By Andrea Quincey, Director of Primary Literacy, OUP
1. Focus on and prioritise the kids who can’t read
With a few very specific exceptions, systematic synthetic phonics should be used to ensure that all children learn to read words – initially by sounding and blending but very quickly by drawing on a growing bank of automatically recognised words. Practice and repetition of phonics knowledge – and the application of this knowledge to carefully matched decodable books – is vital, particularly for children at risk of falling behind. Phonics instruction and the approaches applied by trained adults should be consistent across a school, whatever the age of the children. However, the resources used – particularly the decodable books – should ideally be tailored to the age and/or emotional maturity of the children to ensure that they are engaged and motivated to learn.
Being able to read – to lift the words off the page – is the first and most important step for every child, in all subjects. Teachers and school leaders must treat reading as a priority and may have to make some difficult choices to ensure that children who are struggling catch up.
Take a look at Oxford’s validated SSPs and catch up support:
- Read Write Inc.
- Read Write Inc. Fresh Start
- ELS Essential Letters and Sounds
- ELS Progress
- Floppy’s Phonics
2. Word reading is nothing without fluency
Whilst being able to ‘read the words’ is critical, if a child continues to read words very slowly and deliberately – sounding and blending words often – then even if they are reading with accuracy it will feel like a chore. Without the ability to read most words in a book automatically and at a reasonable pace – pausing only to work out new and unfamiliar words – children are unlikely to understand, engage with or enjoy what they are reading. As children’s knowledge of the alphabetic code grows it’s important to ensure that they are given opportunities to read and – crucially – re-read books multiple times to build their confidence and fluency. Each new book, however closely matched to children’s phonic knowledge, is a bit like an unseen test for an emerging reader so encouraging them to read, re-read and ‘master’ that book can make all the difference to their progress and their self-esteem. Teachers may need to help parents understand the value of re-reading the same book and the vital importance of fluency to unlocking meaning and enjoyment of reading.
Take a look at Oxford Reading Levels to see how they build fluency and confidence as children move on from phonics.
3. Sharing and talking about books is important for children of all ages
Alongside learning to ‘read the words’ children must experience a rich variety of songs, rhymes, stories, and other texts – many of which will be read aloud to them by their teacher.
Reading aloud to children of all ages is one of the most powerful ways to inspire children’s own desire to read, whilst also exposing them to language, stories, information, authors, and genres that they might not otherwise discover for themselves. This is particularly important for the children who, for whatever reason, do not have these experiences at home.
Talking about a text – reflecting on new words, new knowledge and how it made us feel – should be part of this process; talk enables teachers to model what skilled readers do ‘in the moment’ of reading and allows pupils to discuss their own responses with their peers. However, use of talk needs to be carefully planned so that it doesn’t spoil the ‘magic’ of simply listening to and enjoying a book.
4. It doesn’t take that much to ‘teach’ comprehension
Skilled readers automatically deploy a few different strategies in order to draw meaning from a text. This might be at the level of individual words or sentences, or across longer passages, or across a whole text. Skilled readers might anticipate and predict, they might visualise characters and events, they will make connections and inferences and, most importantly, they will monitor their understanding of what they are reading, stopping to review information when their understanding breaks down. Skilled readers might also accept only partial understanding of certain words or phrases or events; they will recognise how significant certain features are to their overall understanding and enjoyment of the book and will accept ‘getting the gist’ rather than feeling the need to stop and check their understanding of every detail.
The new Reading Framework emphasises an important fact: that the ability of skilled readers to use all these strategies effectively depends on how much they already know – about words, about people, about the world and about how different types of text work. And of course, most of that knowledge comes from reading. In addition, skilled readers do not use these strategies in isolation – they don’t decide to ‘predict’ one day and ‘infer’ the next. Teaching of these comprehension strategies – rather like the teaching of a few GPCs – can be achieved very quickly, in a matter of weeks. What matters to developing children’s comprehension is i) teacher modelling of how skilled readers deploy certain strategies in the moment of reading, using e.g. ‘think alouds’ and talk during reading lessons, and ii) encouraging and giving children opportunities to read a lot, so that they have as much prior knowledge to activate as possible. Reading is particularly important as a route to knowledge for the more disadvantaged children who lack life experiences outside of school.
