higher than that because he cannot comprehend even though he can read it.
  2. On the other hand, I caution you about waiting too long to teach your child to read because early readers have really dumb storylines like “A wig on a pig”, “The cat in the hat”, etc. An older child will find it extremely frustrating when they want to read more interesting books but their ability only allows them to read baby books. (Little Man currently has this problem in Chinese which he is very frustrated by).
  3. I’ve always tried to get him interested in non-fiction but failed. A few weeks ago, he suddenly picked non-fiction and now loves to tell me facts that he learned from books. JOY OH JOY!! Goes to show sometimes you just have to be patient and wait for time and development to take its course.
  4. The most important factor is to hook your child by finding books he/she absolutely loves. Looking back, he made huge jumps in reading ability when he encountered certain series that were highly motivating, like Lego DC comic books (jumped from 1st to 2nd grade) and Captain Underpants (jumped from 2nd to 3rd grade).
  5. Because of the huge selection of English books available (sadly not so for Chinese), you can easily find books of your child’s interests at different reading levels. E.g. He loves DC superheroes and I found K, 1st, 2nd grade level superhero books by searching on Amazon.
  6. He slowly became able to read everything around him like signs, recipes, instructions etc., a process that took around 12 months and I don’t think can be rushed. And this is in his first language English! I wonder how long Chinese fluency will take.
  7. Listening to audiobooks (or adult reading aloud) helped my son bridge to chapter books because he was already familiar with the stories. He loved the audiobooks: Where The Sidewalk Ends, Nate the Great, and Sideways Stories From Wayside School. Unfortunately, due to our focus on Chinese in recent months we do not listen to English audiobooks anymore. 😦
  8. He is now independent in English reading (except for the occasional word) and I only read to him in Chinese. He keeps wanting to read “grown up” books I keep assuring him it’s ok to read picture books. We’ve found a compromise with Usborne story collections which he likes because they are thick and “grown up looking” and I like because he can comprehend the stories. Joke books, poetry collections, comics are also a good fit for him now.
  9. I have an ongoing struggle with getting him to read more. He is not a natural bookworm like some kids are, and rarely picks up books on his own. We have mandatory reading time in the morning and evening, and he recently made up his own rule that he gets evening screen time if he reads 100 pages that day. I have no problem with this!

Anyway, I hope this is a helpful starting point for you. The key to English reading is simply to 1) teach your child to read (phonics) and then 2) keep reading longer and harder books until you achieve fluency. I’d like to think that Chinese will be a similar process but the problem with Chinese is no book levels so I have to make my own guesstimates for book levels. This is the current pain in my neck!!!!

I don’t claim to be any form of expert in English or Chinese reading. Just sharing our experience with you — take of it what you will. As always, I try to be objective in my information and not humblebrag too much. 😛

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