Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

At first, parents are focused on reading aloud to their children, but there quickly comes a day when kids need to practice reading to us.  But finding simple, yet engaging, books that little ones can sound out on their own is a real challenge. Luckily, a number of decodable readers have come on the market to fill this need for books that can be read with just a beginning knowledge of letter-sound correspondences. They are short and feature phonetically regular words, but also incorporate a little storytelling so kids get more than boring predictable text like, Mat sat on a hat.  

In this conversation with Sara Cotner of Montessori for All, we chat about how to help kids become thriving readers, the parent-school partnership, and Monarch Readers, a line of thoughtfully crafted decodable readers books her organization has developed.

Sara is founder and CEO of the organization, which is committed to “increasing the number of children who have access to transformational public schools” with the Montessori approach, embedded social and emotional learning, and culturally responsive communities.

Watch our conversation (or scroll down for the transcript) to learn Sara’s science-based tips for raising a reader, including:

  • What to do at home to help your child read
  • What to ask your child’s school and teachers
  • How to choose books for kids to read alone
  • Ways to support your child’s teachers 
  • And when you need to do more

Maya Smart: I am so excited to be here today chatting with Sara Cotner, the executive director of Montessori for All, a national nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, that I had the privilege of serving as a board member on many moons ago. So Sara, tell us a bit about Montessori for All and then we'll dive into a little discussion of some exciting new books you've released.

Sara Cotner: Montessori for All really believes in transformational education. We believe that education has the potential to unleash human potential and help every child shine their light in the world. And when every person can shine their light, then we will be on a path to having a more just and peaceful world for everyone. So we launched a public Montessori school in Austin, Texas, and now we work with that school to do research and development on ways to bring more transformational practices to schools across the nation. So we do that through publishing tools and resources and doing professional development and coaching and consulting as well.

Maya Smart: It's a really big and powerful mission. The idea of transformational education is so big, and yet there are so many details that have to be attended to in the individual learning journeys of every child with their own particular needs. Reading is a big foundational pillar in any education of a child. From a parent's perspective, you want to raise a reader, you know to go to the library, get some books, read to them every night. These are sort of the things you have been told to do. Are there things that you would add that parents should be aware of?

Sara Cotner: Luckily, anyone listening to this or watching this is on the right track for building a reader, because so much of it comes down to oral language development, and families who care a lot are the same families who are talking to their children all the time, reading books to their children. So you build a really strong foundation of oral language. I actually think of it as like an iceberg, and teaching a child to read is the very tip of that iceberg. And oral language is everything under the surface. So with strong oral language, children are going to have a really strong foundation. Then there is this piece around phonological awareness, and that’s just playing with sounds and those are playing games with your children. If you give the word cat to the child, you want them to be able to segment that into C-A-T, you want them to hear the sounds in it, and then you want to say, okay, now I’m going to give you another word D-O-G, now I want you to blend that together to make one word: dog.

And so that’s kind of building on the oral language, getting really strong phonological awareness skills. And from there you then start teaching phonics. And it’s pretty straightforward except that English is just very, very complicated. So we teach letter sounds to children, and letter sounds matter so much more than letter names. And that’s kind of confusing in the world out there. So knowing letter sounds. And then once they know letter sounds, they can start reading basic words, like cat and dog and sat and sit. Then you start teaching the things that are tricky about English, like two letters that go together to make a different sound. So if I put E and A together, I don’t say “eh-ah,” I say “ee” or I say “eh,” depending on whether it’s bread or meat. There are just so many different combinations. And several children need that to be very clear.

They need to systematically learn when these two letters go together, they make this sound. When these letters go together, it makes this sound. Some children don’t need that at all, and they will become strong readers without that. But a large percentage of children do need phonics. The set of unspoken rules, it has to be very clear to them. And this is where decodable readers are so helpful. Educators who are following the science of reading are moving away from pattern books, where it says, this is a dog, this is a cat. And the children are really using the pictures to help them read the words. And instead we want to ground them in sounding everything out because we want them to have a really strong correspondence between the letters that they see and the sounds that they make.

Maya Smart: And talk a little bit about the connection between school and home as kids walk through the path that you described. So there's the oral language piece and then the playing with sounds, and then phonics, and then teaching the trickier spelling patterns and other issues that you mentioned. But should parents be doing all of these things? When should they start thinking about these things or working on these things? Is there a handoff to school at some point, or should there continue to be a collaboration in raising the reader?

