The Best Toys for Young Readers

You want your child to have beneficial toys but don’t want to waste your money on tons of plastic things that clutter your home. You want to feel like your toys are developmentally appropriate but don’t want to bombard them with “school” time at home. I hear you! The following list includes my favorite toys and activities for young readers that I’ve come across in the past decade of being a reading specialist. You will find the items listed by developmental stages with a little note about why I appreciate these toys over the many options on the market. Enjoy! 

Pre-Readers

1. Alphabuild – I love everything the Kid-O brand makes because their products are beautifully designed and also always developmentally appropriate. Much like magnatiles, your children will not tire of their products and find lots of different ways to utlize them. Alphabuild blocks align with the philosophy that beginning readers and writers are identifying letters based on the letter's shape. Children first learn shapes, and so the best way to teach letter formation is to build on what they already know. One way to reinforce this activity is to have your child practice writing the letter on a chalkboard or white board after they build it with the alphabuild blocks. 

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 2. Magnatab – Another Kid-O product, the magnatabs help children feel the formation of each letter as the magnets slides over the letter formation. The brand offers both print and cursive versions, as well as upper and lowercase versions. One reading specialist tip for parents of children who greatly struggle with writing speed is to consider teaching cursive before print, as this method is actually easier to learn first. 

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Beginning Readers

Bananagrams – This particular Bananagram is most useful to beginning readers because the short vowels and blends are identified and categorized by color. Even while children are learning how to read basic words, they can build them and sound them out by recognizing that each word can be made by putting together two consonants and a vowel. As your child progresses, then you can add in the blends, which ideally come as one piece or one Bananagram.

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Phonemic Awareness Linking Letter Cubes - Another toy that identifies the short vowels by color and allows kids to interact and manipulate the entire word and match it with a picture. 

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Vowel Bingo - This simple game is proving to be a big winner in my own home. Plus, it makes my reading teacher heart so happy that it displays the vowels with long and short vowel symbols.

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Advancing Readers

Sentence Building Games - As children progress in their reading and writing skills, it’s harder to find engaging and challenging toys. I like this fun sentence builder and this advanced version. The activity can be extended by either writing the sentence on a white board for beginners or using the silly sentences as a story writing prompt for older students.  

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Phonics Dominos - This phonics toy is similar to the cubes above, however, the toy below is slightly more advanced because your child must determine how to manipulate and generate words without simply rhyming. The short vowels set is good for beginner and pre-readers, the blends set is good for advancing and the long vowels set should be used for advanced readers. This toy can be used as a bridge into more complicated word games like Boggle and Scrabble

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Story Cubes - Once children are reading fluently, they will find it more fun to make their own stories as they grasp story structures and plots. Story Cubes allow them to both master structure and also develop their own stories. Once they start writing be sure to check out the Story Pirates podcast

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Book Making Kit - If you have a budding author on your hands, give them the gift of seeing their own words in print. The My Awesome Book kit helps your child write a story and the Illustory brand offers a Comic Book version.  

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Picture Books to Teach Sight Words

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Sight words make up over half of all the words children are reading. I love teaching sight words in creative ways because it can be a lot of fun and helpful, but overall, any new concept we learn is most easily retained when we discover it within context. In other words, it's more meaningful when we read the word in a book rather than simply write it a few times. One easy way to do this is to utilize rich and interesting picture books that repeat sight words. Try reading these books at night for bedtime or when your child is practicing sight words.

I Am Enough by Grace Byers. "Like the bird, I'm here to fly and soar high over everything. Like the trees, I'm here to grow. Like the mountains, I'm here to stand." Besides teaching the sight words, I, am and like, this book has a powerful, necessary message for all children and adults. 

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I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. This silly story is rich in sight words and repetition. A great place to start is to teach the word 'seen' before reading the book. Children can read this story over and over again to practice fluency. After reading it a few times independently, they will grasp the humor.  

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Why Am I Me? by Paige Britt, Illustrated by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls. This picture book can provide very deep conversations with older children, and also simple but necessary teachings for younger children. The story asks the question, "Why am I me ...and not you?... Why is everyone who they are?" Examining humanity, children develop empathy for others through guided conversations. 

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Home by Carson Ellis. The sight words home, are, and is are repeated throughout this book. It's a visually stunning book that reminds us we don't come from the same places or surroundings, yet love can make a home anywhere. It's also a great one to read when preparing your kids for a move. 

