Monday, 29 September 2014

Reading is Key (100th Blog Post)

This is my 100th post of the year so I thought I ought to make it an important one and I am sorry but I am sure it will be a bit of a long one!

In my mind there is no greater thing in education than to be able to read.  Reading allows the accumulation of knowledge at one’s own speed.  It allows you to go over things again and again, it gives pleasure, it expands horizons but it does not come easily to all so I wanted to share some of the ways I have helped teach reading over my years as a teacher which may help others and offer different approaches to children experiencing difficulties. 

For the majority of children, phonics is a structured way to learn to read that works and I have witnessed the emergence and then government backed and total take over of phonics into the British education system over the past 15 years.   

My own early strategies with those children finding reading difficult came from Dianne McGuiness after digesting her book “Why Our Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About it” and seeing the structured approach she advocated teaching the sounds of letters and building reading skills through books using only words with the sounds taught so far so as not to confuse children. 

There were few phonic based books around at that time so I wrote and illustrated my own and with a group of children including 3 with EAL (English as an Additional Language), one with dyslexic tendencies and one with major special needs (they could not recall things from one day to the next) I endeavoured to teach reading for 20 mins each morning over a 6 week period with regular homework sheets given out for additional home learning.  I taught the initial sound of each letter in the alphabet and the tricky words the, he, she and we and then the double “ee” and “ay” digraphs followed by the “magic e” plus the word said.  In those 6 weeks, all of the children made accelerated progress (except for the child with major special needs). They became much more confident in tackling texts, were able to read and answer/write simple comprehension questions and the feedback from parents was excellent.  I must point out that at this time, I was employed as a teaching assistant and had not undergone any teacher training.  I did however have a wonderful class teacher as my boss who wanted to find a way for those children struggling within her Year 1 class (ages 5-6) and now heading for the summer term still unable to read and a headmaster who was willing to allow me to pursue my idea that I had put forward in a proposal document.

I should add at this point that I had taught both of my own children to read using the Peter and Jane reading scheme I had learnt to read with as a young child – this was a method that used repetition of words to help children learn them (sometimes referred to as a look/say method although I always taught my children to use phonic knowledge as well to see how the word was made up) – they had gone to school age 3-4 with a sound knowledge of reading of at least the first 50 most frequently occuring words and knew how to break down words to sound out at a basic level as well as reading for meaning and sense.  At school, reading was taught along the lines of the teacher read the Big Book each day over a week so that children learnt to join in and recognise letters, words and phrases within it – a reading scheme began with children taking home the words in their books cut up on little cards in a tin to learn and return for testing on a bi-daily basis with either the teacher or assistant in class during reading time.  At that time the scheme One, Two, Three and Away was used at my school with its main characters Roger Red Hat and Billy Blue Hat – the premise was that children would learn to recognise the words and then learn to read.  

My own children were uninspired by the pictures (probably because they compared them to those of Peter and Jane which were beautiful and full of quality – children know when they are being short-changed!) and I know from talking to lots of the children they did not enjoy the scheme seeing it purely as something to get through to escape to free reading further up the school.  However, most children in the class did learn to read this way and I know that most parents read bedtime stories and went to the library and so encouraged further reading in the same way I did with my own children.

The following year and my second as a teaching assistant saw the introduction of the Early Literacy Support programme (ELS) for Year 1 children.  My teacher and I were sent on a training scheme and I set it up for six children who were struggling at the end of the autumn term.  It was the first scheme I knew about to be concentrating on securing sounds and breaking words down for children to access both reading and writing on a phonetic basis.  I added to the scheme by writing a daily letter to parents to tell them what had been learnt in their 20 min lesson that day and making up a daily homework pack.  The selection process was however only for those children who were struggling but did not have special needs.  Again, all the children made accelerated progress and were able to complete the 12 week course and successfully re-join the class at the level expected and I then had a second group of six children who were also now falling behind during the spring term.

There is now an updated version that is available on-line click on button above

It was during this year that I was accepted on to a post-graduate teaching course and so left this lovely school after that first year of ELS – however I have continued to use the materials from it for various children and in various year groups who struggle in learning basic reading and writing.  I have, however, seen for myself that the pace of it is too fast for the majority of those children who do have special needs and those who are not supported at home to do the homework tasks to ensure over learning.

During my teaching course, phonics was promoted as a way forward as well as the searchlights model for the national literacy strategy.  I began my teaching career following the Jolly Phonics scheme which had actions to help embed the sounds and sight of letters and have continued to advocate this scheme throughout my years of teaching even though it was overtaken by the Ruth Miskin phonic approach shortly after I began teaching (oh how I remember Maisie Mountain Mountain!!)

Over the past five years, new phonic reading schemes have also sprung up (some of which tied in with older schemes such as The Magic Key and its characters) to help build reading in a logical way for children.  Phonics has however become the only way to teach reading the government proclaims and now sets a phonic test for all children at the end of Year One with those that fail it requiring further phonic tuition and testing at the end of Year Two. Phonics will work for everyone and if it doesn’t they just need more practice!
I want to now bring to your attention a different way to teach reading that has worked for some children that have struggled with phonics and have not been able to cope with a look-say approach either.  Taming Tricky Words is a fabulous and novel resource form Irene Peutrill. 

When I was introduced to it by my special needs advisor I have to confess I was slightly dubious but I am willing to give anything a try if it might help my struggling readers.  It works by having children associate a word with a picture, a phrase and an action with a high frequency word and I have to say having used it for the past year it has transformed reading for one child and helped make progress for two others out of a group of six.  The words have been taught at a rate of between 4-6 per week and the recall of words when reading their reading scheme book has been noticeable.

I am currently working on my own set of resources to help those children who have so far failed to really progress their reading through any of the phonics, look/say or Taming Tricky Words approaches.  I also have to state for the record that during my teaching career I have seen what a difference reading on a bi-daily basis with an adult has on a child’s reading.  As part of my MA, I conducted research into teaching reading for meaning and discussion of reading with an adult on a bi-daily basis and the results were amazing for a wide range of 35 children (the majority with EAL) their reading scores gaining on average five months in the space of six weeks (with some children gaining almost a year and no child gaining less than three and this included children with special needs!)  Although, more importantly all of the children fed back that they truly enjoyed reading to an adult and found reading a much better experience than before!

I hope that this post has been of use to some out there – either to flag up possible resources, give encouragement or even some understanding into why some children might still be struggling.  Please feel free to ask me any questions regarding my teaching of reading or offer any view points and comments on the subject as I feel the more we can share the more we are likely to help those children who need support to learn to read in our schools these days.


  1. It has come a long way from Dick and Dora! Reading is such an important thing - I notice a lot of my young singing students ( 11- 14 year olds) will do anything to avoid trying a new song and I suspect that it's because they can't read the words ... you and your contemporaries are doing such a wonderful job Pempi.

  2. You bring up an important point, Fil that reading was also enabled to a certain extent by the hymns sung in assemblies with the words on the board or in hymn books - now that time is squeezed assemblies are often so short there is no time for a hymn nor even a long hymn practice once a week. For some students, words associated with music helps them retain the sight of them and then recall :-)