Whether we work in primary or secondary, building our students’ reading habits and developing their ability to read fluently should be our ultimate aim.
When one in five children cannot read well by the age of 11 and a similar number do not have the minimum level of literacy proficiency at 15 years old, we must ensure that we are giving students opportunities to develop their reading skills every single day.
Quick read: Pedagogy Focus: Phonics
Quick listen: What every teacher needs to know about grammar
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This is the responsibility of all teachers.
According to research collated by the Reading Agency, children who are confident readers are more likely to enjoy reading, and children who enjoy reading are more likely to achieve better results in their exams and secure higher paying jobs after education.
But children will become confident readers only once certain cognitive processes – the ability to translate letter and sound patterns and use orthographic processing (the visual system to form, store, and recall words) – have taken place.
Once these processes have become automatic, reading is no longer effortful.
In our struggling readers, it is likely that the learning of these cognitive processes has met with difficulty and therefore their working memories are still being used for translation of letters, sounds and words, rather than comprehension of the text itself.
Is it any surprise that a student can’t explain what happened to Harry’s parents when they are unable to read relatively complex words such as magic, Voldemort and murderous?
Daniel Willingham explores these cognitive processes in his book The Reading Mind. Early readers need to be able to distinguish letters (alphabet) and sounds (phonemes) from one another, and to know what sounds letters or groups of letters signify.
Through conversation, reading aloud or systematic phonics instruction, students can learn to distinguish these sounds from one another and develop the phonemic awareness which will help them as they encounter these sounds in words that they do not recognise.
The student who at first struggles to read the word “magic” would learn that the g in the middle of the word is not the same as in “gap” or “bag”.
Once letter and sound awareness are entrenched, students can begin to build a bank of orthographic representations of words (what the word looks like on the page) as they read. The more they encounter words, the more familiar these representations will become.
The student who reads “Voldemort” multiple times will no longer need to break the word down into letters and sounds once the visual representation of it is internalised.
If students build up a bank of accurate orthographic representations, they can effectively bypass the letter and sound translation process – which is slower – thus improving their reading fluency. Reading will have become an automatic process and they will no longer feel it an effort to decode texts.
Finally, Willingham states that “reading practice will be more effective if students read aloud” and that “gains are larger when an adult provides feedback”.
This means that we should be building opportunities for our students to read aloud in lessons and we should be diligently picking up on errors, not shying away from correcting them.
Quality feedback from an adult is important in helping students develop their phonemic awareness and orthographic processing.
If we shy away from correcting our students’ reading, then we are leaving them open to misunderstanding not just words, but whole texts.
To successfully incorporate reading into your lessons, it would be advisable to pre-teach any complex vocabulary that students might encounter.
Helping students sound out difficult words phonetically and using a class chorus to do so is good practice; it is my belief that schools should provide all teachers with an understanding of basic phonics at the very least.
For encouraging students to read aloud, the "bounce" method is an excellent example.
Begin by reiterating the rules – you read before bouncing to a student, then they read X number of sentences before bouncing back to you, and so on.
The idea of bouncing back to you means that you can correct any reading errors and clarify comprehension before moving on.
And finally, when you or students are reading aloud, insist that the rest of the class are silent and listening – a great way to ensure all this is happening is to use rulers to follow line by line.
Don’t be afraid to integrate more reading into lessons. The more planned opportunities for excellent reading, the more likely students are to become automatic readers.