A Guide To Reading With Children

This year parents, assistant teachers, reading volunteers, teachers and even other young readers have asked us how to effectively read alongside children.

As a result, we created this guide to reading with children. It’s available to download below.

It is split up into a few sections and includes the following:

  1. Sharing and making explicit what it is good young readers do.
  2. Explaining what you should do when reading alongside children.
  3. Explaining your role as a ‘reader-thinker’.
  4. Outlining what the best things you can do when helping a child to read.
  5. Naming the worst things you can when helping a child to read.
  6. A short explanation about how readers go about decoding text.
  7. What to do before you start reading.
  8. What to do whilst you are reading.
  9. What to do after you’ve read.
  10. What sorts of things you can focus on when writing in reading records books.

We hope you find it useful!

A guide to reading with children

DOWNLOAD: A Guide To Reading With Children

If you liked this, you might also want to try:

  1. Creating A Community Of Readers: A Reading For Pleasure Article
  2. Creating A Community Of Readers: The Power Of DEAR
  3. The ‘Rights Of A Child Reader’ Guide.

Our other free resources:

  1. Writing Study: Lessons That Last Forever PACK
  2. A Functional Grammar Table: CPD Subject Knowledge With A Difference

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You can also follow us @litforpleasure


From The Victorian To Gove To Greening: How Far Has The English Curriculum Really Come?

From The Victorian To Gove To Greening: How Far Has The English Curriculum Really Come?

“We must not delay! Upon the speedy provision of elementary education depends our industrial prosperity. It is of no use trying to give technical teaching to our artizans without elementary education….If we leave our workfolk any longer unskilled, notwithstanding their strong sinews and determined energy, they will become over-matched in the competition of the world. If we are to hold our position among men of our own race or among the nations of the world we must make up the smallness of our numbers by increasing the intellectual force of the individual.”

In 1870, an Education Act was passed which paved the way for the achievement by the end of the century of compulsory free state education for children between the ages of five and thirteen. The driving force behind the Act was clearly articulated above by W.E. Forster in his speech to the House in February of that year. The education of the masses came also to be seen as a possible and desirable solution to problems of social unrest and rising crime, and to carry the important function of socialization, to be achieved through the inculcation of such moral values as piety, honesty, industry and, significantly, obedience. These principles are surely held good in schools today, though promoted in a different vocabulary.

What has changed, and what remains the same? It’s hardly necessary to point to the similarity between the annual testing carried out by the Victorian inspectorate to enable children to progress through a series of narrowly defined Standards in literacy and numeracy, and today’s high-stakes SATS testing, in both cases linked to payment by results and indicative of political control. This blog post will focus on the state of literacy teaching in the newly established Board Schools of the 1870s, and what primary schools are directed to do in this field a century and a half later.

There is no doubt that the literacy curriculum at the beginning of the 1870s was essentially utilitarian and limited, as defined by the Revised Code of 1861. The Code had set up benchmarks in reading which are depressingly reductionist in nature.

  • Standard 2: Read a short paragraph from an elementary reading book.
  • Standard 4: Read a few lines of poetry or prose (chosen by the Inspector)
  • Standard 5: Read a short paragraph in a newspaper or other modern narrative.
  • Standard 6: Read with fluency and expression.

However, as the decade progressed, the Inspectorate began to complain about the mechanical nature of children’s reading (the legacy of payment by results), and so the Standards were modified to include the phrase ‘read with intelligence’. What I found surprising is that, in a popular series of reading textbooks called the’ Royal Readers’, written for a highly specific audience, mention is made of reading for pleasure:

The lessons are designed so to interest young people as to induce them to read, not as task-work merely, but for the pleasure of the thing. The pieces are calculated to allure the children to read, and to make them delight in the power of reading.

The use of the word ‘allure’ is significant here, and demonstrates a degree of awareness absent from the updated National Curriculum of 2014, which refers (for the first time in its history) to reading for pleasure, but states that it should be taught. How do you teach children to enjoy reading? Creating the conditions for children to realise the ‘allure’ and ‘delight’ of reading is far more to the point. And that is best achieved through the kind of reciprocal relationships which can be established between pupils as readers and teachers as readers themselves, described in ‘Building Communities of Engaged Readers’ (Cremin et al, 2014).

You can read our article on creating a Reading for Pleasure pedagogy here. Incidentally, the requirement in the National Curriculum that children should read ‘fluently and with confidence’ by the end of KS2 ‘in preparation for reading in secondary school subjects’  is very close linguistically to the reductionist Standard 6 quoted above. One might also draw attention to the fact that the Reading Programme of Study for 2014 identifies only two ‘dimensions’ of reading –  comprehension and word-reading.

It is worth mentioning here an article in the Guardian by Michael Rosen, in which he expresses concern that reading “has come to mean something narrow and functional, no more than evidence that a child can read”.  He points to the SATS as “producing a way of reading that is dominated by the ‘facts’ of a piece of writing and knowing the ‘right ’order of events in a story”. Some classroom materials which purport to ‘teach’ and ‘test’ reading comprehension surely contribute to this effect. They use as their tools short extracts or excerpts, albeit from well-known stories, which may well not give encouragement to the reading of whole books. The reading anthologies of the 1870s used widely in Board schools are comprised precisely of such extracts, and are sometimes similarly followed by questions to ascertain the extent of comprehension.   

The Standards for writing in 1870 are equally pared-down and are directed towards what might be strictly useful to the young working-class male, such as, perhaps, composing a letter of application for employment:

  • Standard 1: Copy in manuscript character a line of print; write a few dictated words.
  • Standard 2 : A sentence from an elementary reading book, slowly read once and then dictated in single words.
  • Standard 5: A short paragraph from a newspaper…slowly dictated once, a few words at a time.
  • Standard 6: A short theme or letter, or an easy paraphrase.

The criteria for assessment included correct spelling and punctuation, exemplary handwriting and a demonstration of some knowledge of grammatical terms. My own grandmother, a later beneficiary of the 1870 Act, recalled ‘parsing ‘ in her lessons – the ‘taking apart’ of a sentence and the naming of the constituent parts. The emphasis of the literacy lessons was on transcription, grammatical terminology and a simplistic description of grammatical functions. Despite there being no research to support the view that this kind of formal, terminology-driven teaching of grammar has a positive impact on the quality of children’s writing, and with some research claiming it has a negative impact (Graham & Perin, 2007), the English curriculum of today demonstrates a marked similarity to nineteenth century thinking. In connection with the focus on transcription in the modern curriculum, in 1967 John Dixon made the point, so resonant of today’s practice, that ‘a sense of the social system of writing has so inhibited and overawed many teachers that they have never given a pupil the feeling that what he writes is his own’. Original composition did not feature at all in the Board School conception of writing. It doesn’t feature in today’s  National Curriculum either. Generating an original idea gets no mention at all. In the Programmes of Study for Key Stage 2, transcription takes precedence over composition, and the teacher’s main job is to “consolidate writing skills, vocabulary, grasp of sentence structure and knowledge of linguistic terminology” and to insist on joined cursive handwriting.

Within the context of Empire in the late 19th century, roles needed to be defined for all levels of society. Cecil Reddie, headmaster of Abbotsholme (public) School, linked them to the objectives of  a class-based three-level education system. There should be, he asserted,

  1. The school for the Briton who will be one of the muscle-workers…
  2. The school for the Briton whose work requires knowledge of the modern world…
  3. The school for the Briton who… is to be a leader…’.

We can discern strong elements of this structure alive today, in both our cultural and political life. The authoritarian class-based stance typical of the Victorian educators is still very much in evidence in our own time, as the observations in the next paragraph will show.

