If print be the food of love, read on!

    Published: 08 September 2017

    End of summer hols? Survived the motorway? Survived nagging guilt to work on the beach?! Settle back with Kirsten Snook, English Teaching and Learning Adviser, and start visualising your new class of Reception-age children, classroom, ethos etc. Set out now with a ‘no excuses’ culture that’ll free Reception teachers, reassure young pupils and fire up your energy-levels for the new school year.

    There’s been a slow, excitingly creeping, surge of the Primary English team’s work over the past year on fluency in reading (see fluency blog here 'Do you sound good to listen to? (or ‘fluency: reading’s best-kept secret weapon’) From our early National Curriculum 2014 chats about fluency over lunches, to a golden thread of fluency woven throughout our tremendous Reading Conference, our work now increasingly delves into prosody, within fluency.


    Prosody is the outward reading sign that the reader is understanding, connecting, empathising etc by virtue of the lilts in the voice, the subtle pauses at meaning-boundaries and emphasis on appropriate syllables. It uses phrasing as a form of sweeping the clumps of words up and swooping underneath a string rather than word-by-word decoding only. It’s been increasingly shown to drive and power up decoding ability (related to memory), throwing new light on the 2006-born (well, 1986 reborn) Simple View of Reading. To the Reading Teacher’s ear it sounds like a lark soaring and, and when the reader is in that zone there is no bursting that bubble. It’s what we model so clearly at Storytime and has such proponents in its Inner Circle as Play School, Jackanory and Joyce Grenfell. [If you haven’t heard Joyce do her nursery teacher (not dissimilar from her St Trinian’s CID role) then you simply must. The voices…just marvellous!]

    One of the questions we are frequently asked on our early literacy training, in schools and wherever we are privileged to bump into teaching colleagues, is:

    So, how do you genuinely mesh accelerating progress in literacy with a balanced Reception routine? And why does a mixed approach to phonics pay off so well?

    Well, to start with it takes a deep commitment to addressing skill-gaps. Those children you see struggling to get what you’re doing at story-time, disinterested in the beautiful books around your setting, not retaining phonics you’ve taught them, or simply not ‘getting’ how their peers write their names or some emerging labels? Those are the very children you know instinctively need more ‘you-time’ right now than maybe some of your other emerging readers and writers. We must remember that deep-seated commitment that, let’s face it, is the main driving force on those days when teaching challenges our inner peace. Sometimes what we need to remind ourselves is “it ain’t what you do but the way that you do it”. (That hurt to type “ain’t” I must say.)

    So briefly then, mainly because who wants to be unbrief at the start of a new school year, here are some ways we can tweak our current literacy practice to simply wring* that little bit of extra literacyness out of something we probably would’ve been doing anyway.

    • Step1: Go large. Switch one of your normal adult-led storytime sessions each day with a normal-sized book for a Big Book and pointer, so children can see exactly what you’re pointing to as you read almost fluently, they can see which words you stress (eg capitals, bold, large type), and see how you connect with the meaning as part of how you read. There are still Big Books in most schools – it’s a matter of book choice. Go for ones with brief sentences, repetition and solid joiny-inny parts. What’s not to get about “swishy-swashy”? Let’s all be the grass everyone…swishy-swashy (whilst I cunningly point, showing clearly the movement from one word to the next and the wordness of words. [Oo autocorrect had that as ‘weirdness of word’…hmmm…discuss]) The beauty of this, is that the children soon start to get a lock-on to some words that start with the sounds they’ve been learning in phonics. If the word says “Stop” and they’ve learnt about ‘s’, they soon find themselves linking up the aural pattern or repetition (language comprehension), with newly-learnt GPCs (word recognition). A true mix of the Simple View of Reading, if they have a solid foundation in print concepts.
    • Step 2: Train the eyes. When using Big Books, ensure children can see precisely which elements of print concepts you are using when reading, eg front cover, title, front to back, left to right, word-by-word pointing (see HfL’s YR-KS1 Guided Reading booklet, pre-Reception and Reception skills progression, for more guidance). A finger-pointer really helps to make it clear to everyone – like an immunisation for all – about how you are using your wider knowledge to read and understand, and also readies the Tracker-Eyes for when they start to need to apply early grapho-phonic skills. The eye-muscles involved are the finest of fine motor skills and for some a gap in this skill is linked to a wandering attention-span…recipe for phonic disaster. A printed picture from the internet proved a simple yet marvellous prompt for training one young six-year-old’s eyes and attention. Superheroes to him were, well, super. So Superman with his laser eyes was the perfect pictorial prompt for him.
    • Step 3: Share your writing. In the same way that a Big Book allows the children to see the print and how the act of reading unfurls, scribing a simple message each day in large print really speeds up understanding of print concepts and early phonics application together. Model using the big sounds-chart when you occasionally ‘get stuck on’ a spelling, showing how, for instance, you look for all the ways of spelling /k/ and then try them out in ‘cat’ on a side bit of the flipchart paper. “Which way looks wrong? Well it can’t be ‘ck’ then. Now, out of the last two, which way looks more right? /k/ or /c/? Yes, that looks right now. I’ll add it into my sentence.” 5-minute-a-day messages are marvellous vehicles. We needed to send a letter to the site manager one day to ask for more toilet roll. Why that context had the children so enraptured is anyone’s guess. Brilliant vehicle though…
    • Step 4: Return to sender. Return to your shared writing – re-read it regularly with your Trusty Pointer, allowing children’s reading to be supported by memories and emotional investment of the original, social, act of writing. Boys especially love this kind of revisiting. I remember fondly re-reading ‘Fox in Socks’ (how I wish I’d had a visualiser for that one!) to sporadic six-year-old males’ groans, only to find the groans’ owners being the most voracious joiner-inners. Joy. Pure joy.
    • And a fifth top tip…? Well, I’ll come back and tell you what we find on our next foray into the Phonics Project. When we’ll have been trialling Foundation-friendly early literacy activities for a few months… ones that reach the very furthest corners of a cohort and really can close gaps early on. After all, what could help set children off on the right path for their future better, than a secure environment where literacy is grown through emotional attachment?

    So there we have it. Where I would, and frequently have, started my Reception school year. A snippet of engaging contexts of language comprehension activities (big picture thinking) and word recognition activities (fine detail thinking), thus developing the memory and attention en route. Do email in any activities you’ve trialled with experiences to share, and we will happily collate and share.


    wring* = this is a little something for Y2/Y3 teachers. How many words that start with the consonant digraph ‘wr-’ can you link to a meaning related to twisting, bending, warping, etc? And do a similar family for ‘kn-’. knots, knitting, knuckle, kneed. What about ‘gn-’…? Must be a brilliant bit of Anglo-Saxon history worth tying that little lot into.

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