Literacy empowers (Pt4): Teaching reading

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in June 2017.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here

This is part four of a 5-part series.  Read parts one, two and three first.

In this five-part series on literacy across the curriculum I’m making the case for literacy as a whole-school concern, arguing – as George Sampson did – that: “Every teacher is a teacher of English because every teacher is a teacher in English.”

This is part four and in the first three parts I’ve argued that literacy across the curriculum should:

  • Involve all teachers in using language to promote learning in their subject.
  • Identify the particular needs of all pupils in reading, writing, and speaking and listening.
  • Make strong links between the school and the home.
  • Plan for the longer term, emphasising the integral relationship between language for learning and effective teaching in all subjects.

I have also said that literacy learning should: be enjoyable, motivating and challenging; be actively engaging; activate prior learning, secure understanding and provide opportunities to apply skills; and develop learners’ functional and critical thinking skills.

What’s more, I have said, literacy learning – if it is to be done properly – should move beyond merely displaying key words or marking written work for spelling, punctuation and grammar, and focus on these three strands:

1. Speaking and listening (or oracy).
2. Reading.
3. Writing.

Last week, I focused on the first of these: speaking and listening. I said that oracy was, among other things, about developing pupils’ abilities to:

  • Listen and respond to others (adding to or arguing against).
  • Speak and present (with increasing formality).
  • Participate in group discussion and interaction.
  • Engage in drama, role-play and performance.

This week, let’s take a look at the second of the three domains: reading.

What is reading?

Reading is about developing the ability to:

  • Decode increasingly complex and challenging words across the curriculum.
  • Read for meaning (through the use of reading strategies such as prediction, skimming, scanning, inference, summarising, etc).
  • Understand a writer’s craft (analysing the effect of the use of features of form, structure and language).
  • Read and engage with a wide variety of texts.
  • Research for a wide range of purposes.

Teaching new words

One of the key aspects of teaching reading skills is the use of subject-specific vocabulary. In order for pupils to understand and be able to use with accuracy words with which they are unfamiliar, we need to introduce those words in a careful sequence.

For example, we could begin by reading aloud a sentence in which the new word appears. Then we could show pupils the word written down and ask them to say it aloud before asking pupils to repeat the word several times. Next, we could debate possible meanings with the class and point out any parts of the word which might help with meaning, for example a prefix or Greek or Latin root.

After this, we could re-read the sentence to see if there are any contextual clues and explicitly explain the meaning of the word through simple definition and the use of synonyms. We could provide several examples of the word being used in context, emphasising the word, and ask questions to determine whether or not pupils have understood the word.

We could also provide some sentences for pupils to judge whether or not the word is used correctly and get pupils to write their own sentences using the word. And, once the word has been introduced and reinforced in the lesson, we could explicitly use the word during the course of the next few days in order to reinforce its meaning.

One of the advantages of this sequence is that it ensures pupils are exposed to new vocabulary several times and get to see, hear and use new words in context.

Developing pupils’ fluency

Once new subject-specific words have been introduced, we need to help pupils to read these words quickly and accurately, adopting the appropriate intonation. This is called fluency.

Fluency requires a background knowledge of words and a text, as well as a rapid retrieval of the requisite vocabulary. Fluency also requires a knowledge of syntax and grammar in order to predict the words that are likely to appear next.

The ability to adapt one’s vocabulary and intonation according to a text’s syntax and grammar, and the ability to read ahead assists with both speed and accuracy. Experienced readers integrate these processes so that reading becomes automatic – done without thinking – which allows their cognitive energy to be focused on the task of discerning meaning.

A useful analogy is learning to tie your shoe laces. When you first learn to tie your laces, because it is unfamiliar, you have to dedicate all your attention to it. However, once you have mastered the art of lace-tying – through repeated exposure to it – you begin to do it automatically, without having to think about it and can do so while holding a conversation.

There is a strong correlation between fluency and reading comprehension – indeed, it is such a strong link that fluency and comprehension can be regarded as interdependent. After all, fluency only occurs when a reader understands the text; if reading is hesitant and disjointed, meaning is lost.

It is impossible to be a fluent reader if you have to keep stopping to work out what a word is. To be fluent you have to move beyond the decoding stage to accurately read whole words. Therefore, one of the first skills to teach in order to achieve fluency is accuracy.