In the area of school literacy in 1870, the prevailing belief was that working-class children were not able to comprehend ‘literature’, hence the absence from school textbooks of the work of established writers of fiction. Dickens, one of the most popular writers of the time, is not included in the’ Royal Readers’, even in extract form. Perhaps he was considered subversive by the editors of the series because of his championing of the poor? Thus, these school-children were effectively denied a place at the literature table. In our blog ‘They won’t have anything to write about’, which we recommend you to read here, we reveal similar assumptions about class in our own day and age. We believe that those children deemed to be at a social and cultural disadvantage are more likely than others to be deprived of the chance to choose their own writing topics and have them validated as legitimate subjects for writing in school. By denying the validity of the cultural reference points of these twenty-first century children and assigning to them teacher-chosen subjects for writing, we as teachers effectively withhold from them, now and in the future, the possibility of having the agency and empowerment to express their own concerns, passions and preoccupations, and of making changes for themselves and others through the writing of their own texts. We as teachers are also under-valuing the importance of children’s own lives and experiences. This is morally and socially dangerous. Current pedagogy is producing writers as consumers (or at best imitators) of other people’s ideas, when we as teachers should really be producing a generation of writers of original content who come to realise early on that they have a  writing voice and a script of their own and how to use it. That we are not doing this is part of an ideology of the teacher as the controller and regulator of production. It is the main indicator that we have not, in one hundred and fifty years, come anything like as far in our thinking about the function of writing and reading in school (and after) as we would like to believe.


  • Cremin,T., Mottram, M., Collins, F.M., Powell, S., Safford, K., (2014) Building Communities of Engaged Readers, London: Routledge.
  • Dixon, J.(1969) Growth through English, NATE,Oxford.
  • Ferguson, F. (2005) Learning to Know their Place, M.A. dissertation, pub.in Children’s Literature in Education, Sept. 2006, Vol.37, No.3.
  • Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007) Writing Next: Effective Strategies To Improve Writing Of Adolescents In Middle School & High Schools Alliance For Excellent Education
  • Loane, G., (2010, revised 2017) Developing Young Writers in the Classroom, Routledge.
  • Rosen, M., (2008)  Death of the Bookworm, guardian.co.uk, 16th September 2008.

Our Most Popular Blog-Posts All In One Place

We appreciate your feedback about the website. Some of you have said it is quite hard to find what you are looking for. Therefore we have placed all our most popular blog posts here. Enjoy!


  1. Why Children Should Be Encouraged To Only Ever Use Phonics As A Helpful Friend.
  2. Creating A Community Of Readers: A Reading For Pleasure Article
  3. Creating A Community Of Readers: The Power Of DEAR
  4. A Guide To Reading With Children
  5. The Four Week Reading Programme
  6. The Year 5 ‘Rights Of A Child Reader’ Guide.

Teaching Writing:

  1. Our Real-World Literacy Approach To Writing
  2. Introducing Our Genre Booklets To The Class & Their Impact.
  3. Writing Study: Lessons That Last Forever PACK
  4. #WritingRocks_17
  5. How To Have Children Writing Independent ‘Assessable’ Pieces Everyday
  6. Teaching Writing: Research Summaries With Easy Access
  7. What If Almost Everything We Thought About The Teaching Of Writing Was Wrong?
  8. What Can Cause Poor Writing Outcomes? The Writing Is Primary Research Findings
  9. Meeting Children Where They Are: Using Pupil Conferencing
  10. A Functional Grammar Table: CPD Subject Knowledge With A Difference
  11. Why The Over Use Of Writing Stimuli & Book Planning Could Be Damaging Children’s Writing Potential.
  12. How We Created Self-Regulating Writers & The Improvements We Have Seen
  13. The Sea Of Writing Ideas: 10 Ways We Got Children Choosing Their Own Topics.
  14. If In Doubt, Circle It Out! How To Create A Class Of Independent Spellers
  15. Teaching The Writing Process Is The Best Way To Improve Children’s Writing
  16. Murray Gadd: What Is Critical In The Effective Teaching Of Writing?
  17. What The Research Says: The 13 Most Effective Ways To Improve Children’s Writing
  18. They Won’t Have Anything To Write About: The Dangers Of Believing Pupils Are ‘Culturally Deprived’
  19. Talk-For-Writing Is Excellent But Does It Go Far Enough?
  20. The 29 Rights Of The Child Writer
  21. Is The Trick In The Publishing? Reflecting On Why The Children Are Writing With Such Care & Attention
  22. What The EEF’s ‘Improving Literacy in Key Stage Two’ Report Tells Us About Teaching Writing Effectively.
  23. Time For Reflection: The Major Approaches To Teaching Writing And Their Limitations
  24. What Is Writing? Why Do We Write?

Writing Topics

  1. Give A Class ‘One’ Book To Write Through And You’ve Taught Them For A Day. Teach Them How To Use ‘Any’ Book And You’ve Taught Them For A Lifetime
  2. Children Writing Memoir : A Great Literacy Topic
  3. Bored With Your Pretend Journalism Topic? Have Children Writing Real Advocacy Journalism Instead!


  1. Books That Change Writing-Teachers
  2. In Teaching Writing – How Important Is It That Teachers Be Writers Too?
  3. ‘All Children Can Write’ A Tribute To Donald Graves
  4. Are You A ‘Teacher Writer’ Or A ‘Writer Teacher’ And Why Does It Matter?

Children’s ‘Rights Of A Child Reader’ Guide.

As part of this blog post, my class and I decided to put together a guide to reading for pleasure. The children came up with roughly 30 rights. I’ve decided to categorise them as I think it makes for more interesting interpretation. Take a look and see what you think. You can also read our ‘Year 5 Rights Of A Child Writerhere.

*Please note these are the views of the children and may not represent the views of our employer.*

The Year 5 ‘Rights Of A Child Reader’ Guide.

The role of the teacher:

  1. The right to a teacher who reads.
  2. The right to read to a teacher.
  3. The right to have a class-book read to you.

The classroom environment:

  1. The right to start your day reading.
  2. The right to a class library.

Type of books:

  1. The right to only read books you enjoy.
  2. The right to read non-fiction, poetry, pictures books, magazines, comics and newspapers.
  3. The right not to use colour-coded books (if you don’t want to).
  4. The right to choose your own level of reading (if you want to).
  5. The right to take a book home to read.
  6. The right to bring your own books in to school.

Types of reading:

  1. The right to take a break from a large book.
  2. The right to read out loud.
  3. The right to mistake a book for your life and get lost in it.
  4. The right to take your time reading.
  5. The right to read a book again.
  6. The right to act out the books you’re reading.
  7. The right to have MEGA DEAR*.
  8. The right to read at home.

Reviewing & talking about books:

  1. The right to book talks.
  2. The right to blog book reviews.
  3. The right to recommend books.
  4. The right to lend your books to the class library.
  5. The right to drop a book.
  6. The right to read and discuss Shakespeare.
  7. The right to rate a book no matter what other people think.

The reader in the writer:

  1. The right to read your class mates’ published writing and talk about it together.
  2. The right to magpie books for your own writing.

*MEGA DEAR is where children are afforded an opportunity to take reading books, play-scripts, poetry and their own writing into a larger space. Here they are allowed to perform poetry for each other, act out stories, myths or fairy-tales, have book talks, draw characters and settings, make comic strips and read and/or write together. 

Creating A Community Of Readers: A Reading For Pleasure Article

This article is based on, and written in relation to, findings of educational research (Cremin, 2008, Pieper & Beadle, 2016 & Miller & Anderson, 2009). The tenor of this article is to allow the reader to reflect on children’s reading and is in no way a criticism of any school(s) policy or teachers’ practice.

If you’ve ever felt a pang of disappointment that some (and maybe even many) of the children in your class are not turning to books with enthusiasm and engagement, despite your best efforts at providing book-weeks, author events, booktalk sessions and a selection of ‘good’ titles in your class library, then I urge you to read on now.

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference in Cambridge on the subject of children reading for pleasure. One of the keynote speakers was Teresa Cremin, Professor of Education (literacy) at the Open University. She is also one of the co-authors of the book ‘Building Communities of Engaged Readers’. In a recent post on this website, my colleague and I described aspects of a school-based practice which we believe can encourage and maintain a classroom culture of ‘reading for pleasure‘. As someone who, like many others, has always read for pleasure, I am a passionate advocate for helping all children to experience the gains and satisfactions of such a brilliant resource. Since reading the book and attending the conference, I realise that,  while our own practice is very much affirmed by current thinking about reading for pleasure, there is still more to consider and act upon than I have been aware of.

