Sulzby Reading for Emergent Readers

I am getting ready to start my second Reader’s Workshop unit of the year, which largely works with emergent reading through storybooks.  A few years ago I found myself a bit lost in Reader’s Workshop after the first unit.  Unit 1 in my room focuses on readers building good habits – how to handle books, print goes left to write, readers choose books they are interested in, readers notice pictures, etc.  Basically, the kids are practicing skills and looking through picture books, but most of them are not yet decoding the words (or perhaps even noticing the words.)

I always knew what to do for the units that came later in the year – decoding and word solving strategies, nonfiction, etc.  But my problem was that in October my kids are largely not ready for word solving, but they are tired of picture reading.  I needed a bridge for them to help them make that leap.

Elizabeth Sulzby provided the bridge.  Sulzby’s research in the 1980s focused on repeated storybook reading.  She found that through repeated reading of favorite texts children begin to pick up some important reading behaviors.  They develop a sense of story and story language, they understand that the pictures carry meaning and support the story, and they begin to “pretend read” these books in their own way.

Now I don’t want to pretend that I came up with this second unit on my own.  In fact, I received a lot of training on how to make unit 2 work, and this post stands on a lot of other people’s shoulders (I honestly don’t even know whose shoulders).  It just took me a while to grasp the power of the work, so I want to share my experiences.  It has become such a wonderful transition in my room!

So this is how it works.  You gather multiple copies of several favorite texts.  There are lists out there of “Sulzby” books, and I am sure they are all wonderful.  Some of the books I use are on that list as well.  But I believe it is ok to use things that are not on the list too.  Great children’s books continue to be written, right!?  I think, in choosing books for this purpose, you need to select narrative, well written stories that contain story language.  Story language just means that you find certain types of phrases and words in stories that we don’t often use in our daily speech.  For example, “one dark and stormy night” or “the petals on the flower seemed to wither before her very eyes.”  These are beautiful phrases, but most often found between the pages of a book.  My last criteria is that YOU, the teacher, LOVE the book.  You have to love it, because you are going to read it many times with your students, and you want them to love it too!

Once you have selected your titles, you need to gain enough copies so that every student can have a book in their hands eventually.  I try to have five different titles, with six copies of each title.  These are some of my favorites for starting the year:

The next step is to read the books to your class MANY times.  Read, read, and reread.  This is a great way to teach kids that we do read books more than once, because we enjoy the stories over and over again.  If a text is more complicated, I use it for a read aloud with accountable talk to get the kids engaged in the story.  We read, we talk, we connect, we laugh, and we reread.  If you would like to see how I do some of the accountable talk work with books, check out this post.

As a side note, when I was first “trained” in Sulzby reading, I was told NOT to engage with the kids or veer from the text as I read.  I was told to read it exactly as printed, with no discussion (with the ultimate goal being memorization.)  This is hogwash.  There is nothing authentic or real about that, and it is a sure fire way to kill a great book for kids.  Elizabeth Sulzby compared emergent storybook reading to “lap reading,” where a child is sitting and reading on a loved one’s lap.  I can guarantee mom, dad, grandma and grandpa do not plow through texts with memorization as a goal, so we shouldn’t either.  We need to read, love, and enjoy the texts!

Once you and your class have really engaged with your collection of books, then they are ready to read them on their own.  I usually do all this priming work in September, while we are working through unit 1.  This way, when my kids are getting antsy and need something new in their hands during reading time, they are primed and ready.

I let them choose a favorite Star book (this is what we call them in my class) and watch what happens!  Some kids do have the books memorized and read them verbatim.  Most read some version of them, adjusting words, skipping parts, making changes, but maintaining the general gist and flow of the book.  And some become beautifully dramatic as they “read” the books with expression and joy.

This type of reading is POWERFUL.  One of my favorite parts of emergent storybook pretend reading is that it builds children’s identities as readers in leaps and bounds.  They realize that they can pick up a book – a real book that they could actually check out of the library – and make the story come alive.  Once your kids believe that, they will truly be ready for the next steps in reading.

One Response to Sulzby Reading for Emergent Readers

  1. Vonnie May 28, 2015 at 9:44 pm #

    I just love this post! I shared it with yet another educator friend today :)