When it comes to a school’s curriculum, reading is first among equals. Any reading strategy must be driven by what it is that the school’s curriculum seeks to achieve. It’s hard to argue with intent such as fostering a love of books, reading and language and access to great children’s literature, both physically through a well-stocked library and intellectually through great teaching. To achieve that, a strategy should include the following.
Address phonics and fluency needs quickly
Without adequate knowledge of phonics and skill in decoding, segmenting and blending, children will not be able to crack the code of written English that will enable them to experience the joy of books. Children need a systematic approach to learning the phonetic code from the first day of Reception. Where children are older and have not yet mastered this, schools need rigorous screening processes to identify gaps and teach them until children are fluent. Where children are in the process of systematically growing their knowledge of the phonetic code, they’ll need phonetically decodable books to practise reading with success. Blending the code into words and fluently reading sentences must also be deliberately practised for children to master the mechanics of reading.
Fluency is about more than speedily translating code into sound though. The inflections and emphases that are part of quality spoken language must also be learned and applied to by children when they read independently. When children know typical patterns of prosody and can read with appropriate expression, they are far more able to extract meaning from text than if the reading is robotic.
Provide a rich diet of literature and language
The books that form the reading curriculum will make or break a reading strategy. Real page turners with great story lines will make learning to read a pleasure and there are many decisions for school leaders to make. There needs to be a good blend of modern and classic fiction, a variety of authors beyond the mainstream or well-known and these titles need to be supplemented with related fiction and non-fiction. Great non-fiction helps children to pick up general knowledge which in turn helps them to make sense of the content in the fiction – this link can be powerful. A rich diet of language should also include great picture books and great poetry too. It is not only the literature that needs a high profile but language itself. Celebrating language through modelling interest in words and turns of phrases draws attention to language and will more likely result in children mimicking that interest. Song lyrics and rhetoric are great vehicles for this
too. Many children sing along to words in songs without necessarily thinking about their meaning but those words are often so carefully chosen for effect that they are well worth examining in detail.
Oral language comprehension
The simple view of reading explains the relationship between decoding and comprehension and there is much research to show that working on oral language comprehension is effective in improving reading comprehension, not least the York Reading for Meaning Project. This can be as simple as reading aloud or telling children a story. Capture their interest. Retell it in different ways. At this point, it is important for teachers to know what children have understood but by asking questions, all we really know is whether they are capable of comprehending, not whether they actually comprehend independent of us. Before any specific questioning, it would be useful to get an idea of what they have understood by asking them to tell you broadly about what they’ve just heard. The decisions they make about what they say reveal what they think is important and you can also judge the accuracy of their literal and inferential comprehension. Difficulty decoding should not be a barrier to children experiencing
and understanding age appropriate texts. Doug Lemov puts this beautifully:
Low readers are often balkanised to reading only lower level texts, fed on a diet of only what’s accessbile to them – they’re consigned to lower standards from the outset by our very efforts to help them.
Lemov (Reading Reconsidered)
Listening to texts and using open questions to prompt discussions ensures that the focus in on language development in a way that is not restricted by poor decoding.
Varied question styles
If the goal of a reading strategy is to ensure that children fully understand what they’re reading when they do so independently, then the questions we ask are important. These questions develop habits of how children think about what they have read. The first layer of open questions that prompt good think about what has been read are Aiden Chambers’ questions in his book Tell me. He proposes four basic questions:
- Tell me about what you liked.
- Tell me about what you disliked.
- Tell me about what puzzled you.
- Tell me about any connections you noticed.
There are other particularly good questions, such as ‘Tell me about how long the story took to happen,’ which can prompt a great discussion about the passing of time and how we know. For more specific questions, using old SATS questions, keeping the format but changing the context to suit the text that children are reading is a good way to ensure variety whilst still keeping a focus on key indicators of comprehension such as literal and inferential understanding, prediction etc.
Modelling the reader’s thought processes
Reading is an activity that is mostly done in the reader’s head and there are many thought processes that competent readers initiate. This isn’t simply reading the text from beginning to end; reading will be interspersed with commentary, explanation or making links to general knowledge. These frequent pauses for analysis allow the teacher to show children that good readers think while they read in order to achieve an acceptable standard of coherence. As children get older and texts get longer, teachers can’t lead shared reading of the whole text, so by initially earmarking sections that children are likely to misunderstand, shared reading can be focused on addressing misconceptions.