National Curriculum And Reading

In 2013, the National Curriculum (for the first time in its history) required that children be taught to develop pleasure in reading. Although ‘enticed’ or ‘invited’ would have been better word choices than ‘taught’, this requirement was and is encouraging, since it established that reading for pleasure was no longer to be viewed simply as a desirable spin-off from reading instruction, a kind of optional extra. What was the rationale behind this official foregrounding of a hitherto ignored aspect of reading?

What Does The Research Say?

Research has shown that reading for pleasure – the desire and the will to read – carries significant personal and affective benefits for a child reader in terms of, for example:

  • fostering empathy,
  • engaging the emotions,
  • expanding the imagination,
  • providing the means of a temporary escape,
  • widening knowledge,
  • helping the child  negotiate an identity and a place in the world (Alexander, 2010).

These are arguably benefits for society in general. There are academic gains too. Children who read with engagement will read more, will absorb models for writing, develop a wider vocabulary and show improvements in spelling. (Sullivan and Brown, 2013; Cox and Guthrie, 2001.) However, research has also shown there to have been a definite decline in reading for pleasure in recent years among both primary and secondary aged children (Twist et al, 2012). This, as the book’s authors rightly say, is a cause for national (and international) concern. Something isn’t working in schools.

What I want to do in this article is to outline a primary school project set up by UKLA (United Kingdom Literacy Association) a few years ago, from which grew a distinct Reading for Pleasure pedagogy, and then to list some practical strategies which form part of this pedagogy.  The project, Teachers As Readers, aimed firstly to survey the participating teachers’ knowledge and use of children’s literature in the classroom and to find ways of enhancing this knowledge and its implementation. The most striking part of the project was the focus on the concept of  Reading Teachers, defined as ‘teachers who read and readers who teach’ (Commeyras, Bisplinghoff and Olson, 2003).

The Most Important Paragraph Of All

Developing as a Reading Teacher fundamentally involves  having a deep knowledge of yourself as a reader and of your own reading history, a commitment to reading children’s literature, together with knowing the children in your class as readers, knowing their informal reading practices both in and out of school, and acknowledging the diversity in what, how, and how much they choose to read. What is so exciting and innovative (and so connected to being human) about this concept is that, as the project showed, new and highly productive relationships between teachers and children can be forged from it, which impact positively on children’s attitudes to and pleasure in reading. If teachers are willing to position themselves as fellow-readers, share their own reading histories and experiences, and invite the children to share their everyday encounters with reading and their perceptions of themselves as readers, then it is possible for a truly reciprocal relationship to emerge, and a reciprocal reading community to be created where reading is seen as a pleasurable social practice, and talking about reading becomes endemic to the life of the classroom.

(I take this opportunity to mention that my colleague and I have been concentrating on creating a similarly reciprocal community of writers in our classroom, through everyone sharing and developing their own writing processes as part of on-going  writer to  writer conversations.)

Children Choosing Books To Read

The book shows how it is possible to translate the National Curriculum requirement into a thoughtful and sympathetic Reading for Pleasure pedagogy. The teacher’s identity shift from ‘arbiter’ of reading to Reading Teacher allows other transformations to take place. For example, knowing children’s reading preferences both in and out of school and then using this knowledge to provide a wide range of different kinds of texts in class or school libraries means that teachers are validating and respecting children’s reading choices. Children can then maybe be given the agency to be self-selectors of their own independent reading. Potentially schools might want to consider the possibility of dispensing with the practice of colour-coding children’s books (at least in class libraries). Though we appreciate that some schools also find colour-codes useful. Potentially though, children may very quickly learn to do what they need to do – be autonomously discriminating in their own choices. We only suggest this as a potential practice because the authors refer to studies (Krashen (1993), Sanacore (1999) & Gambrell,1996) which show that self-selection enhances motivation as readers, and point out that agency and motivation are crucial in fostering reading for pleasure. Of course, children would likely need advice and recommendations from their teachers. In terms of us, we can only say that our children see us as Reading Teachers; they trust us and will at least try out suggested texts that we pick out for them to try.

The question of agency and independence has implications for writing too. Allowing children to choose their own topics both increases motivation and makes clear links between reading and writing, since children will often draw on their personal reading to generate ideas for written pieces.  In our class, we tried out the use of ‘Writing Tricks Books’, in which the children could ‘magpie’ from their reading: words, phrases, and figurative language which might be helpful in describing settings or building up characters in their own writing. This has been interesting but a lot more work would be required to see what kind of benefits it has for the children’s writing outcomes.

Children Talking About Books!

One of the most important and transformative outcomes of the pedagogy to impact on reading for pleasure is the emergence, described in the book, of ‘inside-text talk’. During the project, the researchers observed apparently naturally occurring, ‘close’ conversations about reading which were taking place anywhere, any time, essentially informal, child-led, inclusive, and different from, though complementary to, the more engineered and  teacher-led ‘booktalk’ sessions which are often the only classroom discussions about reading. Rich examples of this kind of talk are given in the book. The project-teachers observed that when inside-text talk was going on, children were asking more questions, and that the questions were ‘more probing, demanding much more than simple recall of facts.  Teachers also saw the value of talk for the authentic assessment of reading, and for the ways in which it could facilitate collective and individual meaning-making.

If book talk is a core element of a community of readers, so is the social practice of a teacher reading aloud to the class – sharing poems, picture books, short stories and whole novels. Far from being simply a pleasant way to finish the day or the week, reading aloud is seen as a significant pedagogical activity with strong contributions to make to a climate of reading for pleasure. Through being read to regularly, children’s knowledge of what is out there to be enjoyed widens. If it is read well, they will absorb the shapes, language, sounds and rhythms of the text. However, while this has obvious implications for writing, the study made it clear that it is essential that children understand that hearing a text read aloud has pleasure at its heart, and that the text is not being used as a tool for another, narrower purpose, such as the teaching of grammar or as a future writing assignment. One of the project teachers had this to say, and you can hear the feeling of liberation in her words:

‘I now read to the class without thinking ‘I could do this with it or I could do that with it’ and I think the children sit back and think ‘I can just enjoy this’…..that had been a big struggle – thinking how many boxes can I tick, what objectives can I cover and you actually then lose the impact of….the book. You know, just enjoy it for a book and a good story and a good emotional journey.’

As the authors acknowledge, there is more work to be done, particularly in the area of parental involvement. I have appended a few of the strategies relating to parents which the book refers to and which were discussed at the conference. Again, the emphasis is on establishing reciprocity in reader relationships between families, parents and schools. This seems exciting.

There can be no doubt, from reading the studies, that implementing a reading for pleasure pedagogy offers huge gains in terms of creating communities of interested, engaged and enthusiastic readers. I conclude with a final word about test scores. In one of the project schools, teachers reported that over the academic year every child showed improvement in reading, and the scores of more than 50% of the children in the the two classes increased by three sub-levels or more. The following list of strategies and practices related to the pedagogy can be implemented in any classroom if teachers are personally and professionally committed to careful, systematic and consistent planning.

Which Ones Do You Think You Do?

  1. Widen your own reading of children’s literature; consult published booklists and review magazines.
  2. Allow more daily DEAR time.
  3. Have a class library with a wide range of texts.
  4. Allow the free passage of home texts to school and school texts being allowed to go home.
  5. Have child-led booklists of recommendations, and book displays with clear star ratings.
  6. Share book reviews with other schools.
  7. Connect with the local library.
  8. Read aloud on a regular basis.
  9. Ask children to write regular ‘reading letters’ to the teacher in their home-school reading record books. These require a brief answer.
  10. Have Daniel Pennac’s ‘Rights of the Reader’ understood and displayed in the classroom.
  11. Keep a record of children’s reading choices.
  12. Invite teachers, children and parents to create a personal River of Reading collage. Draw, stick on/write about anything you have read over a long or short period of time. Share in class.
  13. Invite parents into the school or class library at the end of the day, to chat or read with children. Value their personal contributions without making them feel intimidated! This could develop into a reading club or group.

