Viewpoints: Teaching children to read

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Finding the best way to inspire children to become fluent readers has long been debated. The "look and say" approach, where children learnt to memorise words, dominated in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. But now the pendulum has swung towards phonics-based teaching, where children decode words by sounds.

The Department for Education says international evidence demonstrates that phonics is the most effective way of teaching early reading, and this year introduced a phonics reading test for six-year-olds. So what is the best way to teach children how to read?

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David Reedy

Not all words in English are phonically regular”

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David Reedy, UK Literacy Association

The teaching of reading should encompass a balance of teaching strategies including a systematic approach to phonics and other word reading strategies, and a significant emphasis on children experiencing a wide range of texts, including moving image and digital - all available to read from the very beginning.

Phonics teaching is an important component of the teaching of reading, but not all words in English are phonically regular (the linguist David Crystal estimates 80% are, but the other 20% contains many of the most common words in English).

Young children need more than phonics to read words accurately. For many very common words in English such as "come", "once", "was", "the", the best method for accuracy is to read them as "sight" words - that is, using the strategy of look and say. In addition, in order to be fully accurate in word reading, we have to use meaning gleaned from the context in many cases, for example "read", "lead", "sow", "close".

David Reedy

  • Secretary of UK Literacy Association
  • Says a wide range of techniques should be used

Attention should be given to reading for purpose and pleasure, and to introduce children to more challenging texts as well as focus on word reading skills. A school should invest significantly in books and adult time to support reading. Teachers should be knowledgeable and enthusiastic about literature suitable for children so they can recommend and inspire their classes as well as individuals.

Motivation to read is a crucial component of a teacher's job. This approach results in deep engagement as well as accuracy in reading, both of which are crucial and lead to high standards. We need to develop both the skill and the will.

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Shelagh Harvey and pupils

The reading test is fundamentally flawed”

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Shelagh Harvey, head teacher

There is no simple way to teach all children to read. Phonics, contextual clues, sounding out, going back to words - all of these are important skills. Phonics is important, but I do think it has been over-exaggerated of late.

We run a very successful phonics reading project for the majority of our children, but we need to find different strategies for a small group of children who struggle with it.

I think the government's reading test is fundamentally flawed. It didn't give us any clues for helping us move forward with our children.

I had two very able readers at the end of Year 1 who failed the test, but who could read a Level 2 book and read fluently. One failed because she refused to read the non-word and the other little girl rushed because she's used to reading, not sounding out words.

Shelagh Harvey

  • Head teacher at Ingatestone Infants School in Essex
  • Supports use of phonics, but wants phonics reading test scrapped

The over-emphasis on phonics and the test may put pressure on some teachers to "teach to the test" at the expense of a wide richer reading experience. A minority of children, for whom phonics is not successful, could be deprived of other reading strategies and have their difficulties exacerbated. It is also known that some children who are good with phonics and able to decode successfully do so at the cost of understanding what they read, known as "barking at text".

The only way we can really measure progress is to let our children read. Here we sit them down with appropriate texts and judge them at the level they are reading at. You have to give children skills and a range of materials. We do a lot of work with parents too, encouraging them to read to and with their children.

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Maureen  McLaughlin

Our goal is to teach students to become engaged readers”

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Prof Maureen McLaughlin, International Reading Association

Reading is a complex process that involves multiple factors including decoding, integrating background experiences, having purposes for reading, and using skills and strategies to construct meaning. For very young readers, the process begins with issues such as the alphabetic principle and concepts of print. The goal of successful reading is comprehension.

There are five pillars of literacy - phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. All contribute to reading comprehension. Students need ample opportunity to learn, practise, and use these skills. Researchers report that students' construction of meaning is enhanced when they use a repertoire of reading comprehension strategies, including predicting, self-questioning, visualising, monitoring, summarising, and evaluating.

Students have diverse strengths, needs, opportunities and cultural backgrounds.

