Every experienced teacher of reading recognises the power of hearing pupils read on a one-to-one basis. While whole-class reading can, and should, be organised to provide the mixture of reading practice, modelling and feedback that is the essence of one-to-one reading, there is no substitute for the real thing, especially for those struggling with the early steps towards reading proficiency.
But opportunities for one-to-one reading are difficult to organise across a school, and asking a teacher or teaching assistant to focus their attention on just one pupil has an obvious opportunity cost. As such, where we commit to one-to-one reading, we need to know that we are doing it well.
Here are my top tips for maximising one-to-one reading in your setting:
1. From their reading experience, pupils will immediately and automatically recognise at least a few of the words they encounter. The key to effective one-to-one reading is the support you offer to pupils with the rest of the words, those that are not immediately and automatically recognised. With each and every one of these unfamiliar words, support pupils to decode throughout the word by paying attention to all the letters and the sounds that are represented. [i] Specifically, we want pupils to apply their knowledge of grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs). Model this decoding whenever pupils get stuck on a word, and then ask the pupil to repeat what you did (e.g. ‘ch-a-m-p’ –> ‘champ’).
2. Keep an eye out for pupils who take a guess at the whole word after decoding the first sound or two that is represented within it. This ‘partial-decode-then-guess’ strategy can appear successful for some pupils, but it is counter-productive over the long term, often drastically so. Again, a key aim is to support pupils to use decoding through the entire word as their go-to strategy for recognising any unfamiliar word.
3. If a pupil decodes a word using GPCs that they know but then comes unstuck (e.g. they decode ‘café’ as ‘caif’ of ‘caffee’), ask them if they know a word that sounds similar. If not, tell them what the word is, what it means and point out the GPCs in this word (e.g. *pointing to the e* in this word, this letter spells ‘ay’; ‘c-a-f-e’ –> ‘café’).[ii] In this way, you are priming the pupil to learn new GPCs by applying the ones they already know. This orthographic learning is essential to reading development.
4. Where a pupil struggles to decode polysyllabic words (i.e. words with more than one syllable), model breaking the words into syllables and decoding these piece by piece (e.g. ‘unhelpful’: ‘u-n’ –> ‘un’; ‘h-e-l-p’ –> ‘help’; ‘f-u-l’ –> ‘ful’; ‘un-help-ful’). Again, get the pupil to practise this immediately after modelling. Some argue that there are particular rules that we should follow when breaking words into syllables. However, teaching pupils to do this flexibly appears to be more beneficial.[iii]
5. Nascent readers often struggle most with blending. If this is a particular difficulty for a pupil, this is often because of the load placed on working memory: by the time pupil get to the end of the word, they have forgotten the first sound they recognised. Scaffolds can help. Consider progressively blending challenging words by elongating sounds that allow this (e.g. mmmmiiiillllk –> milk).[iv] It can also be helpful to incrementally reveal graphemes, blending each time (e.g. chomp: ch –> cho –> chom –> chomp). This is best thought of as a scaffold to the usual step-by-step decoding used in your school’s phonics programme.
6. Until a pupil has developed the habit of paying attention to all the GPCs within an unfamiliar word, it makes sense for their decoding practice to be undertaken with decodable text (i.e. text that allows them to practise using GPCs with which they are already familiar).[v] The transition to ‘regular’ books depends on the pupil. This transition often happens towards the end of year 1, though it can be made considerably earlier or later, depending on a pupil’s decoding capabilities. Carefully manage this transition to ‘normal’ text, watching out for the counterproductive ‘partial-decode-then-guess’ strategy described above.
7. Where pupils are capable of decoding individual words without too much help but are still particularly dysfluent (i.e. their reading is stilted or much more stop-start than their peers), give them occasional opportunities to reread sentences, aiming for a little more flow the second or third time around. Again, this can be modelled for the pupil.
8. Where pupils struggle to the point that motivation or attention become a factor, consider taking turns with the pupil. This might be on a sentence-by-sentence or page-by-page basis. You should try to read at a pace that is fluent but steady. You should also point at the words as you read them, modelling how to decode particularly challenging words.