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**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are our own and may not represent our employer.**


  • Alexander, R., (2010) Children, Their World & Their Education London:Routledge
  • Commeyras, M., Bisplinghoff, B.S., Olson, J., (2003) Teachers as Readers: Perspectives on the importance of reading in teachers’ classrooms and lives Newwark, NJ: International Reading Association
  • Cox. K., Guthrie, J.T., (2001) Motivational and cognitive contributions to students amount of reading In Contemporary educational psychology 26(1), 116-131
  • Cremin, T., Mottram, M., Collins, F., Powell, S., Safford, K., (2014) Building Communities Of Engaged Readers London: Routledge
    • Gambrell, L., (1996) Creating classroom cultures that foster reading motivation In The Reading Teacher 50, 14-
  • Krashen, S., (2004) The power of reading: insights from research Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
  • Sanacore, J., (1999) Encouraging children to make choices about their literacy learning In Intervention in school and clinic 35, 38-42
  • Sullivan, A., Brown, M., (2013) Social inequalities in cognitive sores arge 16: The role of reading In CLS Working Paper London: Centre for longitudinal studies
  • Twist, L., Sizmur, J., Barrlett, S., Lynn, L., (2012) PIRLS 2011 Reading Achievement in England Research Brief London: DFE

Creating A Community Of Readers: The Power Of DEAR

This article is based on, and written in relation to, findings of educational research (Cremin, 2008, Pieper & Beadle, 2016 & Miller & Anderson, 2009). The tenor of this article is to allow the reader to reflect on children’s reading and is in no way a criticism of any school(s) policy or teachers’ practice.

This is a grass-roots account of how, in one term, two teachers have taken one class’s reading and made it a central, natural and pleasurable part of the life of a classroom.

Little Pockets Of Time


As the new teachers of this class wanting to establish a ‘reading classroom’, we felt we could try to find pockets of time in the school day for private reading. Thus, when children in our class arrive in the morning they begin their day with a quiet fifteen minutes of personal reading of a book they are enjoying. They have a second, thirty-minute session of reading (including time for browsing) at the beginning of every afternoon. They know, too, that when they have finished their set tasks, they can either ‘free-write’ or continue reading. They do both, happily; in equal measure. This means each child is reading a minimum of 3 hours and 45 minutes a week. For children that do their 30 minutes of home reading, this equates to over 7 hours of reading a week! 

‘Introducing ‘Book-Letters’.

We think it is important and totally justifiable to set aside this amount of time for reading in school because, in our experience, you cannot assume that all children are reading much at home, given the legitimate pressures of outside activities and the attractions of technology. We have, however, devised ways of monitoring  the extent of their home reading. We have adjusted the daily ‘title and page number’ entry in their home-school reading record book, which was usually filled in the same rushed handwriting and pen colour the morning it was due in. Now, over the weekend, children write a short ‘book-letter’ addressed to us in their reading record book, to which we write a brief reply.

Tracking Reading

To keep track of reading, during DEAR time, we spend around ten minutes every couple of weeks, collecting information from each child and putting it on a spread-sheet. We also ask each child to make a quick comment on how the reading is going and to rate any book they’ve read or abandoned out of 10. Children are also allowed to give a book a STAR rating. The spread-sheet  enables us to see at a glance how much reading is going on, and gives us valuable information about the range of books chosen by each child and how they are developing personal tastes and preferences. It also lets them know that we appreciate and take seriously the amount of enjoyment they are getting from the books they are reading.



We enter the titles of books children have abandoned (the rule being that you must read at least twenty pages before giving it up), and this alerts us to the need to support some children with book choice. We also record our own reading of children’s books on the system. 

Bringing One Book To & From School Everyday

It seems that many children in schools read one book at school and one at home, which  we felt could result in lack of continuity and loss of motivation. We asked the children to read one book at a time, taking it home every night and bringing it to school the next day. Through encouragement and reminders, the children generally do this. If they do forget to bring their book in in the morning, they know that, rather than beginning a new chapter book, they will choose from non-fiction, poetry or picture books. Our tracking system ensures that we know who has what, and the children know that they must be responsible for not mislaying books at home. To date, a few books have been lost but kindly replaced by parents!

Creating A Genuine Class Library – Children Recommending & Donating Books!

We have provided a varied collection of good-quality fiction, non-fiction and poetry. What happens in many classes in many schools is that children draw largely on the central school library, and books don’t generally feature much in classrooms. Children visit the school library on an individual basis to change books when necessary. All books are colour-coded, and children are allocated a colour on the basis of a reading test. We appreciate that this obviously comes with both benefits and disadvantages for schools.

To supplement the collection in the school library we built an additional class library, which is one of the focal points in the classroom. It is stocked with books from our our own personal collections, the local community library, books loaned or donated by the children themselves (this has taken off in a big way), and good-quality texts which we purchase from second-hand shops.

We both like children’s books, and try to keep ourselves informed for the purposes of stocking the class library through publishers’ catalogues, children’s recommendations, the internet, booklists compiled by, for example, CLPE. and The Federation of Children’s Bookgroups, review magazines such as Carousel, bookshops and reference books, as well as our own recollections of good reads from our childhoods.

The stock develops and changes; we ‘drip-feed’ new books at regular intervals to stimulate and maintain interest. The fiction collection is broadly organised into quick, longer and challenging reads, and children are free to sample any book. Our children also learn the skills of discriminating and choosing wisely through having a free hand to browse, try out, keep, reject, try again.  

Class Librarians

We appoint two librarians every fortnight, who keep the stock tidy and make small regular book displays on any topic they like. Books have become a valued part of a small community. They are also always to hand during writing-time; to be sampled, handled, pored over, referred to and talked about.

Book Talks

Recommending, describing, discussing particular books, and talking about reading generally are becoming a natural part of our classroom. Enthusiasm is infectious. Some great conversations take place when two children are browsing together. We have regular ‘booktalk’ sessions which have quite quickly been taken over spontaneously and informally by the children, who often have the urge to tell everyone about this or that good read.

Class Reading Blog

There is also the class blog, which isn’t all about book reviews, but is often a series of peer-to-peer or teacher-peer conversations about anything of interest in the field of books and reading. Some children keep personal reading journal/notebooks, in which they might include ‘someday ‘ lists of books maybe to be read sometime in the future.  

What Next?

If there is an appetite from our readership, we will continue to let you know our progress. We would also like to hear of any recommendations from your classroom that we could incorporate into our reading pedagogy. Please let us know by commenting below.

By the way, you as the teacher don’t have to be an expert in the field, but your enthusiasm, interest and openness to learning from the children and from colleagues who may have some knowledge can be very important. We have found the following  reference books especially helpful, and a pleasure to read in themselves:

  • 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up : Julia Eccleshare(General Editor)
  • The Ultimate Book Guide (books for 8-12s): Daniel Hahn and Leonie Flynn (Eds)
  • The Rough Guide to Children’s Books, 5-11: Nicholas Tucker
  • Tell Me: Children reading and talk: Aidan Chambers
  • Anything written by Michael Rosen on the subject of the reading classroom will be affirming.
  • Cremin, T., (2008) Building Communities Of Readers London: Routledge
  • Pieper & Beadles, (2016) Reading For Pleasure London: Crown House
  • Miller & Anderson, (2009) The Book Whisperer New York: Jossey Bass 

If you liked this article and you’d like updates and future resources from our website, you can follow us by clicking on the follow button in the top-right hand corner of this webpage. Alternatively, you can follow us @Lit4Pleasure on twitter.

**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are informed by research and may not represent our employer.**


Why Children Should Be Encouraged To Only Ever Use Phonics As A Helpful Friend.

A Teacher’s Philosophy

I should start out by stating quite clearly that this is not an article advocating for the removal of phonics from classrooms. A teacher’s approach to the task of reading, however, is guided by what they think reading actually is. If armed with a viable definition of reading and an understanding of some of the instructional implications of the definition, teachers can use almost any reading materials to help children develop productive reading strategies. The teacher is the key.

According to Weaver, (2009, p.15) the following is a good perspective of what reading could be:

Learning to read means learning to bring meaning to a text in order to get meaning from it.’

This has meaning at its heart. It involves the use of all three language cue systems which are discussed and referenced in detail later. Namely: syntactic, semantic and grapho/phonemic.

However, you only need to read the news, walk into any classroom or peruse the children’s book shelves in your local book shop to know that phonics is currently king. Unfortunately, phonics is only further authenticated by high-stakes testing and governmental learning objectives (Davis, 2014).