Sara Cotner: That’s a great question. Families as partners is so huge, and I think it starts from a very young age, just being with your children, using real vocabulary, using real words, actually using real words. That strong oral foundation is going to set children up for so much. When children go into school with strong oral language, large vocabularies, and a lot of background knowledge, that sets them up to really soar as readers. The other thing I will add is it is important to make sure that the school you’re sending your children to is grounded in the science of reading. So you want to hear your child’s teachers talking about teaching phonics, and you can ask them, “Well, how do you teach phonics?” And you don’t want it to sound like, “Oh, well we just embed it when we’re reading a book. I’ll point out the sounds.” It’s like, no, no, you want it to be systematic and sequential.

And again, not every child needs it that way, but a lot of children do. And so you want schools to be taking that approach. And if your child’s school is taking that approach, I would just continue doing rich read-alouds, taking your children to museums, talking about the world, and asking them how their day was, and they will likely flourish. But if your child’s school is not teaching phonics and is not following the science of reading, then you might want to actually purchase a curriculum and teach them at home. One curriculum that I think is very family-friendly is called All About Reading, and it has step-by-step lessons that you can teach to your child at home. But again, I would only do that if the school legitimately is not doing it, because you don’t need to overwhelm your child. 

When your child comes home, they should really enjoy their home life and enjoy their family. They shouldn’t be doing school at home unless it’s really not being done at school. And then the other thing is just to ask your child’s teacher, “How can I support you at home? Are there things you want me to be doing with my child at home to support you?” And that can build a really strong partnership. And then you also do want to make sure you have a rich selection of books at home. And the decodable readers are the hardest thing to get your hands on. This is why we ended up building our own, because there just aren’t enough on the market. But really look for high-quality decodable readers. And by decodable, that means they’re grounded in phonics. They are words that children can sound out. They don’t put the word beautiful in a book for a child.

They are words that can be sounded out, but you also want the books to make sense, because you want children from the very beginning to understand that we read in order to make meaning. And to answer your question about when, you want to watch your child and observe your child to see when they are interested in language. A lot of times in Montessori schools, we see this happening with three year olds, four year olds. We see them wanting to read signs, they want to be like the adults around them. And so as soon as we see that interest, we will start training children on letter sounds. That’s the first step, is making sure they learn all of their letter sounds.

Maya Smart: With the decodable readers, I think many people are familiar with—Bob Books is one popular series and there are some others. There's some newer ones out now. There's one that will sort of customize the image within the book to look like your child or include their name or their favorite color and different elements like that. Tell us a bit about Monarch Readers. What makes them distinctive among decodable readers?

Sara Cotner: We developed Monarch Readers because our teachers wanted more books to use with children. There just aren’t enough beautiful, rich decodable readers out there. There are lots that we use. We do use Bob Books. We do use Ms. Rhonda’s Readers. We just needed more, because emerging readers go through books so quickly. And we also work in a public school that is intentionally diverse—racially, culturally, socioeconomically, in terms of neurodiversity and physical abilities. 

And so we just wanted our children to be able to see themselves reflected on the pages of our book. When children are learning to read, they’re usually between zero to six years old. And it’s a range of time when children are developing their personalities and when children are building their personalities, you want them to see themselves reflected in the books that they’re looking at, because that gives them messages that they are worthy of showing up in stories.

And you want them to see the beauty that is the world. And the world is a collection of so many different people. And so we were just struggling to find books that kind of met that criteria. We wanted books that were phonetically controlled, where it was really isolating the difficulty for children, where it was giving them beginning phonics and then medium-level phonics and then harder phonics. We wanted it to be scaffolded, but we also wanted it to make sense. We didn’t want everything to be about Sam and ham. We wanted our readers to laugh at the stories and to get new ideas in the stories. 

So these books were written by two teachers who wanted them for their own classroom and for their children. And so they put in messages related to social and emotional learning. There’s a story where a boy gets so mad he kicks over this bucket of sand at the sandbox and everybody has to come together to solve this conflict. And so we just put in messages that we are trying to help cultivate in children related to self-regulation and kindness and empathy. So all of those are integrated into the books as well.

Maya Smart: So it really is bringing together elements that you don't often find together. So when people think about decodable readers, they really are thinking about those skills and opportunities to practice certain elements of phonics, and they aren't necessarily thinking about them as stories even, or literature, or something worthy of a beautiful illustration. So can you talk about how the books have been received so far?

