GAT Reading Program

My goal is a controlled reading program that will provide daily age and reading level appropriate material for my sons from age 3 to age 8.   We are currently in prechapter books with my 4 year old and it's going much better than I ever could imagine.

Plus, I've got a neighbor who had a kindergartner with a 6th grade reading level.  If they can do it, we can do it.

The word wall

Any time we saw a sight word in a book, it went on the word wall.

At later ages, this would become the word refrigerator and the word poster board.

This was our very first word board.  I refined the concept for phonics, vocabulary, and science. It allowed me to keep track of progress.  When I found out how powerful it was, it became the Word Board. 

I was skeptical, but my coworker leant me an old set of books. With a extra effort on my part, this has worked miracles for a 3 1/2 year old.  The extra effort was about 500 hours and resulted in a phonics book that mets my goals.  A mid-market phonics book is great to get to the 50th%, but of course we have a test to take.  Phonics and reading go hand-in-hand, but this page is dedicated to the reading.

Rebus Readers Sandcastle Series
These are a fun alternative to Bob books or hooked on phonics - meant to encourage reading enjoyment. I wish there were 500 of these, but there are only 50 in the first series, 50 in the second, and my library doesn't carry the next 2 series.  He loved these and made leaps in abilility.

Sharron Gordon
My son's favority author. Here "opposite books" should be mandatory test prep, but she also has other interesting titles.

The Buscuit Series by Capucilli
Buscuit is one of the rare series for early readers that maintains a consistent level from book to book.  We read all of these at least twice.  These were my son's favorite series.

Early Reading Series Level 1
I'm always on the lookout for a good series so I can order these from the library via their website and check them off a list. Here are one's I think work.  If the book is at level, let your child read it. If it is too hard, try reading every other page with him, or at least assign him a word occasionally while you read the book.
  • I'm Going To Read Series: It's really hard to find a controlled vocabulary series between Rebus and Pathway. This is the best I can do. It has books introducing 50 words or less, 100, and 200. Actual # of words in the book, as well as difficulty, varies by author.
  • Viking Easy-To-Read:  These are not controlled vocabulary, but once your child can get through level 1 of the prior series, these are great simple readers.
  • An I Can Read Book:  I am evaluating this series right now. It appears to be simple, but not controlled vocabulary.
Since I originally wrote this, the top 4 publishers aggressively acquired titles to put in their leveled reading series.  Stand alone books or series for little children have now become part of a leveled reading series and stamped with a random level.

Dick and Jane
This worked for child #1 from Bob books all the way through Kindergarten reading. Not all have success with these.  With the books listed above, I will probably skip the Dick and Jane series on child #2.

DK has an "Pre Level 1" series of about 20 books.  The vocab level isn't perfect, but the content is perfect for a cognitive ability test.   DK's level 2 is really level 3 or 4.   Also, National Geographic Readers, and Hello Reader! Science, that I am now evaluating.  (Alas, it looks like material best suited to grades 1 and up.)  In addition to their leveled readers, we usually had a stack of more advanced DK books in our house just to look through the pictures.  These are basically science, geography, and history books.

Pathway Readers

These are goofy books from the standards of modern Americans which tell the really boring story of a large Amish family on a farm.  Many children find them fascinating.  The books introduce one or 2 words per page and will take your child from the Dick and Jane Level to Magic Tree House. I highly, highly recommend them.   Start with the K level, and continue through 2nd grade.   Our pace became about 5 pages per night. This is my bridge between leveled readers and chapter books.

Good Books
Google "library association book lists".  There are good ones out there for all ages.  I also googled "international book awards" and then wiki'd the winners.  It's the mother load of good books.   We use these mainly as "Read to".

We started with the HC Anderson award, and any book by the children's illustrators turned out to be worth the trip to the library.  The award winning writers tend to cater to older kids.   So I googled lists of top children's illustrators, and get everything from the library with their name on it.  Top children's illustrators tend to work with top children's authors, and we've discovered some great authors that way as well..