Vygotsky (1978) stated that ‘children “grow into the intellectual environment around them.” In becoming literate, children acquire a set of cultural practices, values, and beliefs, within which they construct an identity.

Let’s consider what evidence young children must gather from their classrooms to inform what they believe reading to be. They will observe isolated letters of the alphabet, fragmented words, and a few bits of sentences, none of which seem to serve any purpose. Letters and words are festooned all over classroom walls, mostly in the form of lists.They may also find a few things called stories in some of the classrooms, but most of these will be short and dull, and almost invariably accompanied by lists of questions designed to make a test out of the book. Every child is an unprejudiced explorer. Children learn from the artefacts they find in their environment and from the behaviour of the people around them. What must young readers be currently concluding reading to be?

Children are fast becoming to believe that to learn to read is to identify and pronounce words correctly. This is because in school they have learnt that correct word pronunciation is what reading is. However, one hopes that, if reading for pleasure, at home, the child may read for meaning. Whether a teacher is aware of it or not, Weaver (2009, p.15) believes it is perfectly reasonable to assume that teachers who focus intensely on a phonetic strategy for reading are leading children to believe that the following definition of reading is true, that:

Learning to read means learning to pronounce words.’

I think we can all agree that reading would be both inefficient and ineffective if this statement was true; if we only ever relied on grapho/phonemic cues. It also implies that 100% word identification is necessary in order to get meaning, which is ordinarily not so. It also doesn’t take into account what readers bring to a text. It also assumes that they can only ever read what they have been taught. Finally, it erroneously implies that meaning resides in the text alone. It implies that readers are passive and that reading is entirely a one-way process. The impact of this, of course, is that some children are learning that reading is a ‘school activity’, punitive, pointless and boring, not to be engaged in unless teachers require it. Much phonic instruction then is irrelevant and misleading to children. Watch this video to see exactly what I mean.

The Problems With Extreme Phonics Advocacy

Most proponents of a phonics based approach emphasise decoding rather than comprehension. They will argue that this is not the case, however research (Dockrell et al, 2015) indicates  otherwise – of all the reading activities that could currently occur in the classroom, the only one that is done daily is ‘sounding out phonemes‘. Not reading; not the discussion of books.

Extreme phonic advocates seem to think that once words are identified, meaning will take care of itself. You can understand why some people believe the emphasis on phonics to be logical. Language is oral and writing is a graphic representation of language. Is reading then the act of turning writing into its oral counterpart? If letters and letter combinations (graphemes) simply represent spoken sounds, (phonemes) we simply need to teach a child to pronounce the word and they will be readers. If you teach a child what each letter stands for – they can read. They will then be able to immediately go on to the works of Shakespeare and War & Peace without any problems.


For example, you are likely to be a fluent reader who knows all their grapheme / phonemes combinations. As a result, according to a phonics fundamentalist, you should be able to read the following passage:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Professor Butler’s first-prize sentence appears in “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,” an article in the scholarly journal Diacritics (1997)

I’m sure after reading this passage you’d be unable to provide an adequate summary; not because you couldn’t read the passage correctly but because you couldn’t place the text in a context that made sense to you. This is the same for children who develop only a phonetic philosophy to reading. Sure, they read the passage accurately, but they will recall relatively little. This is because:

  1. Within about half a second or less, children begin to forget some of the details of a sentence.  (Weaver, p.133, 2009)
  2. In isolation, most words do not have a single meaning but rather a range of possible meanings – thus phonics will only be of limited use to the reader.
  3. Words take on specific meanings as they transact with one another on the page together – thus phonics will certainly not help in this transaction and indeed due to its time consuming nature, can damage this process.
  4. Meaning is not in the text or words themselves but in the reader’s interpretations – phonics makes no contribution to this.
  5. Readers make sense of texts by bringing to bear their life experiences, knowledge and feelings – phonics plays no part in this.
  6. Meaning emerges as a child engages with a whole text in context. – phonics can only ever be a helpful friend to this process.

Single Words – Multiple Meanings

70% of commonly used English words have more than one meaning (Tennent et al, 2016, Aitchision, 2003, Bromley, 2007). Take the simple word ‘run’. According to phonics-based philosophy of reading, once you can decode and pronounce the word, meaning should take care of itself. Consider what you think the word run is to mean and then read the following examples and see if your meaning works in the context of the whole sentence:

  1. Can you run the shop for an hour?
  2. Can you run the printing press?
  3. Can you do the run for charity?
  4. Can you run in the next election?
  5. Can you help with the school run?
  6. They’ll print 500 copies in the first
  7. Jenny has a run in her tights.
  8. There was a run on BBQs this weekend.
  9. It had a long run at the theatre.

Now, the question is, in these and other sentences, how can a young phonetic-based reader know what run means? They are at a disadvantage. I’m sure the strategy of decoding and word recognition was not all that was required for you to take the full meaning from the sentences. It is clear then that we do not simply add together the meanings of individual words in a sentence to get the meaning of the whole. This is because we cannot know what a word means until we see it in context as a whole. Thus many phonic activities fail children in their pursuit of reading for meaning because they are not engaging in whole text, but rather, making individual sounds or sounding out individual words in isolation. This leaves children at a serious disadvantage when they approach real texts. Take for example these examples:

  1. Get Sally to chair the meeting.
  2. Separate the white from the yolk
  3. That was a close call

Also, there are many words we do not know how to pronounce until we know something about their meaning: wound, lead and tears.

Though these examples provide a common sense view that decoding does not take care of meaning in reading, phonics is still the primary method of word identification instead of one of several cue systems that a young reader has available to them. Therefore it’s incorrect and unethical for teachers and children to believe that reading comes down to the following:

printed symbol = a spoken symbol =meaning.

Phonic Rules Aren’t Rules

As the primary means for identifying unfamiliar words, phonics has certain unavoidable and unquestionable limitations. This has recently been exposed by The British Educational Research Association (2016) where they state:

‘Children actually have to rely on their vocabulary knowledge to know how a word sounds, rather than only following phonic rules. Schools are wasting time on teaching [phonic rules] which are of little use to children in reading for real.’.

Additionally, phonic rules and application of them are difficult for many children to understand (Artley, 1977, Weaver, 2009). An early children’s text can have anything up to 21 regular consonants, 25 consonant blends and 13 silent consonants. As for vowels, you have single vowels, diagraphs, blends, plus rules which apply to multi-syllabic words. This is a massive load.

The fact is, even if this kind of content can be taught, and as The British Educational Research Association acknowledge, the sound-symbol relationships in English are not sufficiently consistent to make it possible to use phonic generalisations with any degree of regularity.

Note, just as two common examples: the ea diagraph in – break, bread, near and beach. Not to mention the ng in – longer, singer, finger and ranger.

Another example is ‘paws’, which phonetically could produce something that also fits, pause, pours and pores. So if ‘paws’ is encountered out of context, you cannot identify the sound with a real word unless you already recognise the word ‘paws,’ in the context of the text, however children fed on a phonics based diet are at a disadvantage when bringing context of this kind to their reading (Davis, 2014).

If you are beginning to think that spelling/sound correspondences are very complicated, you are absolutely right. There are just too many exceptions. Just look at this small selection of examples:

Rule Idea Words Conforming From Common Word Lists Exceptions
When there are two vowels side by side, the long sound of the first one is heard and the second is usually silent. 309 (bead) 377 (chief)
When a vowel is in the middle of a one-syllable word, the vowel is short. 408 249
When there are two vowels, one of which is final e, the first vowel is long and this e is silent 180 (bone) 108 (done)
The first vowel is usually long and the second silent in the diagraphs ai, ea, oa, ui 179 (nail) 92 (said)
In the phonogram ie the I is silent and the e has a long sound 8 (field) 39 (friend)
When words end with silent e, the preceeding a or i is long. 164 (cake) 108 (have)
When a follows w in a word, it usually has the sound a as in was. 15 (watch) 32 (swam)
The two letters ow make the long o sound 50 (own) 35 (down)
W is sometimes a vowel and follows the vowel diagraph rule 50 (crow) 75 (threw)
When y is used as a vowel in words, it sometimes has the sound of long i. 29 (fly) 170 (funny)
One vowel letter in an accented syllable has its short sound 547 (city) 356 (lady)
If the first vowel sound in a word is followed by a single consonant, that consonant usually begins the second syllable. 190 (over) 237 (oven)
When a word has only one vowel letter, the vowel sound is likely to be short 433 (hid) 322 (kind)

This is just a small sample. For the full list see here. Here we can see how even children’s common words lists regularly don’t follow phonetic rules consistently enough to be useful, and so, according to Tovery, giving children phonics as their go-to reading strategy leaves them at an incredible disadvantage.

