Tips to Boost Early Literacy
Reading is one of the most important skills that a child will learn at school. The ‘science of reading’ approach is an evidence-based practice that informs us not only how children learn to read, but how they become skilled readers. This article explains different stages of reading and how children’s reading skills can be extended at home.
The Simple View of Reading
The image below depicts the skills necessary for reading comprehension. It begins with ‘Decoding’, the ability to look at a letter and know the sound before blending these together to make a word. For example, the letter sounds of ‘c’, ‘a’, ‘t’ would blend to make the word ‘cat’. The second part of the equation is ‘Language Comprehension’, i.e. the ability to understand what is being conveyed. If the word ‘cat’ was in a sentence such as, ‘The black cat sat’ and a child understood the meaning of ‘black’, ‘cat’ and ‘sat’, then it would suggest that the child has understood the text. While this is an introductory sentence for a child, the ‘reading science in schools’ approach highlights the importance of the other layers needed to develop a skilled reader, from the foundation upwards.
The Reading Rope, as shown in the picture below, sets out the skills necessary for children to reach the goal of becoming a skilled reader. The top category of rope strands is labelled ‘Language Comprehension’ and details the five key areas of emphasis. The bottom part of the rope is categorised as ‘Word Recognition’ and has three areas of focus.
The rope depicts the skills children need to practise, over an extended period of time, to become a skilled reader. There are different ways that this is approached, depending on the phase of the reader, as explained below.
Two Phases of Readers
1. Emergent Readers
Emergent readers are children who are still mastering the word recognition section of the rope. This includes:
Learning the 44 sounds of the English language;
Connecting sounds to letters and blending them to make words;
Knowing a wide range of sight words.
The aim of an emergent reader is to gain a solid foundation in the word recognition section. A child may have a good understanding of these skills and is confident in practising them, however when a child needs to think about how to read a text, it becomes more challenging for them to understand what they are reading. This is due to their cognitive load, or working memory, becoming overwhelmed due to the amount of information that needs to be processed at any one time. Therefore, once children are able to decode fluently or read large amounts of text accurately and without having to continually decode, they can then move on to comprehending the text they have read.
Parent Tip: Focus on language comprehension with emergent readers when reading a book together by asking your child questions about the text. For example, “Why do you think the dog always barked when it saw the cat?”
2. Fluent Readers
Fluent readers have mastered the word recognition section. They know the 44 sounds, can read many words, including sight words, without having to decode. This means they have developed automaticity with a large amount of words. When they encounter a new word, they know how to decode the word in order to be able to read it. This includes tricky words with less common phonic patterns, such as the ‘ci’ [sh] sound in ‘precious’. This allows the fluent reader to focus on the meaning of the text because they do not need to work on how to read the words.
Parent Tip: Always encourage your child to sound out words they do not yet know. Strong readers always decode new words as their first port of call.
If the goal for Emergent Readers is to gain fluency in their work recognition skills, how is language comprehension promoted? How do fluent readers develop their language comprehension skills?
Language comprehension is covered at school in different ways, but for emergent readers it is mainly through whole class reading sessions. This is also true for fluent readers, however they are also exposed to language comprehension practice during individual or small group sessions of the text they are reading themselves. During whole class reading sessions, as well as the texts that fluent readers cover independently, the children are exposed to a wide variety of texts. These include long and short reads, fiction and nonfiction books, leaflets and magazines.
The texts chosen in schools to promote language comprehension include a similar topic, theme or genre set over a period of time so children can gain a deeper understanding. Teachers also focus on the key vocabulary in the text to ensure children understand the meaning of words. During a reading session a teacher will ask children questions about the text to check their understanding. For example, a teacher could ask a child to share what they already know about a topic, find a specific piece of information in the text, summarize what they have read or predict what will happen next.
What You Can Do At Home
For parents of emergent readers, practise phonics daily with your child by using decodable readers. Decodable readers usually have one key phonic sound to practise. These types of books solely focus on allowing the child to practise their phonics through decoding of words. They are not used for language comprehension tasks. For Example, Pip Gets Rich as a decodable reader to practise the ‘ch’ sound.
Before reading a book together at home, provide your child with some background information on the topic, or link it to something you’ve read before. Even better, link it to an experience you have had. For example, if you are going to read about wildlife, have a discussion about a trip you had at the zoo.
It is also important to check that your child knows the meaning of words before you read the text. Have a quick flick through the book to find 5 key words related to the theme of the book. Sometimes the key words have already been highlighted in bold and include the meaning of the words in the glossary at the back of the book. Ensure that you only choose a handful of words so your child maintains their interest in the book. If other words pop up in the text that your child is unsure of, feel free to pause and explain. These are great opportunities to stop and check their understanding of what has been read so far!
After reading, it is always a good idea to talk about the text with your child. These conversations can include you asking questions about the text to your child. You could also ask them to summarize what they have read or ask them what they think will happen next (if you haven’t yet finished the story!).
For both reading phases, ensure your child has access to a selection of varied texts. Examples include fiction and nonfiction texts, poetry, long and short stories and magazines. They can also read leveled texts, but it is important that they have access to a range of levels. The leveled texts should be used as a supplement and not to be relied on as the only source of texts.
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