This list is my favorites is too long to publish here.  Most of these books are 23 to 32 pages, large format, big pictures, and a few sentences per page.  I think they are perfect for nightly reading to.   After a while, both of my kids started to read them on their own.  Examples include Steve Jenkins, a tour de force of zoology and astronomy for kids, and the "You Wouldn't Want to Be..." series, a tour de force of history for kids.

I think everyone in the house fell in love with reading because of the illustrator books.  I used to have a link on this site but it no longer works.  Here's the link to wiki.  You'll see the illustrators at the bottom.

I'm only a 3rd the way through it.  Get everything from your local library for each of these authors: Quentin Blake - awesome.  Mo Willems, great for little kids.   Tom Lichtenheld, Uri Shulevitz, Anthony Brown, Tomi Ungerer.  While US award winners tend to favor great artists, the books from illustrators on the list for the HC Andersen award favor great literary themes that have been illustrated.

We spent 2 years on this exercise.   I had to place a lot of holds and interlibrary loans.  Some of the books were all pictures, and some ended up being read to.  At the time, I was just pleased that the whole family loved our reading time together when these books showed up each week.   Looking back, I realized that there was something more to these books that I didn't usually find with Caldecott winners.   The books presented a very complicated story in the pictures.  They had to be read multiple times, and "read" usually means sitting there staring at the pictures.

The top illustrators work with top authors, and by the end of this exercise we had our reading list through 3rd grade.  This is how we rediscovered Roald Dahl for example.

Level 2
When we we're still not ready for the first real chapter book, I would get every book from the library with "level 2" in the series name.  There are 249 of these in the Chicago public library.  Some of these are too easy, some super hard.  Richard Scarry has 300 books, many at the right level.  His are a solid level 2.  That's 500 to choose from to get me through a 6 to 12 month stage of reading.

There's a series called Green Light Readers Level 2 (easy) that has Executive Functioning Skills exercises in the back, which are a big hit.   Also, the Franklin turtle series is notable because these are the only books in Level 2 that are consistently level 2 and don't have 4th grade themes.

We were diverted by Magic School Bus Level 2 and Magic School Bus Readers (think Level 2b, 32 pages).  Why not read a science book every few weeks?   These are not to be confused with the Magic School Bus chapter books for an older age group.

PreChapter Books
I tried The Boxcar Children (because there are 107 of them), which are very long books, but perfect to transition to material with harder vocabulary and more mature topics.  We didn't make it through the 1st one.  Nothing happened.  It was like reading about watching grass grow.  Maybe we picked the wrong one.  If my son were older, I would pick up 55 page books like Arthur, but these are poorly written and have inappropriate content for young readers.

Biding Time
Flat Stanley is way too hard before 1st grade.  These are used as part of accelerated reading and geography in our program.  The Boxcar Children is way too boring.  So instead, we're continuing to skip through the Pathway readers, and I've added all of the Magic Bus reader level and level 2 books to the weekly schedule.  These are not as long as chapter books, but still introduce lots of new vocabulary, and are a great introduction to all science topics through the 3rd and 4th grade, only at a much simpler level.  In essence, I'm taking a break from reading progress in the interest of science.

We still read illustrators (mentioned above), but found people like Steve Jenkins who are rock stars for early Science.  His material is fascinating to both kids and me.

Vocabulary Practice
I tried the books from   Big, big hit here with both parent and child. If your kid is at this level of reading, the 1st book is doable, although it is mostly pictures.  We do one unit every 2 weeks.  It's possible to get through some units in 1 week, but with the subtleties of meaning and synonyms, I like to spend more time with each week's vocab.  For every word in the book, I probably added 2 to the word board, sometimes words that appeared for the first time in the exercises, and sometimes words that I thought of like synonyms.  Until we got to later books, many of the words from the lesson didn't need to go on the word board.