Maureen McLaughlin

  • President-elect of International Reading Association

To ensure access and opportunities for all students to become readers and achieve their greatest potential, reading instruction should be differentiated. Differentiated instruction enables us to accommodate the diversity of students' needs. Struggling readers, students with disabilities and dual language learners are examples of students for whom instruction should be differentiated.

Reading is essential in the complex, global society in which we live. It is important for personal, social and economic well-being. As literacy professionals, our goal is to teach students to become active, engaged readers, who succeed to their greatest potential.

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Lisa Morgan

Reading relies on strong speech and language skills”

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Lisa Morgan, speech and language therapist

Reading effectively for meaning and pleasure involves a complex range of skills, most of which rely on strong speech and language skills - using sounds to decode, knowing how words work together and understanding the vocabulary to gain meaning, for example. We know that children with good oral language skills are likely to become good readers.

In the UK, more than one million children have long-term and persistent speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). We know that these children are at greater risk of literacy difficulties.

Add to this the evidence that highlights that in areas of social disadvantage upwards of 50% of children are starting school with delayed language, then this raises key questions about ways to support children with SLCN to learn to read.

Lisa Morgan

  • Registered speech and language therapist
  • Professional director at Communication Trust, a coalition of voluntary organisations

For some children with SLCN, a phonic approach, within a context of focused language enrichment and opportunities, will work well to support their reading development. For others, it absolutely won't. For some, assessing their phonic skills in Year 1 through the phonics screen has been OK. For others, it absolutely hasn't.

Each child and young person with SLCN is different - their needs are different, their strengths are different and the ways in which they best learn are different too.

It is therefore essential that firstly teachers understand a child's SLCN and any implications for developing their literacy, and secondly that they are skilled and confident in choosing and using whatever works for that child in developing their reading skills.

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Siobhan Freegard

It's good to let children see adults reading too”

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Siobhan Freegard, parenting website Netmums

Reading regularly to children from an early age is important as they will learn to love stories and books.

Making reading part of the everyday routine, so children quickly pick up subtle skills such as which way to follow the print of a book, how to use pictures to help decode the words, and how to recognise initial letters and the most commonly used words.

It's good to let them see adults reading too, surrounding the home with books, magazines and newspapers, as children learn by copying adults. Parents can share the stories they are reading and any funny parts or interesting nuggets to spark their interest.

Siobhan Freegard

  • Founder of Netmums parenting website
  • Says parents can do a lot to encourage children to read - and to enjoy it

The other key building block to learning to read is rhymes and sounds. Singing or chanting poems and rhymes to children will help them to learn their favourites and decipher rhyming words and different sounds, all of which will help them with their phonics skills later on.

But apart from school books that need to be read, parents should not force books on their children and should let them read what they like - whether that is comics or football magazines - so they realise reading is fun.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    Undoubtedly, whichever method is chosen, the role of the parent is crucial in sitting down and reading with a child, making it more of an enjoyable experience. Unfortunately, there are too many unfit parents around. There needs to be some sort of child licence programme whereby all benefits are withheld until parents take a training course.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    112. ConnorMacLeod

    'I'm aware of its pitfalls. If learner readers are made aware of the situations where phonics doesn't apply ...'

    You could make a fortune here. Just write down the easy to follow, reliable, guide for six year olds called 'When phonics doesn't work' and teachers across the country will be banging on your door, cheque book in hand.

    Still not having a stab at 'ghoti' then?

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    111.Cameron 000006

    But phonics is supposed to teach them to read words - not to understand them. Understanding what something means is a totally different process in the brain. If you were presented with a long and complex new word explaining a difficult concept, you could have a fair go at reading it, but would have to look up a dictionary to understand it

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    @ 74. ConnorMacLeod

    "Whole word recognition has its uses but phonics should be the main method"

    Absolute nonsense. I learned without phonics, and I'm now a professional writer. I might mispronounce an unfamiliar, word, but I can figure out its meaning from context.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    if you rode to work every day how long would it be before your child asked for a bike. If you played football twice a week, how long would it be before your child wanted to play. So guess what would happen if your child saw YOU reading regularly. Not that hard surely

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    I think the key for a child to learn to read well, is for the parents to read to the child from the earliest possible age, especially bedtime stories. The more they are read to, the more interested in books (and comics) they will become, so that when they start school they will already have a head start.

