Education: 5 ways to create better readers (and go beyond phonics)

Group of school kids reading for education (c)

Reading is more of a focus than ever, but our tendency to focus on phonics misses out on developing essential skills, writes Nicky Clements.

Reading is more of a priority than ever in schools, after the introduction of the government’s education inspection framework (EIF) last year.

The inspection handbook states that inspectors will engage in “listening to pupils read” and “determine how the curriculum has been designed and taught so that pupils read at an age-appropriate level”.

Part of this will revolve around phonics teaching.

But we are not providing children with a broad and balanced reading provision if we conflate phonics with reading.

Phonics is a tool for reading; it is decoding the written grapheme to create a sound and blending the sounds to say a word. 

But reading isn’t simply the skill of decoding a word.

Indeed, Ofsted uses the terms “fluency”, “comprehension”, “language development”, “confidence” and “enjoyment” to describe “good” reading teaching. Decoding alone will not develop these.

A holistic approach

I am in the very fortunate position of spending most of my school life in key stage 2, while still leading and supporting EYFS across a MAT.

I see where readers need to get to; I also see what holds them back – and it is rarely an inability to decode. And this is why I suggest that a holistic approach, which combines phonics with a deeper and wider reading provision encompassing far more than the written word, needs to be accessible to both early readers and pre-readers.

The 2019 key stage 2 English reading bookletcontained rich vocabulary and phrases.

I wondered how many children would have insight into the meaning of a “stiff lip”, “scrub-pine” or “brimstone”. They were unlikely to arise in day-to-day teaching or conversation at home, and even the widest reader may have been unfamiliar.

Add to that living in an area of disadvantage or poverty with reduced exposure to experiences that support hearing or seeing words, and we have much work to do.

So how do we ensure that we build readers who have this level of depth? We can’t possibly predict what unknown words or phrases they may encounter, but by offering a wide range of opportunities, that start in early years, we can develop a deeper understanding of the English language.

And for that, we need to dig deeper than phonics:

Interactions, interactions, interactions

Children develop words and phrases, and build language through their interactions with others.

This is especially true for young children. The highly acclaimed research from the DFE SEED report (2017) Good Practice in Early Education identified the following features as good practice:

• “Creating a ‘language rich’ environment through the use of songs, nursery rhymes, stories and providing time for adult/child and peer to peer interaction.”

• “High-quality adult-child interactions were viewed as essential for speech and language development. Staff spoke about sustained shared thinking, listening to the child and the importance of having one-to-one time with them as key features of this.”

• “Encouraging home learning and the quality of parent-child interactions through providing activities for children to do at home with their parents and encouraging reading at home”.

The EEF Early Years Toolkit (2018) rates communication and language approaches as “high impact for very low cost, based on extensive evidence”. Higher impact, in fact, than their early literacy toolkit.

Play with words and sounds

Before children can read fluently, they need to know how to express language. This means learning to play with sounds and words early on. Many words sound silly to young children, and they will enjoy exploring and repeating them, given the chance.

Use of mirrors (and the expressive modelling of adults) to see what their mouths do when they make different sounds is really important. More children than ever start school with poor oral-motor ability, reflected in the number of speech and language referrals.

Over-accentuation of sounds as part of phonics, reading, singing and everyday speech really helps develop both speech ability and vocabulary acquisition.

Prosody matters

Often, as their teacher, you will be the only person a child ever hears read out loud. We can change this in schools. Exposure to a wide range of readers, and their expressive style, is fundamental. Children will try and imitate what they enjoy and remember.

Readers, storytellers, actors and poets that offer a range of intonation, rhythm and patterns will leave an important imprint on all ages of children.

Ask them if they know why you said a particular word really loudly, quietly, or slowly. Explore those adverbs.

Check in with the listener

Not always with lots of questions about the text that disrupt the flow of reading, but checking what they are actually absorbing, with questions like “What can you see in your mind right now?”

Share what you can see as you read, how you picture the scene or character. It’s fascinating to see how children interpret what they are hearing. And indeed identify those who are not with the story at all.

Check in on your environment

Do children have the available resources to be able to choose story-telling/re-telling, acting, singing and dancing independently? Do you join in with them and model it?

Small word-play with characters, role-play, costume, puppets, music players, microphones and devices to record as well as books are vital.

Nicky Clements is head of EYFS at Victoria Academies Trust. She tweets @nickyclements71—

credit: TES