How to prevent children slipping through the reading net
Children who learn to read quickly and easily are more likely to be successful at school than those who don’t. By nine, these children could be reading over two million words a year, reading in two days what poor readers read in one year. They read books that contain words they wouldn’t come across if they couldn’t read, words like “cacophony”, “diminutive” and “impenetrable”. Poor readers don’t read. They fail in our educational system.
Most poor readers are easy to spot; their eyes flit from the accompanying picture to the face of the adult listening, to random letters on the page, guessing wildly. Others are harder to spot; they “get by” in many lessons, copying from a neighbour, writing as little as possible. Reading books are left at school, reading diaries disappear. They reach a reading age of eight or nine, then fail to improve year after year. Some parents become increasingly niggled and bothered, and often get their children tested for dyslexia, but others just think their child isn’t very bright. And, sadly, if a child leaves primary school with a reading age of nine or below, they are very likely to have the same reading age when they try to sit their GCSEs, unless the secondary school does something radical to help.
Things are very different in Spain, Italy, Finland and Germany, where the relationship between the speech sounds and letters is simple. Once Spanish children have learnt the 29 ways of reading their 24 speech sounds with the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet, they can read anything, albeit slowly to begin with. In linguistic terms, the Spanish use a simple code; one sound is written with one letter, and the match is pretty close.
British children, by contrast, need to learn 120+ ways of reading the 44 English speech sounds with the same 26 letters. English has the most complex alphabetic code in the world, so learning the 26 sounds of the alphabet doesn’t get you far. What makes it even harder for children is that many reading schemes contain all the 120+ ways from the very beginning, often putting a single word on each page to try to make it simpler; but that doesn’t help if you can’t read it.
Of course, some children learn to read whatever system is used, but others just don’t. Many spend years struggling away in their lessons, bored, disruptive and withdrawn. They know they can’t read, but they don’t know why. As one eight-year-old said to me, “You can’t do anything if you can’t read well.”
Start with a simple alphabetic code
It is important to make learning to read as simple as possible. This means pretending, just for a little while, that learning to read English is as easy as learning to read Spanish.
Children need to learn to read and write a simple code. First, teach children one way to read and write the 44 speech sounds. Some sort of mnemonic helps here, such as picture-morphing (where a picture reflects the shape of a letter). For example, c-c-c-caterpillar morphs into a letter “c”. Then, as soon as they can read the first five at speed, teach children to read words by sound blending – reading words like “splash” (s-p-l-a-sh) or “green” (g-r-ee-n).
Then, importantly, give children lively books to read with words they can work out by sound-blending. Use books that are fun so the children will want to read them again and again and their orthographic store has a chance to develop. The stories need good plots, so that children can see the point of reading them.
Next, once they have mastered the simple code, teach children the full code with its alternative spellings of the speech sounds, constantly matching books to the speech sounds they can read. The more ways of reading the sounds they know, the more books they can read. Children who develop an orthographic store quickly read fewer of these decodable books than those who need lots of practice. And, as the children learn how to read, read lots of stories to them (with no objectives), and learn poems and rhymes by heart. Continue this pattern until they can read the same stories for themselves. What is important is to keep on teaching children to read until they can read effortlessly, so they can read words beyond their current vocabulary.
In the same step-by-step way, teach children to write the speech sounds, then words with these sounds, then simple sentences and finally stories and other compositions. Compose stories orally together using talking prompts and partner work.
Read at the right level
Whatever the problem, we have many poor readers sitting in literacy lessons that require a high level of reading. Although teachers work hard to give children differentiated tasks to cope in mixed ability classes, much of the work given to these poor readers is, necessarily, a holding strategy that neither supports their reading skills nor gives access to the lesson. As time goes on, these children become gradually more and more disruptive and many are placed on the SEN register, even though their inability to read may not be the result of a genuine special need. SENCOs all over the country say they are inundated with individual education plans for these children, taking them from their work with children who have recognised significant special needs.
Close grouping based on reading ability, rather than by age – just while children learn how to read – means that children make much quicker progress than they would do otherwise. Everyone learns more quickly when teaching is matched to his or her current level of progress. It is important that children practice every day for between thirty minutes and an hour, not just once a week or for a couple of minutes a day. A few children, with particular needs, also need to receive ten minutes of one-to-one practice before the lesson so they are confident from the start. In this way, no one falls through the net and it saves a lot of heartache later on.
Stick to one reading system
As recently reported by OFSTED, consistency in the teaching of reading has been hard to achieve over the last ten years because teachers and teaching assistants (TAs) have been required to attend different training courses and for many different programmes. Good phonic programmes have been specially designed to teach in a systematic way using activities based on mnemonic cards and matching storybooks. Try not to scupper them by mixing and matching.
Train all staff to teach children to read
Synthetic phonics is extremely successful when taught by well-trained teachers and TAs. Many schools are now making sure every TA and teacher, including the headteacher, knows how to teach a child to read. It makes a huge difference to children’s progress when all the staff is trained on the same reading programme; teachers can work as a team, using the same methods, structures, plans and materials. These schools also appoint a reading manager, an experienced teacher who can manage the everyday progress of all the children. This manager is given time to coach and help the teachers and TAs become excellent reading teachers.
Some parents will want to help, and taking the mystery out of teaching reading is vital for them. Showing parents how to use exactly the same system as the school is using – how to read the sound cards, sound out words with the cards and then read the books by sounding out – can speed up children’s progress, particularly for those who are vulnerable. Some schools are so successful that even older siblings can teach younger brothers and sisters.
The new government initiative, to have a simple screening test that assesses word recognition skills, will help schools have a clear picture of children’s decoding ability and should help to stop children slipping through the net. It will be particularly helpful if it is also used to uncover the poor readers in each year group.
Good phonics programmes also have their own assessment tracker to check on the children’s progress until they are fluent readers. The aim of any good reading programme is to get them to complete it as quickly as possible.
OFSTED could help too if it focused on our weakest readers, offering guidance and pointing schools at best practice. Maybe they could consider offering “Good” or “Outstanding” to schools that teach every child to read.
The right to read
We must give children the absolute right to be taught to read, whatever it takes, and for however long. The most exciting thing you can do in a school is to get every child to read and write well. As a headteacher, in Whitechapel, this always gave me a huge sense of achievement. Some children with special needs couldn’t achieve Level 4 on their SATs, but they could all read fluently.
With good synthetic phonics teaching, girls and boys from both disadvantaged and privileged backgrounds learn to read quickly, and soon read books confidently for themselves. Children who are from homes where parents don’t read and talk much to them, those with poor concentration and those who have already been failed, can all learn to read. They can then develop a love of reading which can stay with them for the rest of their lives. However, in contrast to the existing regime of micro-managing every minute of the school day, teachers need to be given back their lives to do the really important things that matter. It would be so simple. It would take two years to get every child to read in our country, if everyone in each school worked as a team with their headteacher leading the way.
Ruth Miskin has over 33 years experience as a teacher, headteacher, teacher trainer and consultant. Her literacy programme, Read Write Inc., is published by Oxford University Press and training is provided by Ruth Miskin Literacy. For further information, visit: