Imagine you’re trying to learn to read a new language. How would you do it? First you’d learn the alphabet, if it has one. Then you’d start to string the letters together into simple words and read some stories to get familiar with the words and how they’re used.
That seems pretty hard to me. But it would be even harder if you’d never learned a language before. And what if you were only a little kid? That would be a big challenge. But—think about it—that’s what we expect children to do routinely to learn how to read. I think we should do whatever we can to make this big leap easier for kids. We as adults have experience with reading, and we’re older; we should take the burden off kids and do the hard work of WRITING stories so they’ll be easy for kids to READ.
How? Well, using short words might help. They’re probably easier to learn than long words. But children’s books are often peppered with long words like “elephant” and “xylophone,” which is fine if adults are reading TO children. But though I like elephants and xylophones, and even elephants playing xylophones, for kids to learn how to read, long words are probably not ideal. When I was teaching my own children to read, I looked for books with only short words. But I had trouble finding books like that.
That got me thinking. Could I write one myself? A book with only short words. If I limited the vocabulary to words no longer than 3 letters, could I write a story? Sure. What about 2 letters? That would be a challenge. There are so few 2-letter words to work with. But I juggled them until I came up with a story, with characters, action, and even humor.
I sent it to publishers, but they weren’t interested, so I decided to publish it myself. I’d need an illustrator, and I found one online. Joanna Pasek draws beautiful watercolor illustrations for children’s books, in a semi-realistic style that I liked, so we set to work, eventually producing our book, "WE GO TO BO."
Teachers who saw it told me it would be even easier for children to read if I used only the simplest sounds, and only used one sound for each letter throughout the book (some letters have 2 or 3 different ways to pronounce them, which may confuse kids when they’re just starting to read). I thought: maybe I should write another 2-letter word book, taking that advice into account.
Meanwhile, at a public reading of “WE GO TO BO,” I asked the children if someone could write a book with only 3-letter words, and they said yes. 2-letter words? Again yes. And then one smart aleck said 1-letter. My first impulse was to ignore him, but then I thought, “Why not 1-letter?” If I use the letter “C” to mean “S-E-E” and the letter “U” for “Y-O-U,” maybe. And if I write both a 1-letter word book and a new 2-letter book, maybe I can add a 3-letter book for a 1-2-3 set.
That is the origin of my Kickstarter campaign. I’ve written the 3 books, and Joanna has started illustrating them. With enough support, she can finish the illustrations and I can publish the books. I’ll make the e-books available for free and the paperback books available at cost.
The 1-letter word book is about a curious kid who keeps asking her dad “why?” about the things she sees in the park. Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green? He doesn’t know, but she gets him to open his eyes to the world. With only 1-letter “words,” of course Joanna’s illustrations do the heavy lifting of telling this story.
The 2-letter word book starts with a couple of children playing with a ball and ends with a much larger ball, because the mom of one kid runs a hot air balloon company and gives them a free ride. To make it easy to read, I used all capital letters to avoid possibly confusing children about when to use upper case or lower case.
In the 3-letter word book, one kid has a cat, and when her friends play with it, they think it’s laid an egg.
As soon as children can read the alphabet, they can read the 1-letter word book, “Y.” That accomplishment gives them a sense of pride that they can read a whole book all by themselves, and gives them confidence to continue reading. Then they can read the 2-letter word book, “BO, GO UP!.” I used very simple vocabulary: less than half the alphabet, and only 11 different words. That makes it easy for children to feel good that they read a real book. Next, they can move to the 3-letter word book, “Cat Egg,” and learn 39 words, including 17 of the 100 most common words.
Millions of people around the world take a long time to learn how to read, or never learn. Let’s remove obstacles to reading and make it as easy as possible to learn. Tell your friends who are parents or teachers about the Bo books. Thank you.