Research School Network: How do we teach early reading? Dr Polly Crowther, considers the evidence about learning the mechanics of reading and developing a love of books and stories


How do we teach early reading?

Dr Polly Crowther, considers the evidence about learning the mechanics of reading and developing a love of books and stories

by East London Research School
on the

One of the great privileges of teaching young children is to help them to learn to read. The first words we read are similar to first wobbling steps: an obvious milestone. Children do it and grin, recognising they are onto something big. This magic is what drove me to lead English, for all its complexity.

Last week, I put the finishing touches to a presentation to parents about our new phonics scheme. The DfE re-validation process means we are amongst many schools updating their scheme this year. Some changes will be very noticeable to parents. Bringing parents on board with early reading is critical. The evidence shows that reading at home can make a real difference. The day before the session, a national paper ran research questioning the validity of phonics.

The headline is bold – new research shows that focusing on phonics is failing children”. I needed to take a moment to clarify why, exactly, we are investing so much in phonics.

EEF guidance reports on Preparing for Literacy (covering EYFS) and Improving Literacy in KS1 provide an excellent link to the research on what works in teaching early reading. The fundamental recommendations are:

  • Prioritise the development of communication and language
  • Use a balanced approach to early reading
  • Effectively implement a systematic phonics programme

Strategies that work with parents or develop self-regulatory skills to monitor comprehension, can also help to improve reading.

Prioritise communication and language

Communication and language are a huge priority in early years, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. According to the EEF’s study into the impact of Covid on Reception children, 99% of schools reported concerns with communication and language development. The EEF Early Years Toolkit highlights strong evidence that Communication and Language approaches can support accelerated progress.

Educators hoping to ensure reading progress must build strong foundations in spoken language. Quality interactions are critical.

Use a balanced and engaging approach

The journey from staggered sounding out of words to fluent reading is a magical one. It’s not enough on its own, of course. Children must learn to understand what they read. As educators, we have an important goal to help them to love reading. Not only is motivation important for reading progress: reading is also one of the great joys in life. It provides a path to educational success across all subjects in the long term. We motivate children to read by giving them experiences of success, providing choice, being interested in books and through magical storytelling. The need to do so is evident in the research outlined in theEEF report.

Whether we follow Scarborough’s Reading Rope, the Simple View of Reading or EEF’s Reading House’, comprehension forms a huge part of learning to read. It’s possible to teach comprehension and decoding at the same time. We can give children interesting questions to consider about the books they read. Book-focused interactions support children to develop the wide range of reading skills they will need.

Effectively implement a systematic phonics programme

In Closing the Reading Gap, Alex Quigley points out that systematic phonics is Good for all, bad for none and essential for some”. Phonics is the building blocks of reading. They allow children to understand words at the most fundamental level. There is very extensive evidence supporting its use in Key Stage 1.

This is not to say that effective implementation is simple. Phonics schemes vary and comparative evidence between them is relatively limited. The evidence shows that how phonics is taught matters. Schools need to consider how their programme supports their staff development. A good programme will be responsive, allowing for quick support for those who need it. Children should practice using their phonics knowledge to decode books.

Schools and English leaders know their settings and what their children need. They should evaluate phonics programmes based on how they will be able to implement them, as well as what they include.

How do you teach young children to read?

Reading is a complex, powerful, multi-faceted skill. It is not simply taught in phonics lessons, literacy hours or spelling tests. Reading relies on children learning all the marvellous mechanics, from decoding split-digraphs to gasping at surprise endings. Phonics is a powerful tool for educators because it enables children to take control of the text on the page. As they learn to piece together phoneme, grapheme, meaning and motivation, children start to gain one of the unique treasures of humankind: reading.

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