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18 January 2022
By Sarah Carpenter

Early Reading - A Path To Future Success

Estimated Reading Time - 10 minutes
Family reading a book
"Reading is fundamental to education. Proficiency in reading, writing and spoken language is vital for pupils’ success. Through these, they develop communication skills for education and for working with others: in school, in training and at work. Pupils who find it difficult to learn to read are likely to struggle across the curriculum, since English is both a subject in its own right and the medium for teaching."
The Reading Framework - Teaching the Foundations of Literacy
Department for Education, 2021

In 2010, Ofsted published a review of early reading called ‘Reading by six - how the best schools do it’. Although over ten years old, the key ingredients of a successful approach to the teaching of early reading have not changed:

  • there is a determination that every child will learn to read
  • there are high expectations of what all pupils should achieve
  • there is a rigorous and sequential approach to developing speaking and listening and teaching reading, writing and spelling through systematic phonics
  • schools adopt a consistent approach, making every minute of every lesson count
  • they provide high-quality and expert teaching with a carefully planned and tightly structured approach to teaching phonic knowledge and skills with well-structured resources that are used appropriately
  • pupils are given opportunities to apply what they have learnt through reading and time to read aloud to adults to practise their decoding skills, writing and comprehension of what they are reading
  • there are rich opportunities to talk and listen in a wide range of contexts
  • pupils develop familiarity with books and stories and build knowledge of the meanings of words
  • adults develop the children’s capacity to listen, concentrate and discriminate between sounds
  • schools ensure phonics sessions follow a planned structure, are fast paced, include praise and reinforcement, and involve active participation by all children
  • teachers are highly trained to instil the principles of phonics
  • pupils receive regular supportive feedback and the assessment of individual pupils’ progress, phonic knowledge and skills is sufficiently frequent and detailed to quickly identify the pupils who are failing, or in danger of failing, to keep up with their peers
  • the learning needs of young children are recognised and barriers that impede learning are identified, and pupils helped to overcome these with effective ‘catch up’ provision put in place early
  • phonics teaching is monitored to ensure consistency and steps are taken if improvement is called for.

What do we mean by 'Early Reading'?

Teacher and child reading
"When children start learning to read, the number of words they can decode accurately is too limited to broaden their vocabulary. Their understanding of language should therefore be developed through their listening and speaking, while they are taught to decode through phonics. However, when they can read most words ‘at a glance’ and can decode unfamiliar words easily, they are free to think about the meaning of what they read. They can then begin to develop their understanding of language through their reading."
The Reading Framework - Teaching the Foundations of Literacy
Department for Education, July 2021

Applying the Education Inspection Framework to the Teaching of Early Reading

342. During all inspections of infant, junior, primary and lower-middle schools, inspectors must focus on how well pupils are taught to read as a main inspection activity. They will pay particular attention to pupils who are reading below age-related expectations (the lowest 20%) to assess how well the school is teaching phonics and supporting all children to become confident, fluent readers. This will include understanding how reading is taught remotely, where applicable.

So, who are the lowest 20%

Inspectors will be keen to check that schools know their ‘lowest 20%’ and that these pupils are getting all the support they need to accelerate their progress and enable them to develop their reading skills. Accurate identification is key, not just to identifying all of the pupils that fall into this category, but also to matching provision to need. Unless teachers understand the pupil’s specific difficulty, it is almost impossible to put the right provision in place. Knowing whether a pupil’s difficulty lies with word reading or comprehension (making sense of what they read) is the first step and will assist SEND Coordinators to make appropriate suggestions for support and resources.

343. Inspectors will listen to several low-attaining pupils in years 1 to 3 read from unseen books appropriate to their stage of progress. They should also draw on information from the school’s policy for teaching reading, phonics assessments, phonics screening check results and lesson visits.

