What every teacher needs to know about reading

An essential reading list

I’ve been teaching reading for going on six years. Because I’ve never fully understood how we actually learn to read, I’ve taught it through a hotchpotch of instinct, imitation and responding to the difficulties I’ve seen children experience. Has it worked? Sort of. Many children become better readers; most pass their exams. But I’ve never felt fully confident. I’ve never felt secure in knowing exactly what works when teaching reading.

So that’s why it’s been incredibly satisfying to spend or year or so reading up on reading.

These books have taken me on a journey that I’ve found incredibly exciting. They’ve given me a series of lightbulb moments; it’s these that have drawn me to write up the essentials of what these writers have taught me.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

1. Phonics

Reading is based on the sound of speech: letters code for sounds. Therefore, speech prefigures reading, and a strong understanding of spoken language is really important. Because each letter corresponds to multiple sounds, children need to be explicitly taught the code, and then practise it frequently. In ‘Thinking Reading’, Diane and James Murphy explain that all too often, if children arrive at secondary school without being able to read properly, teachers wrongly assume they have a cognitive problem that can’t be overcome. Instead, these children need to be carefully taught to read, starting with phonics.

Implications for schools

  • Teach phonics explicitly.
  • Go back to phonics instruction for struggling readers.

2. The shape of words

Phonics start children on their reading journey. Becoming familiar with the shape of whole words makes their reading quicker and more fluent. This develops through practice. According to Willingham, the development of phonics and word shapes is reciprocal: “it’s hard to learn to read without some degree of phonemic awareness, but that awareness may be pretty crude — it improves with reading experience” (Willingham 2017: p.39).

Implications for schools

  • Provide swathes of opportunities for children to read aloud (for example, through paired, group and whole-class reading, or by partnering with an expert reader).

3. Vocabulary

According to Willingham, we need to know at least 98% of words to understand a text.

If children can decode well but still struggle with comprehension, they probably don’t have the depth of word knowledge that other readers do. These children will find figurative language particularly difficult.

Effective readers have both vocabulary breadth and vocabulary depth: they know a lot of words, and understand the connections between different words. Quigley explains that effective vocabulary instruction involves a careful selection of important words and the clear and sequenced explicit teaching of these words in lessons. He also suggests that teaching common prefixes and suffixes help children make quick connections between words, such as ‘anti’, ‘mis’ or ‘post’.

Implications for schools

  • Ensure each subject carefully considers the words they want all pupils to know, and that they teach these words through repeated exposure and explicit instruction.

4. Background knowledge

Once you’ve understood the sounds, the word shapes and the meanings of words, you now need to make connections between the ideas in what you’re reading. These connections build together to give us a ‘big idea’ of a text — the gist of what’s going on. The ability to comprehend a ‘big idea’ depends on your background knowledge. For example, I can read a recipe for Spanish omelette no problem, but give me an astronomy journal on supernovas, and I’ll be stuck very quickly. We can only make meaningful connections between ideas in a text when they fit into our background knowledge.

Asking children questions while they read helps them build these connections between ideas and prior knowledge. In ‘Reading Reconsidered’, Doug Lemov breaks down the kinds of questions that work well in building reading comprehension. Pondiscio also describes the reading questions asked at Success Academy, whose schools have astonishing results in reading for low-income children. At Success, the teachers have two probing questions they ask for every non-fiction text they read: what is the author teaching me? What is the author’s point of view?

The importance of background knowledge is perhaps why recent studies have found that reading fiction has more impact on children than reading non-fiction. Stories have a narrative arc that we have evolved to understand. Stories often appeal to our understanding of how ideas connect.

Implications for schools

  • Develop a whole-school approach to reading instruction which involves the pre-planning of questions to ask pupils while reading. These questions might involve predicting, clarifying and summarising.

5. Making children readers

The more you do something, the better you become at it, the more likely you are to do it. We need to be giving children lots and lots and lots of opportunities to read, both in the classroom and at home. Jo Facer goes as far as to say that “children should be reading in every single lesson for a significant portion of time” (Facer 2019 :77). And let’s not forget that this is an exciting time for reading. With the digital revolution, children are more surrounded in the written word than ever before. It’s our job to give them the ability and motivation to negotiate this landscape through reading confidently and critically.

Implications for schools

  • Embed opportunities for class reader in every lesson.
  • Create a reading for pleasure programme that involves reading lists, competitions and rewards.
  • Get parents on board through reading evenings, when parents are shown how to read aloud with their child.

I’m Elisabeth Bowling, Assistant Principal and Head of English at a wonderful school @InspirationTrust. I tweet at @elucymay.

Considering education, schools and books. Elisabeth Bowling, Assistant Principal and Head of English. I tweet at @elucymay.

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