Sara Cotner: Yeah, and people are, those of us who work with children that young, we know that they are so impressionable and they deserve the most beautiful things. And it’s easy to write them off and say, oh, we can just use these pencil illustrations, these line drawings or whatever. And not real characters, but they deserve the very best because they’re forming their impressions of the world at that time. And we want them to hold beautiful things in their hands and feel like, “Ooh, reading is cool. This is really fun.” And have a really positive experience. So that’s how we designed them and they are being received in that way. 

We’re getting messages from people that their children just want to sit and read all of them at the same time and get through all of them. And then we’ve had, I think the most poignant reactions for me have been from teachers of color or moms of color who pick up the books and literally tear up because they’re so used to not seeing themselves reflected in the books that they try to put in front of their children. We have sold our books at homeschooling conferences. And so homeschooling moms of color are so used to so much curriculum that’s just very, very, very, very white. And so they’re so grateful to have books that reflect their children back to them. We have characters in there who are in—a character who’s in a wheelchair. We have a character who is deaf. So there’s just a variety of—that reflects the beauty that is this world. So the reception has been really positive so far.

Maya Smart: What ages of children most enjoy these books?

Sara Cotner: We use them with three year olds through third grade. And third grade’s getting kind of up there. But we have—third graders who are below grade level in reading need these books to help them learn how to read. And they still find them interesting enough. We’re working on the next set of series, which is going to be for older children that will be more tailored to them. Ours are really tailored for children who are three years old to first or second grade, but they can be used with third graders as well. But really it’s about following the child and knowing what their reading ability is. So our books start when children can recognize common sight words. The first book starts with a and the as two important sight words that children just memorize. And then they can decode three-letter words like cat or bug.

And that’s where the first book starts. And every book, at the front, will tell families, these are the sight words that children have to have mastered before they read this book. And these are the phonetic skills that children need to have mastered before they read this book. Because we want the children to experience success. We want to teach those skills in isolation and then put the book in front of them, where they can feel really successful and their learning gets reinforced. And all of our books are sold in sets. There are five levels and each level has about six books. Four levels have six books. The first level has three books, and all levels come with the site word cards that are needed for those books. So you can use them as flashcards.

Maya Smart: And I think it's important to remind parents that this is just part of what kids are reading or part of the reading experience. So you're still continuing to read to them all kinds of books, introducing more complex vocabulary that they wouldn't be able to send out. They're still flipping through other kinds of books. It's just part of a larger picture of reading.

Sara Cotner: And the reason why such a solid foundation is so important is because as they get older, because kids who are really smart, they start to memorize words, they start to look like they’re really getting it. But you want to check for phonics, because when they get to multisyllabic words and they’re having to read pollution and deforestation, you want them to have that strong foundation and to break words apart into syllables and sound out each syllable. So if you make sure they get that strong phonics foundation when they’re young, it will carry through to those really advanced levels of reading.

Maya Smart: And then separately from the content of the books themselves, I'm interested in hearing you describe just the creative process of seeing a need in the world for a school or a series of books or whatever the case may be, and going from idea to actually manifesting the thing.

Sara Cotner: It is my favorite part, because, to me, it’s such a metaphor for what we do in Montessori. What we are trying to do in Montessori is help children identify what is their unique light to shine in the world, and where does their unique light match up with the world’s greatest needs? And then how do they go make something happen? And that’s what our teachers did. Our teachers said, we really need more decodable readers in our classrooms. We have this idea. And I partnered with them to help them edit them and think about the artistic vision. We had to hire a professional illustrator because we did not—one of our relatives was willing to do it. And we said, no, no, we want this to be professionally illustrated, to give the youngest children the most beautiful things possible. So we hired a local illustrator and then we worked together to come up with the text, make it really controlled.

We literally went through word by word to be really intentional about every single word that’s in the book. And then we found, partnered with a printer, and then we had the books printed, and now we have thousands and thousands of copies for sale that we are storing and shipping out. And every step of the way, it’s been such a learning journey. There’s so much we didn’t know about publishing books. And so it’s been really fun to use our literacy skills to access information and access resources and know that that’s why we do this for kids. Because when you have literacy strength and skills, you can do anything. If you can read and write, you can do anything in the world. And that’s what we want to make true for our children.

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