  1. In reaching an evaluation against the ‘quality of education’ judgement, inspectors will consider whether:
  • the school is determined that every pupil will learn to read, regardless of their background, needs or abilities. All pupils, including the weakest readers, make sufficient progress to meet or exceed age-related expectations
  • stories, poems, rhymes and non-fiction are chosen for reading to develop pupils’ vocabulary, language comprehension and love of reading. Pupils are familiar with and enjoy listening to a wide range of stories, poems, rhymes and non-fiction
  • the school’s phonics programme matches or exceeds the expectations of the national curriculum and the early learning goals. The school has clear expectations of pupils’ phonics progress term-by-term, from Reception to year 2
  • the sequence of reading books shows a cumulative progression in phonics knowledge that is matched closely to the school’s phonics programme. Teachers give pupils sufficient practice in reading and re-reading books that match the grapheme-phoneme correspondences they know, both at school and at home
  • reading, including the teaching of systematic, synthetic phonics, is taught from the beginning of Reception
  • the ongoing assessment of pupils’ phonics progress is sufficiently frequent and detailed to identify any pupil who is falling behind the programme’s pace. If they do fall behind, targeted support is given immediately
  • the school has developed sufficient expertise in the teaching of phonics and reading

Systematic Synthetic Phonics – What Do You Need to Know About the New Validation Process?

The Department for Education commissioned an independent review into the teaching of early reading back in 2006. The report recommended that high quality systematic phonics "should be taught as the prime approach in learning to decode (to read) and encode (to write/spell) print". This led to the development of the DfE’s Letters and Sounds programme – a synthetic phonics programme that could be freely used in primary schools to teach early reading. Whilst Letters and Sounds offers a trajectory to give structure and progression to the teaching of phonics, with suggested activities, it does not provide resources, support for pupils falling behind, or come with a phonically decodable reading scheme. Over the years, this has led schools to develop their own activity materials or supplement the Letters and Sounds materials with resources from other schemes. The danger here is that the clear sequence of progression can become disrupted as the schemes all advocate a different teaching sequence, introducing the letters/sounds in a different order. Ofsted is very clear that ‘fidelity to a scheme’ is key to the success of early reading approaches.

Rather than revise Letters and Sounds, the DfE have chosen to validate published Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) programmes that meet certain criteria.

There is no statutory requirement for schools to choose one of the SSP programmes on the validated list. However, validation status indicates that a programme has been self-assessed by its publisher and judged by a small panel with relevant expertise and that both consider it to meet all of the Department for Education (DfE) criteria for an effective systematic synthetic phonics programme.

The Education People’s advice: Schools are strongly advised to assess their phonics provision carefully, and if it is not delivering strong results for pupils, to switch to a validated programme.

The Education People are supporting schools to decide whether they should purchase a SSP programme and providing key information on each of the validated schemes to assist the decision-making process. You can access the The Education People's guidance document here.

Is It More Than Just Phonics?

Whilst learning to unlock our alphabetic code is key to early reading, we cannot ignore the need for pupils to want to read for pleasure. In fact, without reading for pleasure, pupils are likely to learn the basics but never actually become ‘readers’.

We often see this drop-off beginning as early as Year 3. Whilst pupils are developing their early reading skills, they are heavily supported at school, and (hopefully) at home, with adults listening to them read and reading aloud to them. Once pupils are able to decode, they are often left to read alone. In busy households, they may not benefit from being able to watch other reading models, which may give them the impression that reading is something one does only during the first few years of school, until becoming an independent reader. It is less difficult to keep a child reading than it is to reignite their passion for reading.

So, around about the time primary pupils move from one key stage to the next, our focus needs to change along with our support. What we cannot do as adults is step back from supporting reading. What we must do is change tack – focus on supporting pupils to make appropriate choices when they select books, know what they like and know what to recommend. We need to model a love of reading and all that reading can give to us, and the places it can take us.

About The Author

Sarah Carpenter is one of The Education People's Primary Improvement Advisers and specialises in English and maths. Sarah runs quarterly meetings for Kent's English and maths subject leaders, provides in-school support and training for all elements of the teaching of literacy and maths.

Her passion for expert teaching and the best outcomes for children is noticeable in her articles, resources and training.

Photo of Sarah Carpenter - author of this article