Developing reading in the early years

Developing reading in the early years

When learners are between the age of three to seven, they expand out beyond verbal communication and start to develop written language skills as well.

It's an amazing transformation. Very young learners can identify letters and sound them out. Eventually, older learners learn to identify common words, and then start to write and read on their own. One of the most lasting ways early years practitioners can impact their children's overall success and joy is by instilling in them a love and passion for reading. Learning how to read and write opens limitless opportunities for children, giving them an entirely new way to communicate, to expand their imagination, and to learn new information.

Why is reading so important?

Early reading ignites creativity, sparks curiosity, and stimulates the imagination in young children. Often, this leads to role-play as learners grow which helps to develop other skills such as empathy, problem-solving, and morality. Reading is essential and serves as a basic building block for learning, regardless of the school subject, be it language arts or even math. In daily life, the need to read things such as street signs or prescriptions proves reading is also an important life skill.

Reading for pleasure makes a big difference to children’s educational performance. Likewise, evidence suggests that learners who read for enjoyment every day not only perform better in reading tests than those who do not, but also develop a broader vocabulary, increased general knowledge and a better understanding of other cultures. Very few learners start school already able to read, yet from the first day, there are large differences in the reading literacy skills and understandings they bring from home. This gap typically persists into secondary school and, if we want to close it, we need to better understand what kinds of practices in the early years support the development of successful readers and then embed these practices in FS, primary school and parent education programmes.

Learning to read is typically considered to mean decoding, that is, knowing how to convert written words into spoken words. Automatic decoding skills are an essential pre-requisite of reading independently but reading with understanding is much more complex than simply decoding. Learners also have to learn how to comprehend written texts, and the foundations of this understanding can be established long before learners enter school and start learning how to decode. Every EYFS class is unique and there is no one right way of teaching reading. Getting this right for you, your learners and your school can be a big challenge. Inspectors will not expect to see any particular style of planning, teaching or assessing. However, whatever your approach to early years teaching, it is clear that phonics and reading need to have a high priority. It is not just about being ‘Inspection ready’, but about embedding a culture where books, vocabulary and reading take top priority. Short, focused, daily phonics sessions of 20 minutes are crucial in developing these reading skills, but supporting learners to become independent readers who love reading is undoubtedly our goal. Reading for pleasure is more important for children's cognitive development than their parents' level of education and is a more powerful factor in life achievement than socio-economic background.  Having books in the home is associated with both reading enjoyment and confidence.

Raising the profile of reading in a Foundation Stage Setting:

Ensuring that reading remains a priority in your EYFS Curriculum and setting is one way to embed a love of reading in your learners. Here are some practical ideas to consider:

  • Ensure that your curriculum is language and story-rich. Base learning and activities around stories and non-fiction where possible.
  • Have baskets of books around the classroom linked to the children’s interests or the topics you are teaching.
  • Make small cosy spaces for learners to read – either alone, with a friend or with an adult.
  • Choose books carefully to read to the class. Ensure they have an excellent ‘reading diet’ over the year including a variety of stories, non-fiction books, poems, and rhymes.
  • Use a variety of questioning techniques to develop children’s comprehension skills. Encourage the learners to ask questions about books, clarify what different words mean, summarise what they have heard or read and predict what might happen.
  • Put together story sacks for the learners to use in their play. They could include the book and some small world toys to act out the story.
  • Make storytimes special. Demonstrate how much you love reading.
  • Make time for learners with additional needs or gaps in their vocabulary to listen to the story in a small group first.
  • Have a voting station for the storytime book so that learners are making choices about the book they would like to share.
  • Make sure that the books learners are reading link independently to the phonic stage taught.
  • Assign pairs of learners as reading buddies. The learners could even read to teddies or toys.

Conversation strategies for the development of literate practices need to occur in early years classrooms. These strategies include:

  • making predictions;
  • relating the text to personal knowledge;
  • checking the sense and coherence of ideas;
  • retelling, enacting or visualising key ideas;
  • adopting the vocabulary of the text to expand and elaborate ideas; and
  • critically reflecting on the text.

Developing a language-rich environment

A language-rich environment is primarily about the importance of having high quality and meaningful interactions with all children. Having a good understanding of child development and a strong knowledge of the learners is vital to support this. Here are some ideas to consider:

Ensure that all staff are making time to listen and respond to the children.

  • Wait to be invited into conversations and follow the lead of the child. Make sure responses are relevant and not just a chance to assess an area of learning.
  • Know which learners need the most support with language development and find the best strategies to support them. Share this with all staff.
  • Make time to model good speaking and listening skills.
  • Work with your speech and language team to find the best ways to support language development.
  • When talking to a child, use a 5 to 1 rule – 5 comments to 1 question.
  • Find out where your communication ‘hot spots’ are. Where does the most talk happen and why? Where are the learners most relaxed and happy to talk? Where do you and your team feel the most comfortable when talking to the children?
  • Track a child and find out where and to whom they speak most freely.
  • Use your knowledge of the learners to provide activities and resources that link to their interests.
  • Promote talk with pictures of the children, their friends and families or photographs of the local environment.
  • Look at the environment and question how ‘communication friendly’ it is. Are there a variety of spaces for the learners to work in, including small quiet spaces?
  • Research also shows that reading to learners is most effective when they are also engaged in high-quality discussion that is adjusted to their needs and interests. Initially learners need to be engaged in conversations that help to build their vocabulary. They cannot talk about or understand a book that has too many words they do not know.

A critical part of supporting early reading skills is to improve children’s language and communication skills and create a language-rich environment. Learners need a constellation of skills and understandings in order to become successful independent readers. Many learners develop these skills and understandings by being immersed in a rich literacy environment at home.

To develop children’s listening skills and their awareness of phonics, there are activities in Phase One Letters and Sounds that will help support this. There are five phases of phonics learners need to be taught before the end of Year 1. Phase One is designed to support learners to develop sound awareness in readiness for learning the skills needed for reading and spelling. However, phonics teaching often starts in Phase Two, learning phonemes and graphemes. Learners need to develop listening skills and the ability to tune into and discriminate between sounds before they start to learn letter sounds. The seven aspects of Phase One in Letters and Sounds give lots of activities that can be incorporated into the day or games that can be played in small groups.

As early years educators, we can make a real difference. If we can work to involve parents early on and create a culture where communication, language and reading skills are highly valued, we can support all learners to be successful lifelong learners.