The instruction required for children to deal constantly with these often abstract rules simply does not warrant the time and effort often expended. This time might be better spent actually reading.’ (Tovery, 1980, p.437)

According to the CLPE (2000) and Stubbs (1980), it takes children longer to learn to read in English than it takes them to learn to read in other European languages because of this lack of regular and predictable system.

Phonics Is Damaging Reading-For-Pleasure & Life-Long Reading

Reading makes you good at phonics, rather than phonics making you good at reading. (Frank Smith, 1988, p.14)      

We have to also consider the damage that phonics instruction is causing. We are seeing a decline in life-long reading by children (The National Endowment Of The Arts, 2007, DfE, 2012, UKLA, 2012Egmont, 2013, Armistead, 2015, The Reading Agency, 2015) and the eroding away of time in which children could be reading for pleasure at school (NUT, 2016). Unfortunately, we are denying children satisfying experiences with books if we assume that first and foremost, reading means pronouncing words and painstakingly gauging their meaning on an individual basis. It is all too common to assume that word identification precedes comprehension; whereas in fact it is clear that comprehension is the other way around. Because we are getting the meaning of the whole, we can then grasp the meaning of the individual words. Words have meaning only as they transact with one another, within the context of a whole text, as the earlier examples have demonstrated.

Under an extreme phonics program of study, books and stories for ‘meaningful reading’ are always supplementary to the repetitive skills instruction and accompanied by questions so that the students ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers can be counted. Under such conditions, what is to be learned is rigorously and restrictively predetermined. You can see evidence of that in this video.

According the the world renowned & three time winner of New York ‘Teacher Of The Year’ Educationalist John Taylor Gatto:

‘To learn to read and to like it takes about thirty contact hours under the right circumstances, sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less. It’s a fairly easy skill for anyone to pick up if good reasons to do so are provided. Exhortation isn’t sufficient, however, nor intimidation…or humiliation. The only way you can stop a child from learning to read and liking it – in the densely verbal culture which surrounds us all with printed language anywhere we turn – is to teach it the way we currently teach it’. Under the current system ‘by the time a seemingly ‘slow reader’ approaches adulthood, he or she will display indifference to reading, or hatred of it, because of our methods.’ (John Taylor Gatto, Weapons Of Mass Instruction, p.152-153)

The Obsession With Vowels

It is worth noting too that most phonics instruction is based around ‘vowel rules’. Yet vowels are the least important element to be concerned with in the identification of words. It has existed in terms of shorthand in journalism, for years, and remains perfect readable. The following sentence illustrates this fact:

I gss u cn rd ths txt 🙂 wtht vwls.

Only by trying to read the text as a whole can you, or indeed children, understand the meaning of it. Not by reading each letter, word, or sometimes even whole sentences in a text.

Reading is not the process of identifying the pronunciation and meaning of individual words, which phonics instruction could wrongly lead you to believe – particularly if you’re a young child. I think the examples above prove that meaning is more than the product of word pronunciation or identification. Reading is, in fact, a complicated act of processing large pieces of information which transcends individual words.

A Brief History Of Phonics

Extreme and relentless phonics instruction, as an idea, was born out of a simplistic approach to language learning which owes its origins to Verbal Behaviour by B.F. Skinner, a behaviourist, from the early 20th Century. Behaviourists believe that all behaviour, human or animal, it does not matter, can be explained in terms of habits established when instinctive or accidental responses to environmental stimulation are ‘reinforced’ by some kind of reward. Behaviourists have no use for terms like mind, thought or feelings, which they regard as unobservable and unscientific fictions. Skinner argued that children learning to read should follow in precisely the same way that pigeons can be taught to peck at colour lights, by having appropriate responses reinforced.

However, famed and highly regarded linguist, Noam Chomsky published a scathing review of Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour. He rightly ridiculed Skinner’s belief that the laboratory study of animal behaviour could cast any light on the nature of language or on how it is learned. Language, even the language of children, is too rich, too complex, to be regarded as ‘habit-learning’. Under Skinner’s views, children are expected to progress from one meaningless chunk of learning to another. Chomsky demolished Skinner’s arguments, asserting that a behaviouristic approach to reading trivialised both language and learning. It is difficult to study meaningful learning under laboratory conditions. Chomsky’s theory turned conventional views of reading upside down and went on to influence the current theory of how children learn to read, produced by the world-renowned linguistic, Michael Halliday. Halliday currently asserts that sentences grow from entire meanings and that children should learn through the three cueing systems as articulated in this article. He believes that learning to read is a meaning exchange between the text and the reader and that a reader can use a variety of interesting cues to read successfully for meaning, this current view of learning to read is otherwise known as psycholinguistics.

Unfortunately, highly-concentrated phonic schemes represent the world turned upside down. They are based on learning that is essentially nonsensical, determined by the experiment rather than by the learner, and rely on data collected in controlled experimental conditions. (Paraphrased from Insult to Intelligence – Frank Smith) 

According to Frank Smith, children really learn to read when they are engaged in activities that naturally involve and look like reading. This is confirmed in a report commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) in May 2014:

‘One of the key messages to emerge from the evaluation so far is that… a phonics approach to teaching reading should be used alongside other methods.’

So what are these other methods?

Innate Grammatical Knowledge & Using Experience (Schemas)

Children have difficulty in learning anything that, to them, seems to have no purpose. So meaning has to come first. The process of understanding written language starts with understanding entire stories or statements and then goes on to understanding sentences, words, and finally letters, the reverse of the way most children are taught to read through a militant phonics based system. Ironically, it is not until children get to school that they are confronted with examples of written language and with reading activities that are sheer nonsense.

Professor Roger Shuy famously conducted research into the how children learn to read, he reported:

Research shows that good language learners begin with a function, a need to get something done with language, and move gradually toward acquiring the forms which revel that function. they learn holistically, not by isolated skills. Such learners worry more about getting things done with language…they experiment freely and try things unashamedly’ (cited in Insult To Intelligence – Frank Smith p.71)

Children learn, from the earliest age, before they can even begin to talk themselves, to become unconcerned with individual spoken words but rather quickly become concerned by complete utterances, which they are not only quick to comprehend but look to reproduce in sophisticated grammatical order. For example speaking in either subject, verb, object, subject verb or verb subject order. This is called syntactic cueing and it’s interested in the typical grammatical order words often come in. Babies learn that words must fit together to make a logical construction and so even the youngest of children can bring this knowledge to reading. Indeed, Holdaway (1979) has shown that children as young as 2 1/2 can make self-corrections while they reconstruct texts, page by page, from familiar books. Soderberh’s (1971) study documents this in detail. Children can learn to read at the same age and in the same ways as they have learnt to talk, by being exposed to written language for pleasure.

This process of grammatically delimitating a word’s possible meaning is so automatic that children are often not aware of it, but it nevertheless occurs – and is made possible by grammatical schemas identified as innate by Noam Chomsky who describes it as our deep structures (1966).

Unfortunately, as is often the case under phonetic rule, there is use of only one strategy ‘sounding the word out’. By doing this, children are denied the opportunity to apply this far quicker and natural strategy to their reading. With this said however, if a child does fail to apply syntactic reasoning to a potential word then of course use of a sound-symbol can be a very helpful cue indeed!

Take for example:

The train went into the station.

If a child can’t recognise the word station immediately as a sight word, the reader will be aware that the train went somewhere and this somewhere must begin with the easy to remember ‘st’ sound and even ends with an n sound. A reader who has been taught to use a combination of cues will reconstruct this writer’s message quickly and without the pain and time-consuming ‘sounding it out’. This is because they use only the most productive visual cues. This use of syntactic cueing is further evidenced in Bissex’s (1986) study where she notes a child, at the age of two, practising substitutions in his own sentence frames.