Take a look at Oxford’s comprehension support:
5. Vocabulary knowledge is vital for reading … and vice versa
Children’s comprehension – and by association their enjoyment – of any text relies heavily on their knowledge of what the words mean, often in the specific context of that text.
So, as well as the foundational skill of word reading, children need to develop a rich store of words they know and know the meaning of in different contexts. The way the brain acquires and retains word knowledge is via a complex network of connections and schema; the brain links new words to known words and organises those words into groups. So the more words you know the greater the number of new words you will acquire – so it is a scientific fact that the word rich get richer. Whilst talk is a useful way of acquiring and embedding basic early language – usually quite functional – the main route to rich language acquisition is through listening to and reading a wide range of texts. Much vocabulary knowledge will develop through exposure to language through reading, but teachers also need to plan and explicitly teach some vocabulary, particularly the words that will have the most utility for pupils across the curriculum. These are often referred to as ‘Tier 2’ words. Subject-specific or ‘Tier 3’ words will also need to be taught – and are often a focus for schools – but these words are used far less frequently and are therefore less likely to create barriers to comprehension in children’s general reading.
6. It’s not just about reading for pleasure, it’s about reading A LOT
The new Reading Framework makes multiple references to ‘Reading Miles’ and makes clear that, after phonics instruction, providing as many opportunities as possible for children to read and be read to is the single most important and beneficial thing that schools can do. Whether this is reading aloud, reading in lessons across the curriculum, spending time in the library exploring and choosing books, or having quite independent reading time, making as much time in the school day for reading should not be seen as an indulgence. It is essential, and it is even more essential for those children who lack opportunities and support at home.
There has been much focus in recent years on the importance of reading for pleasure because children who are inspired to enjoy reading and see a value in reading will no doubt choose to read more readily. However, without the right support and encouragement, and without regular access to a rich and diverse range of books, even these children may not go beyond reading a few popular books or books in the same series, particularly as they get older. Motivating children to read – and sustaining that motivation so that they choose to read a lot – is not easy but there is valuable research in this area and the Framework highlights a few things schools might consider. However, my key take-away from the new Reading Framework is this:
“It is essential that schools plan systematically to nurture pupils’ desire to read. It cannot be left to chance.”
Take a look at this rich and diverse range of books to motivate all readers:
- Oxford Children’s
- Oxford’s huge library of KS2 independent reading books
- Oxford Reading Buddy
7. Preparing for SATs and practising for SATs are two very different things
Preparing children for SATs is naturally a key focus for schools but it’s worth thinking about how much time is spent truly preparing children to do well in the test vs practising ‘how to do a SATs paper’. The latter – let’s call it test preparation – is clearly vital in the run up to the test. Children need to know what the test will look like, understand how the marks work and where to put their effort, and have had some practice doing a paper in the allotted time. This should take some of the stress out of the test experience. But as is hopefully clear from the points above and from the research evidence cited in the Framework, prolonged ‘teaching’ of comprehension strategies or skills and asking children to do multiple practice SATs papers does will now make much difference because every text a child encounters presents a different comprehension challenge. A child’s ability to meet that challenge requires:
- an ability to decode and read the words on the page
- sufficient reading fluency to read at a reasonable pace
- sound knowledge of grammar, vocabulary and how language works
- knowledge of how different texts are structured and their key features
- as much prior knowledge of the world as possible to draw upon
The children with the richest knowledge – about words, about people, about the world and about how different types of text work – are the children who read a lot, and it is these children who are most likely to do well in any assessment of reading. Investing energy in motivating children to read and making time for reading are what will really make a difference.
Hear more from Andrea Quincey on the new DfE Reading Framework and reflect on the implications and opportunities for primary schools in our webinar recording below.
More blogs from Oxford Primary Literacy team:
- Essential Tips: Getting ready for September!
- Choosing Floppy’s Phonics Reading Programme
- Ideas to help parents and carers diversify their children’s reading
- What’s next after Read Write Inc. Phonics?
- Helping you and your children prepare for the phonics screening check
Andrea Quincey has worked in educational publishing – with a focus on primary literacy – for over 20 years and has contributed to some of the UK’s most popular literacy programmes, most notably the award-winning Project X series. In her current role she manages a market-leading product portfolio that, as well as Project X, includes the globally renowned Oxford Reading Tree and the highly effective Read Write Inc. programmes.