A fluent reader has ready access to a vast bank of words which can be used in different contexts. The words to which a reader has immediate access are called their “sight vocabulary”. Even complex words that originally had to be decoded – like “originally” and “decoded” rather than monosyllabic function words like “that” and “had” – but which can now be recognised on sight, become a part of the fluent reader’s lexicon.

But recognition is not enough for fluency: as well as being in the reader’s sight vocabulary, words must also be stored in their “receptive vocabulary” – that is to say, words which the reader knows the meaning of. The larger the bank of words that are both recognised and understood on sight, then the broader the range of texts which are accessible.

For this reason, developing pupils’ sight vocabularies and receptive vocabularies are the most effective ways of developing both fluency and reading comprehension.

Once you have developed accuracy, you need to develop speed, increasing the rate at which your pupils can access texts. Reading speed is not the same as reading fast. People who read too quickly and therefore show no regard for punctuation, intonation or comprehension are not fluent readers.

Reading speed is about being able to process texts quickly while understanding the text and taking account of punctuation and adopting an appropriate intonation. In short, improving pupils’ reading speed is important but it must not be at the expense of comprehension.

After accuracy and speed, prosody – that is to say, reading with expression – is the third component of reading fluently. Prosody is more difficult to achieve than accuracy and speed because it involves developing stress, pitch, and rhythm. However, prosody is essential in rendering reading aloud meaningful.

Poor prosody can cause confusion and has an impact on readers’ interest and motivation to read. Good prosody, meanwhile, makes reading aloud come alive and reflects the author’s message more accurately and more meaningfully.

So how can we help pupils to develop prosody? Here are three suggestions…

1. Read aloud to pupils in an engaging and motivating way in order to model fluency for them.
2. Display high frequency irregular words from your subject around the classroom. Word walls – when they are referred to and used in competitions or quizzes – help build pupils’ automatic recognition of words.
3. Read a text repeatedly in order to provide the practice needed to develop accuracy, speed and confidence.

Developing pupils’ comprehension

Understanding what a text means is about much more than decoding or word recognition. The depth of understanding differentiates the weak reader from the strong.

Comprehension is an active process which is heavily dependent on the reader’s spoken language skills, as well as their understanding of word meanings and the syntactic and semantic relationships between words. Comprehension is the ability to engage with a text at a deep level.

Active engagement with a text depends not only on the skill of the reader, but also on the nature of the text.

Broadly speaking, texts can be divided into three levels of comprehension: independent, instructional, and frustration. It’s important to know which kind of text to give to pupils in different situations.

Texts at the ‘independent level’

At this level, the reader is able to read most or all of the text with fluency, finding no more than about one word out of every 20 challenging. Pupils should be given texts which are at their independent level for independent reading activities.

By reading fluently, pupils will be able to engage with the material and take meaning from it. They may need strategies in order to decode the odd unfamiliar word, but they should be able to do so independently and without losing their thread.

Texts at the ‘instructional level’

At this level, the reader finds the text challenging – with one word in 10 proving difficult – but manageable, and can read it with support. Support enables pupils who are reading at this more difficult level to access more sophisticated vocabulary and sentence structures.

Texts at the ‘frustration level’

At this level, the reader has difficulty with more than one word in 10, and thus finds the text frustrating to read. Ideally, pupils should not be asked to read texts at this level – even with support – because interrupting the text every time they struggle with a word means they grow frustrated and so lose their motivation and enthusiasm.

When working independently, pupils should be given texts to read that fall within their independent level. When involved in guided reading aimed at developing pupils’ vocabulary, pupils should be given texts to read that fall within their instructional level. Texts which appear at a pupil’s frustration level can still be used in class but only if they are read to them by the teacher. This helps expose pupil to more sophisticated vocabulary and syntax.

Quick wins

To conclude, here are five “quick wins” for developing pupils’ reading skills:

  • Teach the reading skills needed in your subject – e.g. skimming, scanning, analysis, and research.
  • Present hand-outs in an attractive and accessible way, taking account of pupils’ reading ages.
  • Include a list of key words at the start of hand-outs.
  • Include a “big picture” question or statement at the start of hand-outs which helps pupils to understand why they are reading it and what help it will provide.
  • Ensure that the questions you ask about a text move beyond straightforward comprehension towards exploratory talk involving “why” and “how” questions.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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