Reading is one of the most valuable capabilities that a person can acquire. Every other capability of equal or greater value, such as walking or talking, comes relatively instinctively. In contrast, we have not evolved to be readers. Learning to read is a singular challenge that demands expertise from teachers and school leaders. Thankfully, reading development has been studied for decades. The accumulated evidence, informed by professional experience, can guide us in our aim to give every pupil the best chance of becoming a capable, confident reader…
Reading is the comprehension of visual symbols that represent language. To do this, pupils must develop two capacities that become increasingly integrated as expertise develops – (1) recognising words, and (2) building meaning from those words:
- To recognise words on a page, pupils must learn to associate the sounds of our language with visual symbols. (The sounds represented are the smallest chunks of spoken sound that we can categorise, called phonemes. The visual symbols representing these phonemes are letters of the alphabet operating individually or in groups.) Explicit teaching can help pupils to learn these associations and how to use them. This is called phonics. Over time, pupils also associate these visual symbols with units of meaning directly. (Words can be thought of as composed of chunks of meaning called morphemes.) Due to the complexity of our writing system, lots of reading is required for pupils to learn these associations between visual symbols, sound and meaning.
- Building meaning from written words uses mostly the same knowledge that is used to build meaning from spoken language: knowledge of concepts that words represent and knowledge of how words interact with each other. This means that developing pupils’ spoken language and their knowledge of the world is key to fostering their ability to read. Building meaning from words is also supported by some knowledge that is unique to written language, including knowledge of how words are presented within texts.
As pupils become more expert at recognising words and building meaning from them, their reading begins to flow. Pupils can reinforce this important sense of fluency through text experience and through rehearsed reading aloud.
Teaching comprehension involves the provision of fascinating, challenging experiences with texts that have been chosen for the breadth and relevance of their content. It also involves awakening pupils to the active, personal nature of comprehension through explanation, modelling and rich discussion.
Pupils learn aspects of reading at different rates. While the same principles apply to all developing readers, struggling readers require targeted teaching that is sensitive to their specific needs, motivation and self-efficacy.
The relationships between teachers, pupils and books is central to the promotion of pupils’ independent reading. Reading aloud to pupils is both a necessity and a privilege.
There are various ways to organise reading instruction. If you keep in mind the ideas outlined above as you construct, implement and evaluate your reading curriculum, then you are likely to give pupils the best chance of becoming capable, confident readers.
Thanks for reading. For those that prefer a visual map to a 500-word summary, just such a visual map can be found here.
And for those of you that would like to read the ~50,000 word version, The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading can be found here and at other popular bookshops. All royalties will be donated to the Malaria Consortium, a GiveWell-recommended charity. Massive thanks to everyone who has already bought the book. Even bigger thanks to those who have left a review online. It really makes a difference.
3 thoughts on “The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading… in 500 words”
Just wanted to get a message to you that your book has helped shape reading in our secondary specialist school for children with learning difficulties and disabilities. Everything is so much more complex in specialist education and we have to look at so much research before making our curricular and pedagogical decisions but your book massively influenced our thinking and led us to things that I know will make all the difference for our children. Thank you.
That’s wonderful to hear. Thank you for the feedback. If there’s ever anything I can do to help, feel free to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or reach me on Twitter via @Suchmo83.