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    Comment number 119.

    Having my own nose in a book has influenced my daughter to be the same way inclined - at 16, having her e-book reader to hand as just as important as having her iPod and phone! That says quite a lot for a teenager. Our house is piled (literally) with books, the e-book library is huge as well. A family where reading is commonplace breeds children who also read for pleasure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.


    One simple thing we can all do now. Set the subtitles to "ON" the telly so they will pick up the spelling of the words as they watch... At worst it can't do any harm.'

    The subtititles are so poor I only read them for the occasional laugh.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    110.contravariant - ".....of not being quite sure of how to teach children to read. I bet the ancient Greeks could do it better"

    It is not to do with the teaching, it's to do with the stupidity of the English language, specifically the spellings. Latin is much more logical.....ergo easier to teach because it has rules that are applied all but consistantly.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    surely its more to do with home life and spending time with your child.....i used to love reading books (and still do), but society tends to force the latest x-box games these days......sadly

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    There shouldn't be just 'One Way Only' to teach reading. A mixture of whole word recognition & phonics along with parents/family who like to read, and stuff to read that makes sense, even comics, is best. Some children view things differently & grasp patterns quickly, others break things down into components (& not just their toys!). How you gonna teach who,why, when, what,where & why otherwise?

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    110. contravariant
    'You say 'The "look and say" approach, where children learnt to memorise words, dominated in the 1940s, 50s and 60s'
    What? I learnt in the 50s and phonics was the basic framework'

    That look & say was dominant then is a simple statement of fact. That you weren't taught that way is of no consequence. One of the problems .. everybody who learned to read thinks they are an expert.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    Until recently, primary schools have generally been using a mixture of methods to teach children to read. However, this mixture of methods has not been very successful as a significant proportion of children (about 1 in 5 I think) have left primary school without being able to read adequately. I am pleased that the use of systematic synthetic phonics is now being encouraged.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.


    "Of course phonics has a place, but it's unreliable"

    It's not a perfect system, but it is the system that teaches the most common sounds and is useful for many of the most basic words.

    I haven't made the mistake you assume - I'm aware of its pitfalls. If learner readers are made aware of the situations where phonics doesn't apply, there should be no loss of confidence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    'It is also known that some children who are good with phonics and able to decode successfully do so at the cost of understanding what they read, known as "barking at text".'
    I teach 6 Y.Os & come across this all the time. They may be able to decode the words, but if you ask them what happened in the story will stare at you blankly. Phonics work for reading shopping lists, but not stories!

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    You say 'The "look and say" approach, where children learnt to memorise words, dominated in the 1940s, 50s and 60s'
    What? I learnt in the 50s and phonics was the basic framework, thank goodness.
    It's amazing that after 3,000+ years of literacy our educationalists seem almost proud of not being quite sure of how to teach children to read. I bet the ancient Greeks could do it better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Maybe should should have said so in your original post

    Why ? You were the one who made a completely incorrect assumption. Maybe you should learn not to do this, rather than expecting me to explain my personal circumstances in advance.

    I use phonics when sounding out the words on the flash cards, so there's no contradiction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    102 connorMacLeod

    Of course phonics has a place, but it's unreliable. You make the mistake of looking at phonically irregular words from the perspective of someone who can read well. Learner readers can't do that and relying on phonics increases the uncertainty of the less confident, who have a system but no way of knowing when it will let them down.

    What does this say ...'ghoti'?

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Phonics is likely a very good aid to learning to read, but one must keep in mind that there are many very strong accents in use in the UK, which may make the same words sound rather different!

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    @44. probritish

    That's complete madness. Phonetic learning has it's place. But to re-write the English language and some of it's wonderful nuances would be a complete disaster


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