Early birds catch the words


What schools need to do to ensure children both learn to read and keep reading

Jessica’s parents talk a lot, both to each other and to her. They think out loud about everything they read, see and hear. They debate, describe, consult and argue. Jessica chatters too, always asking questions. Her parents answer every question thoughtfully and deliberately. They keep up a commentary about everything she does and praise her constantly.

By three, Jessica has heard over 33 million words with a wide range of synonyms and syntax, has had 1700 hours of story times, knows most nursery rhymes and fairy stories and has particular favourites that she demands again and again. Her grandfather makes up daring and exciting stories all about Jessica.

There is an alphabet frieze by her bed: mmmm mountain, a-a-a-apple, d-d-dinosaur. She’s learnt to say the sounds of the letters as easily as she learnt to say “chair” or “dog”. She makes words on the fridge and her lists and labels are displayed around the house. By the time she starts school she can read.

John’s parents don’t talk a lot, to each other or to John (nor did theirs to them). By the time John is three, he has heard nine million words, of a limited range and many of which are negative. There is no alphabet around his bed and there are no magnets on the fridge. He has had 25 hours of stories (Hart and Risely, 1995).

At school, Jessica has lots to say and lots to write about. Her syntax and vocabulary is impressive. No one can stop her reading. She talks all the time and always has an idea to share and a thought to discuss. She joins in with the stories (most of which she knows already) and, when given a choice, spends her time in the reading corner, writing letters in the “office” and taking the lead parts in the role-play area. It’s home from home for her.

Children should read at their word level every day.John likes the bikes best, and making towers with bricks. He’s got a friend called Lee. They do stuff together but don’t speak much. At three, Jessica is 24 million words, 1675 story hours and three years of praise ahead of John.

By nine, she has read nine million more words than John. Her vocabulary expands day-by-day. On just one page in a Michael Morpurgo story she reads the words “relentlessly”, “scornful”, “diminutive”, “interminable”, “referred”, “vowed”, “invariably” and “pursuit”. Even Jessica’s parents don’t use all these words when they talk to her.

Can John catch up with Jessica?

Keith Stanovitch’s Matthew effect (1986) is in full operation here: the rich get richer; the poor get poorer. Jessica is right up there in the top right hand quadrant of Gough and Tunmer’s simple view of reading – she has good language processes and good word recognition processes – both necessary to being a good reader. John is in the bottom left with poor language processes and poor word recognition.

It is very unlikely that John will catch up with Jessica, unless we do something radical. In a nutshell, John needs lots of stories, lots of high quality dialogue in very small groups, and someone to teach him to read – quickly.

We can’t emulate the hours of one-to-one talk that Jessica has had, but if we use our time very carefully, we can condense some of Jessica’s experiences in that artificial environment which we call “school”. The numbers of children, and shortage of time, means that in school we must plan strategically.

To start with, John needs deliberately planned talk in small groups, using specific vocabulary about specific things (including local visits to streets, markets, parks and people), building up sentences in the same way that Jessica’s Mum did: “bus” to “big red bus” to “those long bendy buses are really dangerous”. Everyday stories need to be woven around John and his friends – “When John fell off his bike” or “The day Michelle first ate peas” – and we need to rehearse the talk that we want John to use, before he plays in the sand or in the home corner, exaggerating words and actions. He needs to be engaged in stories – learning some by heart, acting them out, saying nursery rhymes, chanting silly rhymes and repeating refrains – again and again.

Without talk there is little thought. However well-meaning the play activities, displays and experiences are, without deliberately planned talk to provide the context, the activity will lack real meaning and purpose.

All through John’s time at school, he needs teachers who will engage him in high quality discussion and dialogue in every lesson, helping him to articulate his understanding minute by minute. He needs teachers who show him what it looks like to reason in order to learn something, think out loud to show their thought processes, draw conclusions and solve problems –  just as Jessica’s parents do.