Phonics Can Lend A Helping Hand Towards Comprehension Or Sabotage It

Taking the above into account, it can follow that children must be taught basic phonics rules to make decoding problem words easier. The issue is not whether children should be taught phonics. The issues now are specific ones of just how it should be done.

Much of the current phonics drive goes well beyond what is needed by children or indeed adults. Basic phonics can be a useful tool for the identification of unfamiliar words – just not as the primary means. Rather it should act as a supportive partner to other cueing systems described above. If we want children to read for meaning, which I’m sure all of us do, children using all their knowledge of the world (schemas) and language – and the fact  that words must ‘fit’ together – and make sense (syntactic), is usually all that is required to enable them to read unidentified words.

But basic phonetic knowledge is helpful when a child needs to make a choice from among possible plausible words. For example:

The postman put a l______ through the door.

The unknown word of course could be package, letter or box. Noting, however, that the word begins with l tells the reader it is ‘letter’. However, if the child has only been taught the phonetic cueing system that of sounding out of the word this simple task could soon become an incredibly boring, time-consuming and above all unnecessary task. Remember too that each time a child has to stop to decode the individual letters in a word, they are losing their connection to the context of the piece and by the end are unlikely to have any clue what the text was about as a whole.

So with this being true, what should be included in a phonics program to make it a useful aid to word identification? Well, consonant symbol-sounds, including consonant-diagraphs and blends (ch, th, sh, bl etc..), are important as most words begin or end with them. This knowledge alone should give a child enough leverage over unfamiliar words to quickly become a competent reader.

Teaching the 27 vowel generalisations is unlikely to be helpful or necessary. Analysis of the 650 most common words (Artley, 1976) showed that 68% of them conform to simple long and short vowel sounds and so these certainly could be taught. In polysyllabic words the percentage was 80%. This means that 4 in every 5 words could be read if children were taught the long and short vowel symbol-sound relations. On coming to a problem word they could simply pronounce both to see which would make logical sense. Take for example the following:

The smoke is coming th-r-oo the window. This works in context a lot better than th-r-ow.

Such a procedure is often already done by children anyway. Take for example when they are exposed to words like troop, boot and foot, where there is no rule. Yet another example could be trialling the difference between the pronounced e and the silent e. Take for example:

I had a good ______ at the party. This will need only to try time and tim-e.

Context Is The Quickest Way To Word Identification (With Some Help From Its Friend Phonics). 

Remember that syntactic context consists of the innate signals that very young children learn which include grammatical understanding of word endings, function words and typical grammatical word order (what Chomsky calls deep structures). We also have semantic context which consists of the meaningful relationships between amongst words. If you’d like to see how grammar as well as meaning can aid in the identification of words, look at the example below:

  1. Furry wild-dogs fight furious battles.
  2. Furry teachers create distressed stains.
  3. Furry fights furious wild-dog battles.
  4. Furry create distressed teacher stains.

The first sentence is the easiest to process, because it has both grammar and meaning, normal word order and it makes reasonable sense. The hardest to process has neither grammar nor meaning.

Various studies (see references below) indicate that both grammar and meaning aid in the identification and recall of words. Both syntactic and semantic context are important, as you have probably concluded from all the examples above so far.

Children can use contexts (schemas) that they have outside or beyond the text as well as within the text to identify words quickly and easily. For example they will use context from the sentence before the one being read as well as context before the word currently being identified. All readers will also sometimes read after – to gain context. I know I do, particularly in academic reading.

This next example really does bring this all into perspective. Using syntactic and semantic context you will quickly figure out what the missing words are in this passage. To further aid you, you have been given some basic grapho/phonic clues to confirm your informed guesses.

The Beaver

Native-Americans call beavers the ‘little men of the woods.’

But a__ they really so very little? S___ beavers grow to be ____ or four feet long _____ weigh from 30 to 50 p_____.

These ‘little men __ the woods’ are busy a___ of the time. That __ why we sometimes say ‘b____ as a beaver’. B___ know how to build d___ that can hold water. Th____ use their two front t____ to do some of ___ work.

The various kinds of contexts within the sentence will have helped you to narrow the alternatives to such a point that we need to use only a small amount of grapho/phonic information to identify the word in question. Sometimes you will notice you didn’t need that visual information at all. The benefit of this approach to reading is that it much closer to the real purpose of reading, that of the exchange of meaning between the text and the reader and that is is much faster and more efficient. When children are exposed to this type of reading approach not only are they taking part in the authentic purpose of reading from the very off, they grow up not normally having to rely just on grapho/phonics. Rather, they can use context to reduce their reliance and so become fluent and engaged readers of whole texts.

  1. Context: Children use their store of knowledge, experience plus syntactic knowledge of preceding context (both words and sentences) in order to make an informed guess of what might come next.
  2. The Word Itself: Using only the simplest of visual cues as necessary to confirm their informed guess, they identify the word.
  3. Context: Use this new found context to confirm or correct their informed guess.

Don’t Make Children Read Words In Isolation

Goodman’s (1965) study concluded that a group of 5/6 year olds could read 62% of words they couldn’t read in isolation, when they were read in context.6/7 year olds were able to read 75% in context and 7/8 year olds were able to read 82%. Murphy’s (1982) & Allington’s (1980) study provided very similar results. With this said, it is right that children be exposed to high-quality texts and reading-for-pleasure opportunities as possible, rather than activities which treat reading as ‘learning to read to pronounce words’, as seen in this video.

This may mean that children who read words in sentences rather than study them in lists or on flash cards may be slower to learn to recognise words in isolation. But when will children need to recognise words in isolation? Oh for the phonics test of course! Back in the real-world of reading however, words typically occur in context and for purpose. If indeed children learn to develop a stock of sight words somewhat more slowly through reading itself, so be it. The compensation is that children typically have a much greater understanding of what the words actually mean and is far closer to the actual purpose behind reading. Children are reading for meaning, not to identify sounds or single words. They are using and further refining the strategies characteristic of proficient readers (see references) for more details.

Phonic-Book Sets

We also need to consider the impact of phonic-book sets. Amazingly, these are often incredibly hard to read. They are often obligated to simplify and restrict the language in them to such a degree that they often get to the point where the selections are more difficult or boring to read precisely because the language is so unnatural and warped.

Artful writing entails the creation of truly rhythmic language, and rhythmic structures are easier to anticipate than the choppy and stilted prose typical of [phonic book sets]. Reader In The Writer, CLPE (2012) – p.37

When reading these phonic sets, you often have to ask yourself: who ever uttered a sentence like that? No one places deliberate and artificial letter/sound restrictions on themselves so why should these books? This makes it nearly impossible for children to use them in order to develop their own understanding about real print and how it really works. They are left at a disadvantage. Virtually all phonic-book sets focus at the outset on skills for identifying sounds or words rather than on strategies for constructing meaning from the text as a whole.

We should be encouraging children to recognise significant words so that they can see how learning the sounds of letters as meaningful and easy, rather than the other way round. For example, Frank Smith, states that learning long but meaningful sentences is much easier to understand and remember than elliptical telegraphic sequences often offered up by the phonic-book-sets. When language is normally used, the richness of detail in longer sentences helps the reader to understand the theme. Short sentences however, are a strain on both memory and patience. Real stories written by experienced authors, rich with plot, narrative interest, and character development, are easier to comprehend than a few truncated sentences put together by instructional phonic programs. Artificial language is required only to make these nonsensical texts look good at what they do.

There is a constant battle for control of classrooms between educational publishers, governmental ‘authority-stamping’ and test producers who want to hold teachers accountable for delivering instruction in the misguided wisdom that they think they know best how children are taught; then you have the teachers who know there is a better way.

Children should be asked to read every-day – and should avoid having to read artificially ‘simplified’ or contrived language, which doesn’t represent real books or the real world. There is no need to have a division between ‘learning to read’ and ‘reading to learn’, like a sole phonic approach does. From the very beginning, children can be presented with and encouraged to read real texts with real purpose.