I love these books. I love watching my kids do the exercises and try to figure out how to answer questions without knowing all of the words.  This is a great skill for the SAT.   I've gotten quite a bit of feedback from parents who tell me their children want to do their Vocab Workshop book every day.  I can tell you from experience to stick with once a week at most or else your 5 year old is on the 2nd or 3rd grade book and doesn't know what most of the words mean in the reading or the exercises that aren't in the list of 20 words at the beginning of the section.

Chapter Books
The trick here is to try all of the series, and pick the one that your kid likes.  I'm listing these in approximate order of easiest to hardest, although the levels overlap.  They also vary by maturity and vocabulary, and don't really synch up these concepts.  These all target a 4th grade reading level.
  •   The Adventures of the Baily School Kids
  •   Flat Stanley
  •   Frankie Pickle - this is new, there are only 4 of them (more of a comic)
  •   The Choose Your Own Adventure Series
  •   Vampire Weenies
  •   Captain Awesome
There are a bunch of series designed for boys based on fantasy, such as Anamorphs or Droon.  No luck with these because they are boring.  For the next 6 years, we tried lots of series.  There was a constant series of mistakes.  Usually, I brought home a series that was too hard.   By hard, I mean the author expects a mature reader who is willing to sit through 75 pages of boringness while the author sets up the story.  These were usually my favorite.  The kids usually liked the books that had a cognitive reading content near zero.  These were their favorite.   Sometimes we struck gold with a series that met both our goals, like The Keepers Trilogy, but usually the winners were things that the child found from a teacher or friend.

Pathway Readers, Again
The Pathway readers start small and go through grade 8.  There are 3 books for 2nd grade, and we've never read the last one.  The 2nd second grade reader is on par with the 1st Magic Tree House book.

Magic Tree House
The Magic Tree House is in a category of it's own.  These should be part of the school curriculum.  If you child gets through all 52 (and counting) of these, you're on track for Stanford.  This is the gold standard of reading.

At this point, you've succeeded as a parent.  From 2nd grade on, you kids can just read everything.   Lately it's anything by Roald Dahl, my hero.   From Roald, there is a very short transition to Harry Potter.  While J K Rowling appears to have studied writing at the Dahl school for hating adults, unfortunately, my son loved Roald, and is bored with Harry Potter.  (If your child reads all of Dahl and Rowling, start saving for Stanford graduate school.)

This is one of the first pages I posted to my website.  My writing style was sparse and tentative as I tried to find my way without a lot of help.  At the time, I had a first grader who was struggling with reading because we didn't know any better.  No one told me his GAT program had a 3rd grade reading curriculum in first grade.  We just finished board books.  The reading battle would continue through 4th grade with this guy.   The Word Board above helped us get from board books to Go Dog Go, which is exactly the opposite of what one should do.

I started this page with child #2 who had just learned his letter sounds.  The Word Board for child #2 looked more refined, like what you would expect a white board to look like at Nasa when they went over the project plan for a shuttle launch.

Here I am 6 years later reporting results.   99% across the board, possibly higher but tests don't report anything higher.   Test scores bounced around a bit after 3rd grade thanks to a big controversy in Chicago about having 3 standardized tests (PARC, MAP, and one other one) each year and a rebellion among children who were listening to parents like me on this topic.

As we inch toward 7th grade, the cognitive skills for math and for reading are converging.  This is going to require it's own page to explain, but it's pretty exciting to watch and I can see a trail all the way back to the beginning.