9. When pupils’ reading is relatively dysfluent and/or decoding is still laborious, do not expect pupils to make much sense of a text independently as they read. Support meaning-making by briefly discussing and summarising what the text has said. If you want a relatively dysfluent reader to independently make sense of a chunk of text, they will probably need to re-read it to the point where it *does* begin to flow. In particular, a sense of prosody – the way oral reading sounds (i.e. rhythm, stress and intonation) – is often a sign that comprehension is more likely. This prosody can be modelled and supported.
10. If a reader is relatively fluent, then other pupils are likely to benefit more from one-to-one reading time than they are. One-to-one reading is valuable to all pupils, but it is a precious and (usually) scarce resource. It makes sense to target it at pupils who are struggling most with foundational aspects of reading. However, in the rare circumstances that a pupil is relatively fluent yet has significant issues with comprehension relative to their peers, one-to-one reading can emphasise the active role that pupils need to take in making meaning. This can be achieved by supporting the pupil to summarise and visualise what they have read, by showing where to re-read tricky bits and by emphasising the ‘detective work’ that is often required to make sense of a text, such as when a word refers to something that has come before.
11. Where it becomes apparent from one-to-one reading that a pupil struggles with a particular aspect of decoding, allow this to inform the interventions that you might use beyond one-to-one reading. If adequate knowledge of GPCs is lacking (i.e. not enough to allow pupils to begin successfully decoding words for themselves and learning more GPCs in the process), the suitable intervention will likely be a phonics intervention aligned with your school’s phonics programme. If a pupil has adequate GPC knowledge but struggles with blending, then an intervention that targets blending is more likely to be fruitful. Ditto if the difficulty relates to the decoding of polysyllabic words. Decoding interventions work far better when they target the aspect(s) of decoding with which a pupil is struggling. All of this means that if someone other than a teacher is undertaking one-to-one reading with pupils, it is helpful for them to give feedback to the class teacher on pupils’ individual progress with decoding and fluency.
12. This is arguably the most important tip of the lot: make clear to every pupil exactly what a pleasure it is to witness their improvement, and tell them how worthwhile their efforts are. Helping pupils to develop as readers is one of the joys of being a teacher. Let pupils know this in your words and actions.
A final aside on the ‘who’ of one-to-one reading: it is common for volunteers – usually parents or governors – to come into school to support pupils with their reading. This support can certainly be beneficial for those that are well on their way to decoding proficiency but who lack fluency. However, pupils who are struggling most with the foundations of reading are best served by support from teachers and teaching assistants with the sufficient training required to understand reading development in theory and practice.
[i] Specifically, the relationships between sounds and letters that we are talking about are correspondences between phonemes (the smallest chunks of sounds that differentiate between two words) and graphemes (the individual letters or groups of letters that represent these phonemes.
[ii] For more on this, check out work on ‘set for variability’ or ‘mispronunciation correction’. This paper is a good place to start: Colenbrander, D., Kohnen, S., Beyersmann, E., Robidoux, S., Wegener, S., Arrow, T., … & Castles, A. (2022). Teaching children to read irregular words: A comparison of three instructional methods. Scientific Studies of Reading, 26(6), 545-564.
[iii] For more on this idea: https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/on-eating-elephants-and-teaching-syllabication
[iv] For more on this: Gonzalez-Frey, S. M., & Ehri, L. C. (2021). Connected phonation is more effective than segmented phonation for teaching beginning readers to decode unfamiliar words. Scientific Studies of Reading, 25(3), 272-285.
[v] This, of course, is not to say that decodable text is the only kind of text that pupils should experience. They should have the opportunity to hear and discuss all sorts of texts, including books that they have freely chosen from a reading corner or library. However, asking pupils to undertake sustained decoding practice with words primarily containing unfamiliar GPCs can be exceptionally demoralising and can foster counterproductive habits.