Early Reading Skills – Ready to Read?

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MeAm having a bit of an upside down week. I was planning on doing 5 days consecutive  support in a school but looking at the focus of the project it would be much better to do 5 days with a gap in between for action and evaluation so we have re scheduled  the rest of the days giving me a couple of rare 'free' days.

My main focus is to get the Blackpool transition project finished and sent off and any other spare time to catch up on a couple of magazine articles that I need to finish.

With the boys at school it is also the perfect opportunity to take my gorgeous wife out to lunch!

Have had an email about when I think you should give children a reading book. It is a bit like asking how long is a piece of string. There is no definite answer. For me it certainly isn't when you know a certain number of sounds. There is SO much more to reading that comes before/alongside phonics (although it is a very important element).

I think that as a whole staff (especially in a Primary School) you should sit down and identify all of the pre reading skills you need to work on and make them part of your reading policy.

Then when a parent asks why their child has not got a reading book yet, rather than just saying that they are not ready, you can give them a list of activities to go away and work on that are not purely based around phonics.

Of course, children need access to books all of the time. In lots of settings that I work with 'story time' has been replaced by curriculum time and I think that is a real shame. A good story is SO powerful for children and adults of all ages.

It has also been shown through studies following children's reading development that children who are read to often  make better readers. Good stories read to children also have a significant impact on their story writing, so bring back story time!

My ' story of the moment ' is Tadpoles Promise. It is a brilliant story with fab illustrations and a fantastic twist at the end. It is a success with all of children (and adults) that I have read it to. 

There are lots of pre reading skills that you can do with children from very early in their development – and lots of them have nothing to do with a book. These are some very simple ideas that help to do some of the ground work, building skills in children that will be useful when they move on and develop print concept and phonemic awareness which will lead into their decoding of text


Reading invloves memory. Not just the ability to recall key words or letters but also word and picture placement on a page. Building a good memory for both pictures and speech in young children is very beneficial to their progress.

Verbal Memory

The good old Nursery Rhyme is brilliant for this. When children are early readers and cannot decode text well but can join in in reading the familiar phrases like ' I'll huff and I'll puff…' is a great confidence builder and makes them feel like reader!

3 pigs
You can also play lots of word games like ' I packed my bag and in it I put… ' or I went to the shop and I bought…' . The sillier it is and the funnier it is the better it will be!

Visual Memory

Building visual memory helps children when it comes to picture and word placement on a page. They need to be able to recognise some key words by shape and keep on being able to identify them wherever they appear on the page. You can have some great fun with this one. It can be as simple as items on a tray, covered by a tea towel, take one away…which one is missing? or more high tech versions on your white board.

Have a look at this….

Now what is missing?

Simple as that!


Tied in with the rhythm and repetition of things like Nursery Rhymes is the ability to rhyme. It is not a foregone conclusion that children can do this. Often in Early Years children cannt hear or replicate a rhyme. What they need is lots of practise and lots of FUN playing with language that is really familiar to them already and then the opportunity to experiment.

Of course, as with anything you will get HEAPS more engagement if it is actually relevant to them!


Rhythm is really important for developing lots of early skills like coordination and spacial awareness but it is also a key early reading skill. When you are helping children to build up flow and continuity in their reading then their ability to feel and replicate rhythm is a huge help.

Don't just sit in a circle and pass round the claves!! Get something with a beat on nice and loud and turn over some boxes or use flat hands on tables, walls, floor and get banging. Get the children to follow you and make your patterns progressively more complex as they get better.

You can also mix it with a bit of slapping, clapping and stomping. Anything that gets children moving to the beat!

Recognising Letters and Words

When they are ready children will begin to recognise letters and know their sounds. They usually start with their own names then move on to the others. Alongside this letter recognition they will also show an ability to ' read ' far more complex words like Macdonalds and Tesco. This is because children often learn to recognise words by their shape and not by the phonemes that make their sound.

Children who have  a developing awareness of print understand that the marks on a page represent spoken language. They understand that when you read a book it is the marks on the page that tell you what is happening, not just the picture

There are so many words that you just can't phonetically build so children were often taught that they just needed to learn them. This is why they are called ' sight ' words. When I was a head my Deputy (Lisa) always referred to them as ' camera words ' because the children needed to keep a picture of them in their head. Subsequent research has shown that this 'memory' method is not effective for lots of children.

It won't hurt when you are teaching Key Words to do them as a shadow game adds a bit of interest to what can be really dull, but it is not a complete answer! Don't stick key words in a feely bag or bury them in the sand – it doesn't help with the engagement factor!

When I was first teaching we used to do a lot of this…

Can you guess these words by their shape?


Were you right? (Of course you were!) 



Current research has now shown this method of teaching reading to be ineffective. It is far better to teach these words regularly and in context, concentrating on the tricky parts, rather than just whipping out your flash cards!

Phonemic awareness is the understanding that the sounds of spoken language work together to make words, so in 'chip' you hear ch, i and p. Phonics is the understanding that there is a relationship between letters and sounds through written language. So, to write 'chip' you have to know that 'ch' is made up from c and h, then add i and p.

I was asked the other day the difference between a phoneme and a grapheme – so in case you are not entirely sure.


This is also a really useful concept for parents to get their head around when their child's reading journey begins!

The one thing I used to find myself constantly trying to persuade some parents to do is let their children use the picture to help them to make sense of a story. They were forever telling me that they covered up the picture because the children kept looking at it! If your brain knows that you are reading a story about Pirates it is more likely to put all of the words that it knows that are realted to that topic at the front of your brain for easy access (I do appreciate that brains don't really work like this)! Using a picture to tell a story is a great way to build children's vocabulary.

Reading the picture is an essential skill for the early reader with a picture book.

Once they have got some words and phonetic skills and are using a book with words I would discuss with them any new or really complex words before we started, then I would encourage them to use their phonological/sight skills to decode any words they come accross that they don't know.  If they were really struggling to decode the whole word I would get them to tell me what they could, maybe an initial sound, and then I would ask them to use the picture as a clue. It is important that the picture is used to support the phonic decoding that the child can already do and not in isolation.

Once the word has been 'got' I would then discuss a phonic strategy to use next time rather than a guess.

Can you tell me what this says?

 Now can you tell me?

Yep, The boy had a blue balloon. Now how did you work that one out? The red words are Japanese and clearly don't even start with the same sound as the English version, but even if a child could not employ any phonological/sight word strategy to decode those words they could still manage to 'work them out'. They are not really 'reading' them in the truest sense of the word but nor have they had a complete failiure. Although 'guessing' was once a key strategy for the teaching of reading, I would now regard it as something to use very occasionally to promote self confidence.

Early in any learning process the KEY element is self estheem and success. I am a firm believer in short term confidence boosters that will lead to long term success as long as they do not damage the process

There is so much more that you can do but these are a few of the basics. This is not a guide to teaching reading, but a few ideas that will help with the preparation. If you identify what the pre reading skills are that you want to concentrate on then you can get busy finding activities that re enforce them. Then when anyone asks you why you are doing X or have planned activity Y you can give them a definite answer.

You just need to make sure that you do them often and that they are a means to an end. The ability to read is such a gift but it can be a complex thing to master an one day after LOTS and LOTS of ENJOYABLE practise!


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  8. I completely corpsed when I first read this to my class!!
    We were just about to go into a whole-school assembly (led by the Headteacher) and walked in with me still wiping away the tears of laughter, and my children utterly hyperactive! I made sure I apologised to the Head, and explained after assembly!

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