In the beginning
To be part of a small child’s journey into reading is something I have always felt is an enormous privilege. The excitement of a child making sense of the marks on a page, taking their first tentative steps into the wonderful world of literature. When we think about the lifelong skill we are nurturing, the world of the written word that we are opening up to the children we are teaching, if we pause long enough we could become quite overwhelmed by the responsibility of it all!
And a responsibility it certainly is. The importance of this burgeoning life-skill is quite obvious. It is a vital element of a person being able to function effectively in society, about their life-chances being enhanced and their life-experiences being enriched. In addition to this fundamental human right, it is highly probable that we are also responsible for a child viewing reading as either a chore or a pleasurable gift.
I think back to my own training as a teacher. As teachers we often talk about how, if you stay in the profession for long enough, you will see things come around again in a circular motion through the universe, things that you thought had drifted off into the mists of time, in a cloud of chalk dust (or dry-wipe pen dust, depending on your age!). As I was training, I remember learning that children would simply ‘catch’ reading if they were exposed to enough texts or ‘real books’. That is my memory. There may have been a little more substance to it than that, but that substance was definitely not in the guise of phonics. Phonics had been most certainly been taught previously in some form, in fact, phonics were apparently first introduced as far back as 1570 by a gentleman named John Hart!
My own schooling was in a time when phonics was distinctly ‘out of fashion’. I think I was probably taught ITA (if the acronym is unfamiliar you might like to ‘Google’ it). Anyway, my first foray into phonics as a teacher was in a book shop in the early 1990s where I stumbled across a Phonics handbook. I’d been struggling to effectively teach children to read in the inner city school where I was working. The ‘look and say’, or the ‘real books’ approaches simply weren’t working, particularly with those children who had English as an Additional Language I was immediately curious about this new approach and, supported by my head teacher, introduced phonic teaching to my Reception class. What a revelation! I suddenly had a system of teaching children to read that actually worked for them all.
More recent research tells us that systems of teaching reading that incorporate systematic and synthetic phonics are the most effective.
Interestingly, a House of Commons Education and Skills committee report entitled ‘teaching children to read’ published back in March 2005, talks about teaching phonics ‘fast and first’ and about children only reading texts that are within their current phonic ability.
Soon after this, the Rose Report was published and the rest, as they say, is history.
But that, of course isn’t the whole story. Phonics is a brilliant method for teaching children how to decode words but it takes a great deal more than that to teach children to really read. Yes, as Early Years teachers we want to foster our children’s skills to ‘decode’ effectively with their phonic skills that are the ‘nuts and bolts’ of reading, but what we also desire is for the children to understand what they read, to be inspired and provoked, for their curiosity to be enriched and deepened. We want them to really think about what they read.
Neuroscientists will explain that the process of reading requires us to use three distinctly separate areas of the brain and to create connections between these. It’s not hard to understand that this must be the case. As you read this blog, think about what you’re actually doing. You are looking at the letters in front of you, decoding these and then making them into some sense, fitting them into a framework of knowledge and understanding that you have already established in your lifetime of experiences. You might well have been referencing your own experiences as a child or when you trained to work with young children. As you may also know, for some small children, this process will become established quickly and easily whilst for others it will take longer. Hence the need for a well thought out system of teaching the breadth of skills needed for effective reading in schools, to enable you to respond to each unique child. This needs to be an explicit system that is based on research, is well-planned and builds on established learning. The message we are finding in the current Ofsted videos on Youtube states just this. They urge us to ensure that learning is built on the foundations of acquired knowledge and also, where phonics is concerned, return to their statement in the report from 2005 and state that our phonics teaching should be ‘first, fast’ and have now added ‘furious’! With ‘furious’ meaning, I am sure, an intense and speedy pace rather than any alternative connotation!.
‘First, Fast and Furious’ is the name of the game in the teaching of phonics. I wouldn’t disagree with that premise at all. The ‘Sound of the Week’ just isn’t going to cut the mustard where the teaching of phonics is concerned. The faster the sounds are mastered, the faster most children are going to be able to read. It’s as simple as that. I remember parents really thinking I’d waved a magic wand over their children when a few weeks into the autumn term they were reading those first few cvc words. Well, we do like to spread a little fairy dust around in the foundation stage!
