There is a huge and continual debate about the “nuts and bolts” of reading, with often polarised disagreements about the right or wrong way to learn. You have the basics of letters, sounds, words, sentences, text and this is not seeking to determine the best way to teach it, because, I think that there is a need to explore the needs of the learner in all this. It is relatively easy to teach the discrete concepts that constitute reading, but it is in the mind of the learner that the whole has to come together to make sense.
I get upset at announcements that x% of children “cannot read” at certain points in their school lives, more for the children, who may have individual reasons why this is the case, but may, in reality, be close to the mark of being a reader, but failed to get a mark in a test that supplied the data for the comment.
Phonics was an integral part of teaching and learning, with Jolly Phonics in the Infants and more general phonics check lists within the juniors. Spellings were a mixture of personal spelling errors to address, with topic words and for some word “families” to explore. I would have to admit that it probably reflected my own analytical approach.
Reading, for many years used to be a close encounter between a teacher and the child, as it was based on individualised progress, sharing some of the book, setting targets for reading in between the shared sessions, often with the help of parents through a home-school reading book. Up until 1992, my career did not include any kind of teaching assistant, and in the early days, these were often used for the administration tasks in the room. Teachers knew the schemes available and many knew the authors and the free readers that were in the libraries.
Creating a class reading area was an important element of the room, especially when particular authors were selected as the “author of the month”. Rather than book reviews, we often wrote a postcard or a letter to the author after the month and, if the author was still alive, would send them off through the publisher, often receiving a reply that caused great excitement.
Books were available at a challenge level, and a fluency level, so that children could read for pleasure, as well as read for challenge, but avoiding books that would cause frustration and demotivation. Bookmarks, or notes in the home-school book highlighted the different challenges, so that parents could understand and listen appropriately.
Miscue analysis, by the teacher, underpinned some of the listening, to identify areas where the child may be having an issue. These would be addressed appropriately and in timely fashion, with individual guidance and support.
Just listening intently to children read meant that they had to perform. Some are better performers than others, when reading aloud. I would always give preparation time to the children to allow them to read to themselves for five minutes before reading aloud to me. As we would share some of the prepared text, this assurance often led to improved fluency. Reading aloud, from “cold” can be a challenge for adults.
Sustained silent reading was an after lunch entry activity, always from their fluency level book, so that they could read independently for enjoyment, as well as using some of the time for changing within that same level, if the book was finished.
There was always a class reader, with potentially “dead” time being used to share another few pages, as well as some dedicated sharing time at the end of the school day, after everything had been properly cleared away. It is surprising how a good book can encourage rapidity in tidying.
For more able readers, two things came together; selecting their own books as “free readers” but also “conferencing”; readers talking about what they were reading, to encourage classmates to try new and perhaps more challenging reads. In that way too, teachers got to know a greater range of books, often then reading them for themselves. The selection of books was based on the “five finger rule”; if, in reading the first page, more than five difficult words were encountered, children were encouraged to choose another. This was to encourage fluency and stamina through reading longer books. Challenge was still kept for texts shared by the teacher. Children had the right not to complete the book if they were not enjoying the narrative or the author style, but this was discussed before agreeing. Rapid and easy changing routines are essential.
In the days of class tape recorders as the only technology, every child had a personal tape, into which, at least once a fortnight, they had to record a few pages of their book, while listening through headphones, then listening back to themselves while they read silently. This provided a stimulus, but also a record of progress, which they took home at the end of the year. Digital technology offers the same potential.
Parent guidance is essential, if they are not to become a negative element in reading progress. This might entail a reading evening, an information booklet on how to share a book or personal advice at parent’s evenings. Equally, a bookmark that says either “I think I can read this by myself”, “I may need some help with some words in this book”, or “I’ve chosen to challenge myself with this book and it might be hard”. If the bookmarks are on green, amber and red card, they are easily interchangeable and easy to spot.
Reading is personal. If a child is experiencing difficulty in reading, it is incumbent on the teacher to investigate fully what might be causing the issue and to set up appropriate support to address the issues. It might simply be choosing a more appropriate book. Analyse the need, plan for remedy, action the plan effectively, follow up regularly, check progress and coach accordingly. Turn them into comfortable performers when reading aloud.
This is the only way that children will leave Primary schools able to read. In my school, we got 95% of children reading at level 4+ (50-60% L5) by using these approaches.
Good readers made better writers. There was considerable spin-off benefit to this approach.