I’m pretty confident that for most of my teaching career I taught reading badly. I assiduously followed whatever structure was handed down from on high – and then ditched it as soon as a new structure was rolled out. As a trainee, I’d read the government-issued Letters and Sounds document, but I didn’t have any idea of how children actually learned to read, which in hindsight seems utterly bonkers. In education we are only ever dealing in best bets, so certainty is always misplaced, but the science behind how people learn to read is arguably the most studied area of cognitive psychology. We should take advantage of that, and this is what I will attempt to do this year.
Here are some key points that I think primary teachers need to understand in order to teach reading well:
- Solid phonological awareness underpins reading. Some children really struggle with phonics, but make their way towards something resembling fluency through other means (usually decoding the first few letters of a word followed by excellent semantic guesswork). In my experience, many of these children eventually come unstuck as their semantic guesswork increasingly fails when texts become more complex. (I’ve seen this happen in KS3 with children who have scored well on a year 6 SATs reading paper.) If a child’s understanding of phonics is weak, stick with phonics. Even if a child’s grasp of phonics never reaches a high standard, every small step towards that is a major advantage.
- Reading fluency is an important step between phonics and the skills of reading comprehension. It needs to be explicitly and regularly taught if the vast majority of students are to become fluent. Reading fluency can be thought of as consisting of three elements: automaticity, accuracy and prosody (i.e. fluent readers read quickly, easily and with the patterns and rhythm of spoken language). Reading fluency is best achieved through repeated oral reading.[i] This entails children reading aloud and repeating passages or paragraphs, consciously aiming for fluent reading. Undertaking this with an adult, while ideal, is simply not logistically feasible, but reading aloud in dyadic pairs (described later) is an effective alternative. This is best achieved through the reading of texts that are somewhat beyond the grasp of the children.
- In order to build up the knowledge and vocabulary upon which their future learning will rely, children need to read independently and often. However, inculcating a love of independent reading in children who are not yet fluent is extremely difficult. It seems to be the case that being a good reader is what initially causes children to develop beneficial independent reading habits rather than vice versa,[ii] though once established the relationship is likely reciprocal.
- Comprehension and inference can be improved through the teaching of generic reading strategies, but these strategies have their full impact after a very short period and focusing lots of attention on these wastes precious time that could be spent on the real substance of reading, which is…
- …vocabulary, background knowledge and knowledge of syntax. Along with reading fluency, comprehension is based upon one’s understanding of the words in the text, the concepts to which the words are directly or indirectly referring and the structure of the language. Each of these is a huge and diverse knowledge domain. Due to this, we must understand the importance of text selection. Children should read a wide variety of non-fiction to develop their knowledge of the world along with some fiction. (I’d advocate a greater focus on non-fiction when explicitly teaching reading as children should experience more fiction when teachers share a chapter book with the class each day.)
- The teaching of spelling rules and morphology is an underrated component of teaching children to read.[iii] (Personally, I would add etymology to this mix, but I’m not sure of the evidence base for this suggestion.)
In contrast, much of the teaching that I have observed (and done) touches on the key points above without ever prioritising them. The reading sessions I have seen instead generally displayed the following attributes:
- The texts are chosen to match the reading ability of the children and sometimes the topic children are learning about, but they are not chosen for the explicit purpose of building up children’s knowledge of the world.
- The vocabulary and context of the text is sometimes discussed, but it is seen as secondary to the generic inference or comprehension skills that are apparently being developed in the session.
- Fluency is rarely the explicit aim. Children may spend some time reading aloud to a teacher or a partner, but this rarely adds up to more than 10-15 minutes of reading aloud per week.
Based on what I have seen, I think a shift in perspective is required: we must focus on developing reading fluency. In addition, we must remember that when children are reading, what is being learned is entirely contained within the vocabulary and knowledge inherent to the text itself. If the text is about volcanoes, then that day’s lesson is about learning the background knowledge and vocabulary relating to volcanoes (along with whatever syntactical structures are contained within the text.) When a child asks where volcanoes are found and the teacher shows a map of the globe with the tectonic plate margins delineated, that is teaching reading as much as discussing why the author chose a specific simile or explaining how to summarise a paragraph. The ability to read is like an ability to see the images described in a pointillist painting where each person sees a different number of dots on their own canvas: experienced readers have enough dots to comprehend the entire image in fine detail; beginning readers can only see a few dots on their canvas. Tempting though the prospect is, trying to directly teach the ‘skill’ of reading comprehension is like trying to explain what the picture shows as if that will make it actually appear. Doing so has brief advantages, but the bulk of our teaching is better conceived as adding as many dots as we can to the children’s canvasses and spreading these dots as widely as possible.