We must not wait to teach John to read. He doesn’t need to become “phonologically aware” to learn to read (he’ll become phonologically aware once he can). We should teach him to read “m” with the same enthusiasm and energy as reading a good story; he must practise the sounds again and again until he can read them effortlessly.

John needs to be shown how to sound out words, read books with words he can sound out and rehearse reading them until he can read with a storyteller voice. We have to get him to take the same book home to read to himself or to his mum – even if she can’t read it, he can. However long it takes, we must stick in there until he can read. We should never give him a label (slow reader, special needs, learning disability, “Poor John – what can you expect…”). Labels only serve to make it John’s problem and not ours.

Once he starts reading, we must keep him reading, and keep reading to him again and again, choosing books we think he will love. He has to see that we love the story too. John and his friends should be taken to the library regularly and shown where the books are that he already knows and can borrow whenever he likes. John’s mum should be encouraged to come too, if she can or wants to – but we mustn’t blame her if she doesn’t.

Taking the lead in teaching reading

It takes a whole-school approach and good leadership to make sure that John can read, does read and talks a lot. Here are just a few of the questions that school leaders might ask themselves about their school. Indeed, Ofsted are, finally, asking many of these questions too.

Who is in charge of ensuring every child learns to read at the school?
Make teaching every child to read your avowed core purpose. Appoint an enthusiastic and knowledgeable reading leader who can work closely with you.

How are children taught to read in your school?
Decide upon one consistent programme across the whole school for teaching children how to read. Make sure that you can articulate confidently how the programme is implemented.

Have all your staff been trained, coached and supported thoroughly to teach reading?
If not, John could be failing because the teacher needs support. It is quicker and cheaper to train teachers thoroughly than to provide a lot of children with additional support.

Give your reading leader time to coach and support other teachers and assistants while the reading classes are in operation

Do you have clear, simple and consistent procedures and recording systems to track pupils’ progress in reading?
Use the same assessment system across the whole school so you can compare like with like – for example, so you can see that Curtis in Year 4 is reading at the same level as John in Reception – and do something about it. Give them additional support immediately, staying with the same reading programme, to ensure they make rapid progress; don’t wait for them to fail further.

Keep a list of all the poorest readers as a top priority. Ask the reading leader about their progress every week. Listen to them read (Ofsted will) and check that their teachers are doing a good job.

Do your children read at their decoding level every day?
Children need to practise word-reading (first sounding out and then without overt blending) and read books matched to their word-level every day.

Consider using homogeneous vertical grouping. Teaching can be carefully focused when the teacher doesn’t have to worry about challenging Jessica at the same time as teaching John how to read.

Make sure that children borrow the books they have read during their reading lesson so they can build fluency and speed. John’s Mum doesn’t often hear him read so he can practise on his own. Avoid random book selection by children from banded boxes. John might choose a book he can’t read or doesn’t care about, in which case he won’t try or may fail when he gets home.

Have your teachers been trained to make the most of story times?
Plan special story/poetry times every day (small groups for John in Reception). These sessions must be inspiring and repeat readings are key. Organise fun book corners making each book very special. Encourage children to borrow the books you read to them. Enthuse about the books they choose to take home – encourage John to take home picture books he can already retell in his own words.

Help children develop a deep familiarity with a core of fairy stories, tales, myths and legends right through the school. John will then have his own well of stories that he can draw upon when he is writing and talking about new stories.

Have your teachers been trained in how to get all children to talk in every lesson?
In schools where children are expected to raise their hands to answer questions, John’s is unlikely to go up.  All teachers would benefit from training in how to get children to use high quality dialogue to articulate their understanding throughout every lesson every day of their school life. The use of “hands up” to answer questions has to go.

Only when John can read will he read a lot. Only when we ensure that John talks in every lesson will he have the confidence to articulate what he knows and understands. Only then will John have a chance of catching up with Jessica.

Further information

Ruth Miskin has 35 years experience as a teacher, headteacher, teacher trainer and consultant. Her literacy programme, Read Write Inc., is published by Oxford University Press. For further information, visit:

Ruth Miskin
Author: Ruth Miskin

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