Phonics In Review

  1. Since vowels are relatively unimportant in identifying words, it seems unnecessary to teach numerous vowel rules, as most phonics programs do.
  2. Spelling/sound correspondences are often very complex and not easily reducible to rules that can or should be taught.
  3. Only a few of the frequently taught rules are both consistent and comprehensive – that is, applicable to a considerable number of words.
  4. Even most of these rules probably do not need to be explicitly taught to whole classes of children, since most children can and will internalize spelling/sound patterns just by reading a lot and/or with minimal guidance in observing correspondences and patterns.
  5. Thus most children probably do not need nearly a much phonics instruction as they are typically receiving in today’s phonics programs and phonic-book-sets. (Weaver, 2009, pp.778)

Extreme phonic instruction then is a foolish, impudent and odious endeavour. Today’s phonics teaching  drills have pizzazz but what I find foolish is the basic premise – that reading can be achieved by drilling students on discrete skills. What are these skills good for? What should the child actually do with them? Unfortunately, it seems, acquisition is the only goal. It’s merely there to encourage the foul bureaucratic impulse for collection, storage and retrieval of data and so called ‘progress’. Instead of assuming that children can only read what they have been taught, we must assume that they can only read what they understand and can interact with, and that the teaching of sounds has some but not a great deal of influence on this process.

As teachers we must help children to select the most productive reading skills: to use their knowledge of language structure, to draw on their experiences and concepts. I hope teachers are looking to nurture their students in an environment that convinces them they might want to read a book. I’ve seen too many proficient decoders, children who perform extremely well on standardised tests but are never willingly pick up a book. This is because they have mastered an incomplete system, one they find lacking in marvel or mystery.

Phonics Screening Tests & Commercial Interests In Phonics Research 

There is an irony surrounding the endeavour to remove the personal and possibly prejudicial from education evaluation. Supposedly, phonic screening tests are looking to assess children’s progress in learning to ‘read’. The reality though is that it results in the totally arbitrary and distorted procedure of teaching only those things that can be cleanly scored right or wrong, and counted. The cost of removing human error for the sake of testing has been the removal of all humanity and the reduction of reading education to trivia.

Warwick Mansell published a damning account of [over testing] in education.

[He] sets out in comprehensive and sometimes shocking detail, the pressure on teachers to deliver the improving test statistics by which the outside world judges them is proving counter-productive. Schools have been turning increasingly into exam factories… Intellectual curiosity is stifled. And young people’s deeper cultural, moral sporting social and spiritual faculties are marginalised by a system in which all must come second to delivering improving test and exam numbers.

It’s important to remember too what Frank Smith articulates, which is: ‘in an evidence oriented enterprise, those who control the evidence-gathering, control the entire enterprise’ (Insult To Intelligence, p.130). Presently, that would be major publishing houses  (producing largely phonics material for schools – please click this link, it is illuminating), phonics companies and the exam companies who received around £328m in the decade ending 2012. Respected Doctor of Language Reading Ken Goodman states clearly that: ‘it’s a political campaign, tightly controlled, carefully manipulated, and [that] most of the players don’t even know they’re being used’.

You’ll also find it interesting perhaps to find that Ruth Miskin, who has huge commercial interest in phonics, proposed phonics be placed into the curriculum in a heavyhanded way despite all the other members of the advisory panel as well as the English Association, the United Kingdom Literacy Association and the National Association for the Teaching of English raising serious doubts.

According to Grainger (2012), when one examines the authorship, sponsorship and recommendations of these reports (for example), it begins to look as if, far from being a well-balanced and informed discussion of the issues of reading, they are biased in the direction of certain pre-existing views and interests. It would be overly cynical to suggest that they were written with the sole aim of promoting the interests of certain professional groups, charities and companies. Nevertheless, it is a
worrying feature of these reports that their arguments for intervening in educational practice rely heavily on evidence produced by bodies that stand to gain.

We also have this research summary of the screening test from The British Educational Research Association (2016). ‘[teachers are] wrongly spending time teaching elements of phonic knowledge which will not be very useful either in the tests themselves or to the pupils in reading real books’. They go on to say… ‘The content of the [phonics screening] check correctly reflects the reality that only a small number of GPCs dominate the English language. Pupils should therefore spend time learning this small number quickly, and then move on to reading “real books”. This is further endorsed by The UK Literacy Association.

In heavily prescriptive phonics classrooms, there are two types of learner-reader:

  • One kind do well on the skill drills because they have enough control and experience of the reading process I have described throughout this article – therefore they don’t actually need much of this skill instruction.
  • The second kind have great difficulty with the sequenced skills presented to them because they are dealing with them as abstractions…such learner rarely profit from such skill instruction and often will receive even more as a result of their failure to acquire these said skills – which leads them even further away from the act of reading.

Further to this is Stephen Krashen’s assessment of phonics and reading:

‘Of great interest is the consistent finding that heavy phonics training only helps children do better on phonics tests. It has no impact on reading tests. Research also tells us that the best way to get better on reading tests is reading: The best predictor of reading achievement, in study after study, is the amount of recreational reading children have done. The problem is not insufficient phonics teaching, as some claim. It is insufficient access to books. For many children of poverty, their only source of books is the library. Research also tells us that better libraries are associated with better reading test scores. The implication is obvious: Invest in libraries and librarians, not in phonics tests.’

Fundamentalist Phonics Hasn’t Worked So Far

Michael Rosen, in this article, rightly asks the question why, after four years or more of phonics teaching, over 1 in every 4 seven-year-olds still can’t read at the expected level? Why hasn’t phonics solved the problem like many promise it will? Largely because of what has been outlined in this article is being ignored. ‘It may well be that in four years’ time those children will all reach the expected level, but by then they will have experienced many other influences on their reading (like the ones described in this article) and so it would be dodgy logic to assume phonics achieved this. Let’s stay in touch and see when we can say “phonics has eradicated illiteracy…”’


In conclusion, it is reasonable to conclude that phonetic cueing can only act as an aid to word identification and can’t be judged as a sound method for learning to read. Meaning is the beginning and the end of reading, but the means as well. The fact children who have been exposed to a militant phonics approach learn to read does not necessarily mean that they learned to read because of the approach, though people unaware of the nature of the reading process and what is involved in learning to read are of course inclined to make this assumption.

‘What works is not always phonics, and, in fact, for young children, what works best in reading may seldom be intensive phonic instruction’ (Carbo, 1987).

The reality is that we have children who:

The reason that most children are able – perhaps best able to learn to read without intensive phonics instruction is, as we have begun to see, learning to read involves much more than learning to sound out letters and identify words. This is further endorsed by The UK Literacy Association. It involves learning to bring one’s own experiences, feelings and knowledge to the task of transacting with a text, and it involves learning to use and coordinate all three language curing systems: syntactic, semantic and grapho/phonemic. For more information on this, you might want to read my post here.

Researcher Stephen Krashen (2004) identifies 51-studies that prove that children who are allowed to read freely perform better than or equal to students in phonic-reading programmes. However, Krashen (2004) also found that students’ motivation and interest in reading was higher.

It’s amazing then to think that children can learn to read with, or perhaps in spite of, an approach that focuses mainly on phonics. Luckily, children have a natural, innate tendency to create meaning by transacting with their environment. Children can translate print to their daily lives because many of them can naturally translate their reading to what they have learnt about spoken language as a baby and because they have a tremendous capacity for forming their own ways of thinking about how language works -again, a capacity clearly exemplified in their toddler years -where they learn to speak more and more like adults.

A child’s mind asks questions, seeks order, and monitors and corrects its own learning. These are natural functions of human mind. However, these are also functions that teachers have regarded as their own special domain, functions that teachers have so preempted that children often abandon them when in classrooms. Such distrust of a child’s mind in the classroom is but one manifestation of a militant phonics advocate’s distrust of the learning ability inherent in human mind.

‘Children are small; their minds are not.’ – Glenda Bissex

Children demonstrate their power to abstract, hypothesise, construct and revise all the time. Given this view of children, surely one role of reading instruction is to affirm each child’s inner teacher.

Finally then, when reading is taught with emphasis on meaning – context cues can become the dominant force and are the closest cues related to the actual purpose of reading, that of comprehending; this approach encourages rather than thwarts the acquisition of good reading strategies.  After all it is comprehending that makes an independent and life-long reader.

**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are our own and may not represent our employer.**


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