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Engaging Our Children for a Better Future

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by Keith Garton, Founder, Red Chair Press

Keith Garton

Keith Garton

A child who doesn’t read—or isn’t read to—is a dark cloud over the future of published works. When I began my career in educational publishing over 30 years ago, teaching kids to read was thought to be a simple process: You taught children to sound out the words (phonics), then you taught the structure of each word (spelling), and of sentence (language arts). These and a few other keys were thought to unlock the mystical code to reading and language.

When children struggled with complex texts in high school and beyond, reading experts said, “Let children self-select, and they’ll choose books at all levels that will help them make meaning out of text.” Well, dear reader, because your understanding is better than most, you know where this is going. This so-called “whole language movement” failed as well.

After millions of dollars and years of research, the National Reading Panel stated in 2000 that the new keys to reading instruction are:

  • Phonemic awareness: what’s the first sound you hear in ball? (b b buh)
  • Phonics: putting these sounds to letters (ball, basket, balloon all begin with “B”)
  • Fluency: reading text with accuracy and with correct intonation; oral reading by the child is key
  • Vocabulary development: new language beyond everyday terms; reading aloud to the child is key
  • Comprehension: often-used strategies include asking questions before, during, and after reading to monitor understanding: “What do you already know about planets?” “Do you think Venus is a cold or hot planet?” “After reading this book, do you think humans will ever live on Mars?”

These very simplistic definitions are only intended to demonstrate the complex process of becoming a fluent and consistent reader. There is no one method or process on which everyone can agree. But what all experts do agree on is the importance of starting as early and often as possible—this means parents and caregivers should read to a child every day, even when the child is not understanding the words. Exposure to the sound and syntax of language is critical. But even as children begin to read on their own, keep up the practice of reading together. Choose picture books and early chapter books that your child can read aloud to you. Life is busy, but try to set aside at least one hour each week for shared oral reading.

What Does This Mean for Writers and Publishers?

First, the good news that is even in the 21st century, the printed book and its digital equivalent are critical for younger children to develop the literacy and fluency skills to be successful. At Red Chair Press, we gladly review proposals and submissions every week. We tend to develop our concepts internally, however, and while we don’t focus specifically on educational standards, we do try to address the best practices for developing fluency.

We work with writers and editors to avoid “dumbing-down” the text at all costs. One of the worst things to happen to children’s publishing has been the prevalence of leveling services for books in the library or classroom markets. These services, such as Guided Reading and Lexile®, assign a code to books that pigeonhole them into an age- or grade-level range. Often, to lower a book’s range, the writing is edited to eliminate complex sentences. This can lead to writing improvements such as:

Before: Ethan runs into the dugout to check out the lineup card. It tells him and his teammates what positions they will play in this game. Ethan looks at the lineup card and sees that he’s playing first base.

After: Ethan runs to the dugout. He checks out the lineup card. The card tells him what position he will play in this game. Ethan looks at the lineup card. He sees that he’s playing first base.

(Full disclosure: We use both of these leveling services after the fact, but never before the books are written and edited in final form.)

Some parents come into bookstores and libraries in their community with a reading level report from their child’s school. The report may say that their child should be reading books between Guided Reading Levels H to L, or books with a Lexile range of 450 to 600.

How about letting children and their parents choose books based on the child’s interests? If the child likes tennis, they may want to read a book about tennis that’s lower or higher than their range. But the important thing is that they’re reading.

As an author, when you write a children’s book, write with a child in mind first. Read your words out loud. Ask a child you know to read your manuscript out loud, too. Make notes where they stumble, or when they pause. If some words are too difficult, consider changing them—but leave them in if they’re important in context. If sentences are too complex, consider editing. But be careful to avoid butchering the story and its syntactic flow. Write “up” to a child, never “down.” The future of publishing depends on your ability to engage and inform children through your words and pictures.

Keith Garton is the founding publisher of Red Chair Press. He spent 35 years publishing for children at firms as varied as TIME for Kids, Scholastic, and Pearson. He has served on boards and as an adviser for the betterment of children’s publishing with Vermont Center for the Book, Association of Educational Publishers, Girl Scouts of the USA, US Department of Education, and currently IBPA. He can be reached at keith@redchairpress.com.

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