Texts going home
It’s interesting that so long ago the DfE mentioned about texts being sent home that are ‘readable’ for the child. One of my earliest teaching memories was the first Headteacher I worked under being quite distressed that a child might be sent home with a book they couldn’t read. I guess that was then embedded in my teaching psyche and in the practice I would then be creating as my own pedagogy. But it makes complete sense doesn’t it? You wouldn’t tell a child to go home and bake a cake without first explaining about a recipe, ingredients and the method? So it shouldn’t be news to us that Ofsted are now suggesting that the only books to go home are ‘closely matched texts’, ones that can be, in the main, read independently by the child using their phonic knowledge as a decoding tool.
Reading to children
I often talk to practitioners about a child’s ‘vocabulary treasure chest’ being filled with a rich trove of language. Children gain an immense amount of vocabulary from being read to. I remember as a teacher, adoring those moments whilst reading aloud to my early years children, when I saw their emotions coming to life as they were completely enthralled with what I was reading to them. Passing across their faces would be the fear of the Big Bad Wolf or the Troll under the bridge, the annoyance of the Inn-keeper time and time again telling his visitors that the baby was ‘round the back’! The fear of the Witch growing the Rapunzel lettuces or the hilarity of discussions about Alien’s Underpants or our favourite book of nonsense rhymes, which I had enjoyed so much with my own children that it just had to be shared with every other child I then came into contact with! That is the love of reading that needs to be shared. It is vital that every one of us teaches our children that reading is pleasurable but it is also even more than just that. It is also informative, relaxing, improves our skills, builds knowledge…the list is endless! If you would like to know more about the joys of reading and how to inspire our children, look out for our joint Early Years and Primary conference taking place on Tuesday 19th November 2019, Literacy: The Gateway to Lifelong Learning
Heads with tales
It is crucial that we ensure that all of our Heads (and other interested parties) understand about the teaching of reading in the Early Years. As Early Years practitioners we also need to share this with our colleagues in other key stages, so that they understand how we are teaching reading, in particular the de-coding strategies of the synthetic phonics system. Practitioners could invite head teachers, senior leaders, parents and governors to join phonics sessions – perhaps not all at once you understand! Invite them to come and see first-hand how the mechanics of reading is being taught, and then invite them to join a session where a book is being shared – big or otherwise! Let them come and see reading being shared during a child initiated learning (CIL) session. Share with leaders and parents how those vital phonic skills are brought to life, are made sense of, during real reading sessions.
For more at home
For exciting, lively and engaging phonic activities that can easily be shared for home learning, explore our Supersonic Phonic range. These activities slide brilliantly into any phonic scheme you might have in your school or setting and will ensure that your children are physically interacting with their phonic learning. There is a video explaining Supersonic Phonics on our Herts for Learning website along with the Phonic cards that are on sale on our e-shop. If you would like to know more, look out for our Supersonic Phonics twilight session being held in November.
A Guide to Reading
Do you have guided reading sessions in your Reception class? Have you ever considered it and wondered how it might be approached in the Early Years? Guided reading offers the opportunity not only for phonic skills to be used effectively and therefore embedded in a real life opportunity, but also for all of those other early reading skills to be taught such as the concepts of print and simple skills like an understanding of which direction your eyes move as you read. If you would like to know more about how to approach guided reading to improve reading skills across your Early Years then look out for the joint Primary and Early Years ‘Reception Early Reading Project’ on the HfL training and courses page. There is a new round of the project starting in the Autumn Term.
And this is how the blog will end…
I hope that reading this blog has re-ignited your interest in teaching children to read? I hope that it will inspire you to perhaps think again about how you teach reading in your early years and how you might share your practice with others. Take a moment to follow some of the links I have shared with you and look at the support for early reading we provide at Herts for Learning and I look forward to meeting you all at our conferences! Happy reading!