As a parent and a teacher, I have worked with both "early" and "late" readers--and I've found that it's often easier to find good fit reading material for the latter, rather than the former. So what is a parent or teacher to do when you have a kindergartener or first grader who seems capable of reading at a middle grade level?
Notice I used "seems capable"...because what we observe and assess doesn't always give us the complete picture of our readers. I can name two instances in which I, myself, seemed to be a capable reader, when in fact, I was not. The first was in third grade, when I spent half a school year in an Italian elementary school until lunchtime. By the end of the first month, I was capable of following along in round-robin reading exercises, and could even read passages when it came to my turn. I most often had no clue what I was reading...but everyone else in the room understood perfectly. I demonstrated this again teaching a good-fit book lesson to second graders today, when I read a passage from a medical journal. I'm sure I was spot-on (or very close) to correctly pronouncing the words, reading it aloud accurately and fluently...with no comprehension outside a word here or there.
The point is: just because we can decode the words, and even provide the meanings of words out of context, does not mean we are comprehending and enjoying the text.
I don't know too many primary students reading at middle grade levels who can truly understand and appreciate Harry Potter by Rowling, or even Pilkey's Captain Underpants, for that matter. They are not the target audience for those books. Most kids in K-2 don't have the life experience and social savvy to "get" the plot twists, character interaction, and humor that middle grade books hold.
So if you are lucky to have a primary-aged child who is great at decoding and vocabulary, here's what I suggest:
- Explore fairy and folk tales. Start with the classics, then introduce the parodies. Teachers do this in primary classrooms as part of the curriculum, but don't cover them all--there's just too many to explore! Take time to discuss the story elements and underlying lessons. Dig deep into the stories. Compare them with each other and their retellings/ parodies.
- Re-read those stories that seem "below level." Often students will discover words, situations, and illustrations they may not have paid attention to at first, because they were struggling with decoding during that time. Now that the words and understanding come more easily, what else do they notice? What can they connect with, now that they're older?
- Nurture their interests through nonfiction! We have a large animal books section in our library, because students are interested in and do research projects on animals. Books on outer space, building LEGO robots, taking care of pets, cookbooks, poetry, geography, biographies...a lot of these texts are written at higher levels, but are meaningful to younger students because the topics exist in their daily lives and self-initiated learning.
Of course, parents know their children best. You know what background knowledge your child brings to a book, how emotionally mature he or she is, how capable they are of distinguishing fiction from fact, behavior that we read from behavior we exhibit. You know your child is more than just a reading level.
And as I tell my students every week in the library--not every book is for every reader, not every reader is for every book. Let me know if I can help you find a good fit book for your child!