Here’s how I will try to achieve that this year:
1. At the beginning of this year, I will hear each child read to find which of them are fluent readers. (As a rule of thumb, I count children’s reading as fluent when they can read aloud at more than 120 words per minute with good prosody from an age-appropriate text and then answer a basic comprehension question.) Where phonics is an issue, systematic interventions will be put into place or whole-class phonics teaching will be implemented if more than 20% of the children require it. If phonics is necessary, this will naturally require familiarity with my school’s phonics scheme.
2. If fewer than 80% of the children are fluent, as I expect to be the case, I will undertake daily fluency practice in mixed-ability dyadic pairs (a practice outlined in some detail in Timothy Shanahan’s blog.[iv]) This entails children reading to one another from a text aimed at the best readers in the class for 20 minutes in total – 10 minutes each in alternating periods of roughly 5 minutes. All of the children will read the same text. Sometimes the paragraph will be read aloud to the children beforehand; other times they will dive in without this assistance. The children will read designated passages repeatedly – up to three or four times – aiming for fluency. The listening partners will keep track of where the reading partner is up to using a ruler and will be trained to offer support in decoding unfamiliar words. Where neither partner can decode a word, they will be expected to write it down for me to discuss later in the session. All students will gain from explicitly developing their fluency in this way, but the dysfluent will gain the most. The final 10 minutes of these half-hour sessions will be spent sharing the knowledge and vocabulary underpinning the text and discussing questions relating to comprehension, inference and authorial intent. (Where necessary, some of this discussion will take place before the children begin to read, so that the fluency practice is bookended by discussion of vocabulary and knowledge.)
3. If more than 80% of the children are fluent, I will undertake daily fluency practice in a guided group with the few children who are not yet fluent. At the same time, the rest of the class will read longer texts, sometimes in silence, sometimes aloud with a partner, but without the need for repeated reading, something most useful for developing fluency. As before, the final third of the session will be spent discussing unfamiliar vocabulary and the knowledge underpinning the text. There is an argument to be made here that the fluent readers are getting less of my time than those that are dysfluent. While this may be true, it is not to my mind an issue of fairness; the fluent readers can learn while reading independently as long as I discuss the text with them before and/or afterwards; the same is not true for dysfluent readers. If all children reach fluency, we will read a variety of texts together, sometimes in silence and sometimes aloud. At this stage, my key considerations will be mileage (the amount of reading my class is undertaking each day) and content (the knowledge of the language and of the world needed to comprehend the text).
4. Texts are chosen with variety in mind. Through the school year, children will read various texts on subjects from across the curriculum, but many that I choose will go beyond this. Texts might discuss marsupials, hurricanes, Gilgamesh, the history of flight or Mozart. All of these subjects – and the language and knowledge gained – adds a new set of dots to that canvas.
5. Beyond reading sessions, spelling and morphology will be explicitly taught. In particular, the explicit teaching of morphology will use words that the class already know to develop familiarity with the patterns of suffixes and prefixes that they will encounter frequently when they read. Word matrices can be a useful way of showing this:
6. I will spend at least 20 minutes each day reading stories to my class. Sometimes I will pause to discuss unfamiliar vocabulary, metaphors, stylistic features, etc, but more often than not the focus will be on the right pace to encourage engagement. The primary aim here will be to associate reading with enjoyment. Anything else is a bonus. [v]
7. I will do everything in my power to encourage children to read at home independently if they are fluent, including recommending books. (@smithsmm and @MissL_Y5 are both great Twitter people to ask for advice on children’s books. I’d highly recommend that you follow both.) For children who are not fluent, I will discuss how parents can best support their children by reading with them at home, including the basics of fluency practice and how to segment and blend words. (Regardless, it’s worth noting here that parental support is necessary for but not sufficient for many children to learn to read. Lots of children can be read with at home every night in a family that values books and still not necessarily becoming fluent readers. Schools must take ultimate responsibility for children learning to read.) Over the longer term, independent reading is absolutely essential. There simply isn’t enough time in the school day for children to build up the bank of orthographic knowledge that is a requisite of mature reading.
And that’s about it. How I teach reading is a work in progress. It is an attempt to align what I’m doing with the vast body of available research and the interpretations of this research made by experts in the field. I’m fairly confident that my views will evolve through the year, and any advice you can offer – or reading you can direct me towards – that will accelerate that evolution would be much appreciated.
[iii] The Effects of Morphological Instruction on Literacy Skills: A Systematic Review of the Literature; (Bowers, Kirby & Deacon, 2010)