Learning to read


Newsflash, phonics isn't the only way!


Reading helps us to develop our emotional intelligence as well as giving us access to information. Stories provide us with opportunities to put on someone else's shoes, develop our empathy skills and try out situations without actually having to be in them. It enables us to explore emotions and witness a variety of reactions, practice scenarios and disagree with viewpoints.


Finding reading pleasurable is born from the ability to access it, whether that be having access to books or being able to read the words on the page. This week “Researchers at UCL’s Institute of Education say the current emphasis on synthetic phonics, which teaches children to read by helping them to identify and pronounce sounds which they blend together to make words, is “not underpinned by the latest evidence”.” The researchers involved have called upon “the government to allow for a wider range of approaches to teaching reading, which would allow teachers to use their own judgement about which is best for their pupils”. *

At present, phonics lessons take place in most Early Years Foundation Stage/Key Stage 1 (Age 3-7) classrooms everyday with lessons ranging from 10-30 minutes. I must make it clear before I delve deeper that I absolutely believe that phonics should be taught in schools, however my concern is, that if phonics isn’t working for a child they are reminded of this every day.


Our education system relies so heavily on phonics schemes (which at times if I am brutally honest, are so lacking in creativity that I could fall asleep teaching it!) that we now have a phonics screening check for all children in year one, an initiative introduced by Michael Gove in 2012. But yet again, the introduction of another summative assessment has placed undue pressure on all involved and makes me question whether phonics is taking up more time than it's worth.


If phonics teaching isn’t balanced out with imaginative storytelling, exploring character, illustration and plot it can drain all pleasure from reading even for the youngest of readers. Phonics is taking up a disproportionate amount of time, time that could be spent on meaningful and creative story times and is putting a dampener on the wonder of characterisation, the beauty of setting and the music of language.


The definition of ‘Decode’ is to “convert (a coded message) into intelligible language.”. Even as adults we use several ways to decode a word in a book or on a label. If you try to read the following word - Sesquipedalian - What was the first tool you used to work it out? A picture may have helped or you may have tried to use some familiar sounds such as ‘qu’? You may have broken the word down into parts, that you just know because you have learned them by sight. Now read this sentence - "the sesquipedalian prose of scientific journals". How have you attempted to find the meaning the word? Perhaps you used the context and/or what makes sense. The point is, we do not rely heavily on one tool to decode, we use a variety of them and one tool that might work really well for you, may not work for others. In order for children to find the true pleasure in reading, we need to introduce and value all reading learning styles.


Here I share 10 tips to ensure your child enjoys picking up a book, whether they are reading it or not!


Avoid forcing them to read to you

Forcing someone to read will create negative links and associations with stories and reading. They will no longer see books as a delight but as a chore. Encourage them to read by saying “oooh your new book looks interesting, shall we have a look together?” You might then ask if they would like to read to you and if they don’t, follow up by asking if they want you to read it to them. You can be honest in your child’s school reading record by writing something such as “Sophie did not want to read to me tonight but I read to her and she really enjoyed the story. We spotted the S sound in the word Spider too!”


Encourage your child to look at the pictures for clues

Never cover up pictures in an attempt to see if they are really reading. Even as adults we use pictures to help us work out words and meaning. For example, if they were trying to decode supermarket in the sentence “I went to the supermarket” they may recognise the beginning sound (sssss) and then have a look at the picture to confirm what it is.


Read to your child as much as you can

When reading, talk to them about the words and sounds you can see, talk about the pictures, look out for particular sounds/words in books but also out and about on the bus or at the shops. Take an interest in words and play with them, swap words to make silly sentences and enjoy the story structure. Discuss endings to stories and make predictions. Talk about character responses and what they would do if they were in the same situation. Make reading a fun activity!


Use your ”reading finger” when you read to children who are still learning to read Pointing at each word as you read it can help a child make an association with the word you're reading out loud and the way it looks on the page. This isn't for your really long texts as it can get annoying for them, but for shorter books with pictures this helps to embed the word in their memory (sight-reading - learning and remembering what a word looks like). For some children sight-reading is easier than using sounds and for others is just another one to add to the toolbox! Remembering the way the letters look together, the shapes, the combinations is just another way to get a bank of words safely stored away.


Display flashcards

If your child doesn't seem to be taking to phonics then word flashcards are a great way to encourage sight-reading. Don't use them to 'test' children but have fun with them! Place the flashcards up around the house in relevant places such as ‘bed’ on their bed head or ‘bath’ in the bathroom. The way the word looks will be embedded in their memory as they see it every day and they will begin to recognise it when reading. You can also play some great games with word cards such as “found it”. Invite them to choose a word and place it back in the pack, just like snap you place the cards down and as soon as someone spots that particular word you shout “found it!”. For more flashcard game ideas you can try here.


Encourage making sense of sentences

For example, if reading "I went to the shops" and your child read "I want to the shops", ask you child if it makes sense rather than just instantly correcting them. Ask them what other words could fit into that sentence? Explore trying different words to see what works.


Avoid correcting every mistake

If your child is reading to you, pick a few words to correct rather than correcting every single little mistake. This will ensure that they maintain and develop their confidence. You can pick them up on the other mistakes another day!


Let them see you read

Reading your own book is difficult enough when parenting but try to read in the daytime (just for 5/10 minutes) where they can see you. It shows children that adults enjoy reading too and that it is a worthwhile and enjoyable activity for everyone.


Look through cookbooks together

Looking through and choosing dinners is a really meaningful way to share books with your children. It also conveys that books provide us with information and help us complete tasks. It also teaches children about contents pages, instructions and lists and how to use them.


Do not write off comics!

Some adults can feel that reading comics isn't really reading. However reading comics is a very specific and specialist skill. It will develop a child’s reading just as well as a picture book. Following a narrative, exploring character, speech bubbles, exclamation marks and bold texts are just a few examples of literacy skills to be learned when reading comics.


Kids are never too old for picture books

Avoid limiting their book choices to books that are "age appropriate" You are never too old for a picture book and never too young to flick through a chapter book. Whatever takes their fancy at the time should be encouraged!


Avoid being judgemental about what they are reading

As long as the content is appropriate, if they are enjoying the book then encourage them to read it! Introduce your favourite books to them and share books that you love but always be open to the books that they love too, you will find their interests change over time and they will have the skills to access all kinds of literature with your support!


* The Guardian Article - Focus on phonics to teach reading is ‘failing children’, says landmark study

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