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Closing the early reading gap: Phonics in a Rich Reading Curriculum

Published on: 
Friday, 8 January 2021 - 3:31pm
By: 
Charlotte Hacking

All of us working as teachers want to ensure that every child leaves primary school as a competent and confident reader and every parent wants this for their child as well.  But how do we ensure that this happens for every child?

As a first step, it is paramount that whatever year group you currently teach in a primary school, you know and understand how to teach a child to read and the multiple processes, skills and strategies that are involved.

At the CLPE, we strongly believe that it is important for children to learn phonics in a systematic way; it is an essential ingredient in the process of learning to read English.  Teachers need to have the knowledge and understanding of the alphabetic code and how to teach the vital skills of blending and segmenting. Teachers also need to know how meaning is constructed because then they can use their professional knowledge and judgement to teach early readers effectively. Reading is a complex process, and we need to recognise this. As Scarborough’s Reading Rope, widely cited in Education Endowment Foundation Literacy guidance, shows, there are many elements that make up skilled and fluent reading:

Phonics is an extremely important part of learning to read but it is important to remember that although a good ability to recognise grapheme phoneme correspondences and the skill to blend sounds together to read words will assist word reading, phonics alone will not achieve fluency. Reading fluency is about so much more than this.

It is important that we support our children to become skilled and well-rounded readers, not just through high quality teaching of phonics but also through the provision of high quality books and activities that enable children to explore language, enrich language and expect that the words on the page will carry meaning.  They need to be able to practice and develop all of this in an environment which helps them to learn and experience the language of story and text and the pleasures this brings as well as supporting the development of early phonological awareness.

Children are fluent readers, not just when they can read the words off the page but when they show understanding and comprehension as they read, demonstrated by expression and intonation and the ability to discuss what they have just read, so it is important that phonics learning is set within the context of a talk and text rich environment.

As well as a programme of phonics, learning grapheme/phoneme correspondences and how to blend and segment, it is important that children are engaged in the pleasures of reading and to foster and support children’s early phonological development, tuning them in to listening to, recognising, making and discriminating sounds.

In the EYFS, texts such as Honey for You, Honey For Me and A Great Big Cuddle by Michael Rosen, and illustrated by Chris Riddell,  provide ample opportunity for encouraging reading for pleasure and for incorporating work on key skills and aspects that support the development of early reading. Rhyme and song play a vital role in the development of children’s language and literacy. Children enjoy playing with words, particularly the kind of play which involves repetition of key words and phrases, recognising alliteration, consonance and assonance and recognising and playing with rhyme. Opportunities to explore and savour the sounds in words helps children to form the different sounds in language, paving the way for and strengthening children’s awareness and articulation of phonemes.

As children begin to recognise letters and sounds, learn the basic code and the skills of segmenting and blending, it is important that they continue to experience a wide range of texts that allow them to use these skills effectively in the context of reading real books and develop their comprehension skills by connecting print with meaning. Joy by Yasmeen Ismail, and illustrated by Jenni Desmond is the perfect example of a book that can be shared and talked about with children and that allows them to gain control of the reading process by using and applying their phonic knowledge to read words from the text. The book follows the journey of a cat chasing a ball of wool and provides lots of words that encourage children to use and apply their knowledge of the basic code, such as ‘Ding-a-ling Ring Ring Let’s sing!’ and ‘Zoom-Zoom Zim-Zam Clip Clop Hip-Hop What a trip, don’t stop!’

In Key Stage 1, children will be investigating different spellings for known phonemes as part of their work on phonics for word reading and spelling. Rhyme continues to be important so that children can begin to make analogies between the sounds and spelling patterns of words. Julia Donaldson’s The Snail and the Whale, illustrated by Axel Scheffler gives children ample scope to investigate words and their sound and spelling patterns. The opening line: ‘This is the tale of a tiny snail and a great big, grey-blue humpback whale’ introduces children to a range of ways of representing the sound /ai/. Children can go on to make lists of words with similar patterns and use rhyme and analogy to support their spelling, such as tale, pale, whale, sale and tail, pail, wail, sail and pail – here they will also learn that focussing on the meaning of words is just as important as being able to decode them.

The Phonics Screening Check also includes the decoding of pseudo-words. We can provide children with opportunities to engage with such words as they will face as part of the check in fun, interesting and purposeful ways, rather than giving them mock tests or continuous practice with flashcards. Instead, you might look at books that feature alien characters, such as Wanda and the Alien by Sue Hendra, The Way Back Home by Oliver Jeffers or Beegu by Alexis Deacon and create a language for them using pseudo words – you could learn greetings, colours, numbers and foods, practicing reading words like blorp, strom and jenk. This way children learn that language is a form of communication and that people can speak a range of different languages.

It is important to have books with rich narrative, language and engagement alongside decodable readers which support children’s independent reading and it is important to apply the same criteria to choosing decodable readers as you would with regular children’s literature. There are a range of decodable readers available with more satisfying storylines, and quality illustrations that take children far beyond the limited text on the page, providing children with purposeful reading experiences. Peters Books have produced a Letters and Sounds Phase Chart that highlights which schemes are fully decodable for Letters and Sounds and how many fiction and non-fiction titles are available within each series and at each phase. You can also click through from the chart to access a list of the relevant books in each category: https://peters.co.uk/letters-and-sounds-phase-chart

To achieve well in reading children need to be engaged and aware of the pleasures that reading can bring and also its purpose. Without this, reading can become a chore or a struggle and without seeing the pleasure of reading, there is no impetus to overcome the challenges. Reading is not an easy process, it’s one of the most difficult things a child will have to learn in their primary school experience, but when a child can read, it unlocks doors. To the imagination and to the wider world. We owe it to our children to give them the right keys.

What we have learnt is that to teach children to become independent readers, teachers do need a clear understanding of the phonic code and also what progression in the whole reading process looks like.  They also need to see how to support every child, regardless of their age or ability, to make progress towards reading independence based on a full picture of quality reading practice and provision.

That is why we worked with UKLA, NATE, NAAE and the EMC on developing the CLPE reading scale and why we have made this freely accessible. 

Our Phonics in a Rich Reading Curriculum and Understanding the Reading Journey webinars for Early Years and Years 1 and 2 webinars show how to put all this understanding into practice in the classroom using a range of rich and high-quality texts.

Only by developing a culture of learning that supports pedagogy and effects change will we be able to grow competent, confident lifelong readers with all of the academic and socio economic benefits this brings.