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When's My Birthday? by Julie Fogiliano, Illustrated by Christopher Robinson. I mean, who doesn't love planning their birthday? This book is perfect for children who already have a few sight words under their belt. I'm also a sucker for all Christopher Robinson books. If your child can read short phrases, then they might enjoy When's My Birthday?

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Wait by Antoinette Portis. Every parent and child can relate to hectic mornings. This book tells the story of a mom who is in a hurry and a child who needs to stop to observe every single beautiful thing about their journey to school. The entire book consists of only two words, hurry and wait. Children can read it to themselves after being introduced. It would be fun to extend the reading with this sight word activity afterward. 

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Now by Antoinette Portis. Portis really knows how to present repetition in a beautiful way. Each page in this book begins with, "This is my favorite..." The book shows a girl going about her day and experiencing each moment as her favorite. A reminder to us all to be fully present.

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Egg by Kevin Henkes. Egg presents words in a systematic and graphically stunning way. The author repeats words such as wait and crack over and over again on a single page so kiddos can discover the word once and then practice it. Preschool students through first graders enjoy this book. 

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They All Saw A Cat by Brendan Wenzal. This book delivers both repetition and a socially conscious message. Teach the word saw. Read the story to your child and stop when you come to the word saw, letting your child chime in. This practice takes some pressure off and helps to build confidence.  

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3 Simple Ways to Help Your Child Achieve Academic and Reading Success

 Photo Melissa Kaufman

Photo Melissa Kaufman

“I just don’t want to go to swim lessons today because I missed last week and I’m afraid I won’t do a good job,” my five-year-old explained to me right after having a sudden tantrum. 

I gathered my composure after discovering what triggered the tantrum. I tried to downgrade the perfectionism that I solely instilled in her five short years and then she said, “Well, maybe if I can’t make it to the end of the pool, I’ll just wait a second and Coach Sam will push me to the end.” 

Eeeee. Facepalm. 

Not what I was hoping she would say. 

But my daughter was doing exactly what I trained her to do – to only try when she knew she would succeed. 

I’ve also noticed that my five-year-old isn’t overly interested in reading. Yep, daughter of a reading teacher - not interested. After this swim lesson, a light bulb went off that perhaps she’s avoiding reading because it’s a newer skill. I am attempting to practice in my own home what I preach as a learning specialist in a school with other parents. I desire for my children to feel positive about their learning and school experience, more than I care about their other achievements because I know this base will allow them to encounter all challenges and opportunities in life. 

In the classroom, I witness firsthand how some children succeed or do well in school because they believe they can, while others hide their talents and abilities. As a mom, I’m attempting to implement some of the strategies I use in the classroom in hopes to better my relationship with my kids and instill more confidence. 

Here are a few things I'm trying at home that I practice at school:

1.    Praise effort 

Children are seeking an identity, and at the same time, they are assessing their abilities as their image–creating labels such as “good at math” or “doesn’t love reading.” Carol Dweck’s research in her book, Mindset, supports praising and modeling effort to instill a growth mindset. By doing so, we can help our children feel more confident in tackling new tasks, regardless of ability.

2.    Redefine success

As you can see from my story above, children pick up on what your idea of success looks like by watching and listening. They are eager to please and will quickly interchange love with success. 

Help your child redefine both success and failure by taking a step back. Stepping back can be challenging to do when you have the heavy responsibilities of keeping your child safe, helping them set appropriate boundaries, and still allowing them to take risks. So start small. Let them put on their own shoes, even if they are on the wrong feet or help set the table even if all the tableware is glass. For older children, let them do their homework without checking it so that they can learn what skills they need to improve. I know these things might make you cringe but wait for a moment and see if you recognize a positive emotional response after they complete the task on their own. 

3.    Create a strong foundation

You do not need to start a phonics program or force "learning time" to give your kids a strong foundation in phonics and handwriting. For example, take advantage of commute time to rhyme or bathtime to spell. Sounds impossible? Try keeping it simple. How about getting Munchkin alphabet letters in the bath and setting up a few consonant-vowel-consonant words in the tub before your child gets in the bath. See if they notice the words and help them sound out the words on their own. Here is a step-by-step how-to and a list of words to get you started!

Picture Books on Being Mindful and Present

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As a working parent and a teacher, I'm often pulled in a million directions, feeling frazzled and overwhelmed. I recognize the mounting and unnecessary stress this puts on my children and me. I'm attempting to be thankful for small moments, even the ones that make me feel like I’m going crazy or running in circles.  I'm not always giving thanks at 8:00 a.m. drop-off when my child dumps her lunch box out in the back seat, but I'm trying to seek out moments of gratitude with my family each day. I'm practicing modeling mindfulness and patience because, as a teacher, I see the many benefits when children are able to calm themselves and breathe in stressful moments. 

If you are in need of slowing down or resetting to gain perspective, check out the books below that will remind you how truly fortunate we are to be here and to know one another.

Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers. How we learn to grow and take in the world around us is a wonder. A book about a child's smallness in this universe, Jeffers provides some relief for parents as he points out that others will be here to take care of our children when we no longer can do so.

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Forever or a Day by Sarah Jacoby.  For any parent who is attempting to say yes more often, this book is a beautiful reminder of all the reasons we should do just that. Time is the one thing we can never get more of, and in this book, a child asks if we can stay a little longer–so maybe we should.

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Life by Cynthia Rylant and Brendan Wenzel. Cynthia Rylant does a fantastic job of keeping complex concepts simple. Life is no exception. "Life is not always easy. There will probably be a stretch of wilderness now and then. But wilderness eventually ends. And there is always a new road to take."

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All In a Day by Cynthia Rylant and Nikki McClure. Another Rylant book because when paired with McClure’s die-cut illustrations, it’s too beautiful not to mention. “A day brings hope and kindness too…a day is all it’s own.” A sentimental reminder of how much connection we can share in a single day. 

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Breathe and Be: A Book of Mindfulness Poems by Kate Coombs and Anna Emilia Laitinen. A Montessori teacher friend recently suggested this book. She said that she randomly grabbed it from the shelf on the last day of school when the children sit together and express their thoughts or feelings about the year. She is now using it as a yearly tradition. What a special find. "There's a quiet place in my head like an egg hidden in a nest. A place I go when the world is loud."

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Do you have any book suggestions or tips on being present with your children and family? I'm all ears. 

Simple Steps to Teach Your Child to Read

When you recognize that your child is interested in learning to read and ready to begin sounding out words, you might feel that you need to introduce a phonics program or get out flashcards. Less is often more when learning at home. Your role as a caregiver is to reinforce skills they are learning and to do so in a particular order. You will notice that your child will start to examine words on signs and start sounding them out. Reading requires three different parts of the brain to work together to sound out words. So there's no need to force the process on a child before they are neurologically ready.

Quality over quantity

The type of strategies and words you are pointing out to your child will make more of a difference than the number of words your child is learning at one time. Maintaining the child's confidence and interest is the first and most important priority. Think of a time that you tried something new. Did you take up tennis or running, or learn a new software program for work? How did you learn the new skill? If you were given all of the information at one time, chances are that you didn't continue implementing it over time. You might have quit, felt overwhelmed or lost interest. If you had a great teacher or program that introduced one concept at a time and allowed you to master each, perhaps you stuck with it.

Where to start?

So where to begin? We will keep it simple. Once a child knows all of the letter names and their sounds, then they can start to decode three letter words. We call the first words that a child reads CVC words, which stands for consonant-vowel-consonant.

For a list of CVC words that you can practice, sign up for my mailing list using the button below, and it will be sent to you! Enjoy! Feel free to email me with questions if I can help.

Short Vowels

Focus on short vowels and pointing out only one short vowel at a time. Practice that same vowel for about a week or two. The only thing you need to do is to recognize the letter or word as you are traveling or reading, seeing signs, and just going through everyday life. For example, a sign says, "No Dogs." You might say, "Oh look, that word has the short vowel o in it for o/octupus. D-o-g. It says dog!" You are modeling how to sound out a short vowel word. If your child is frustrated by this then back off. Most likely they want more control and might start pointing the letters out on their own after they watch you do it first.

How to keep it simple and practice at home

To practice, you might also want to put letters in the tub or magnetic letters on the fridge and practice CVC words during down times like making dinner or bath time. Make spelling and reading a part of play, and it will feel more natural to your child. It's also the perfect time to have a few decodable books around the house. Start with the short vowel BOB books. You might want to leave them on the kitchen table or in a box in your family room. 

As always, please reach out to me and let me know how these suggestions work for you and your child!