Here are the broad themes from our reading program that are covered in articles scattered throughout my website.
  • The phonics program I created was way more powerful that I ever imagined.  It turns out that all kids learn to read and phonics greatly accelerates this process.  We spent a year on phonics plus, and the plus was huge.   I thought it was a big risk and didn't publish the Pre-K Phonics book for 4 years.  It turns out there was no risk and we ended up getting 3 times the benefit during this period than a child would get from regular phonics.  The book title is Pre-K Phonics Conceptual Vocabulary and Thinking, and that is also a summary of the "3 times" I mentioned.
  • The Word Board turned out to be much more than a way for me to keep track of which words my child could pronounce or knew the definition.  Having to defend at the Word Board 2 or 3 times a week produced the kind of skills you want in a leader.   Child #2 has a track record of getting the lead in plays at school and at theater camp.  We put him in theater camp because he was so shy and were stunned to see him walk out on stage as the lead and take command of the audience.   That is the small benefit.   Both kids developed a photographic memory after 2 or 3 years of Word Board exercises.   
  • I used to go to the library with a spreadsheet of leveled readers by publisher and level, looking for the next 5 and placing holds.   Later I would go in there to get a book that we tried prematurely a year ago but now I knew was the right level.   Lately, I go in and look for new books and series to try.  Our hour of reading each day is a much richer experience because of this investment.
If you put these three things together, you can, despite your averageness and the averageness of your children, find your kid at the top of the reading spectrum.  If you happen to be above average, I can only imagine what's possible.

Between 4th and 6th grade, things will change, and the last 10% of a test score depends on how you deal with these changes.   There is another leap in 8th and 9th grade.  The 4th grade change is pretty straightforward.  It's called "Every Book is a Mystery" and I think of it as "Every Page Has Clues". The next leap, which for a variety of reasons needs to happen in 6th grade if you live in Chicago, is a bit more exciting and is the focus of my current research on skills convergence. 


  1. Hi. Have you checked out "I Like to Read" books such as "See Me Dig"? Those books have great large fonts, great pics and actually are pretty good.

  2. Thanks for the tip. This is a relatively new series that we were apparently just beyond when it came out. I checked out a few from the library for inclusion on the list above if the language is appropriate.


    - Finding appropriate books for our kids up until they could read Magic Tree House was difficult. For our second child, I purchased a subscription to "Fountas and Pinnel" which has a large list of books leveled from a to z. Using Fountas and Pinnel as a guide I then bought a wide variety from Amazon.


    - I recommended buying at least the first thirty. Our older daughter still likes to go back and reread them. We started reading these with our second child in the Spring of K. I would read the whole book. Then I would read a page, and then he. Next he would re-read the whole book with help as needed. My goal was 2 chapters a day. It’s now Feb of First Grade, and he finished reading his first book all by himself during reading time at school which took 10 days. Over the weekend we alternated chapters of book 52, and read it fluently with only an occasional unknown word.


    - These are among my favorite books to read to the kids. We purchased all of the “Famous Lives” and “Young Reading” books and many others mostly used on Amazon. These books have great pictures and include many of the classics like “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde”.


    - This is a fantastic series about science. I’ve read most all of them to the kids.


    - Whenever we go on vacation, visit a museum, a national park, etc., I make a point of stopping in the gift shop and buying a few children’s books. And then I read them to the kids (k and third) while waiting for our food, or before bed, etc. As the kids get older, they often find their own books to read.

  4. Wow - what a great set of recommendations. However, I challenge you to do all of these things and not end up spending thousands of dollars that clog up your house with books. Maybe clogging your house with books is inevitable. Buy "The Read Aloud Handbook" and find out if you can do even better.

  5. We have a love/hate relationship with Harry Potter in our house. The kids love the series, and the adults are glad that we no longer have to read it aloud to anyone. Why does Rowling use the word "indignantly" 5 times on every page? Doesn't she have any other adverbs? Doesn't she realize what a difficult word that is to read aloud repeatedly, especially when it is overused and not always the best word choice? ARGH.

    Older daughter (just finished 3rd grade) is now burning through Rick Riordan's books (first Percy Jackson, then the other series), and developing a love for greek mythology. The vocabulary is really good, story engaging for a once-reluctant reader. And it's much better written than any Harry Potter, in my opinion. I highly recommend Riordan!

    I'll end with a question: is it really important to develop early readers? Why? Are there studies showing that early reading correlates with later academic achievement? I feel like I have read that is not true.. but I can't remember where so now I'm going to dig a little. Not that it matters for me- that ship has sailed for my children.