Professional read: Stay on the page

Alex Quigley, author of Closing the Reading Gap.
Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Alex Quigley explores the key issues underpinning his latest professional book, Closing the Reading Gap. In it he focuses on how to identify where children are struggling and provides practical strategies to support their reading progress.

How well we develop language, and the ability to read, has an enduring impact on every child, while going a long way to determining their future success. Indeed, we know that children of all backgrounds who were read to regularly by their parents at age five perform better in maths, vocabulary and spelling at age 16, compared to those who were not read to at home. Exposure to language at home is vitally important.

For children in the early years, readiness to read, and talking about reading, offers key building blocks that ensure a smooth transition to school. However, given that 14 per cent of children leave the EYFS without being able to communicate to meet Early Learning Goals (around 90,000 children), it is clear the language exposure is not distributed evenly and that reading practice can be limited for many.

Shared reading offers the quality literacy experience that builds the foundations of later reading and writing. And yet, a Department of Education poll of 2,685 of parents revealed that only a third (31 per cent) of children are read to at home daily. Alas then, before a child ever sets foot in school, with each library that goes unvisited and each story character that goes unmet, the reading gap is opened.

Though reading can feel so ‘natural’ for many of our children, it remains that for most children explicitly teaching specific decoding skills, word recognition and language comprehension is key. Given we know so much from research about reading, we know what foundational skills are, so we know where to look for signs of early struggles.

Foundational skills and signs of struggle

From birth, there are prerequisite skills and experiences that provide the platform for effective reading and literacy.

Here is a handy list of such skills and where to look for signs of struggle:

  • Listening comprehension: The key skill of active listening is vital to learning. A child struggling with such listening is likely to have issues with reading later. To check they aren't struggling, we could ask: can they follow directions (especially with multiple steps)? Are they easily distracted by background sounds? Do they have a tricky time learning nursery rhymes?
  • Vocabulary knowledge: Your wealth of words is vital to later reading comprehension. A limited vocabulary can stunt a child's ability to read later, so we should look for signs of vocabulary gaps. To check they aren't struggling, we could ask: can they consistently describe and label objects in picture books and play? Can they select some diverse adjectives to describe objects?
  • Narrative skills: These are the ability to tell a story, or series of events, with precision and clarity. Simply retelling a story is an important task that is foundational for literacy and reading comprehension. To check they aren't struggling, we could ask: can they retell what happened on their weekend? Can they retell the key steps in a story read together?
  • Letter and sound knowledge: Children's knowledge of letter names and shapes is a strong predictor of later reading success. To check they aren't struggling, we could ask: when engaging in playful activities involving letters can children name those letters? Do they know the alphabet song?
  • Phoneme awareness: Good phoneme awareness is when a child can identity the sound the word ‘from’ begins with. For example, children can identify what sound begins ‘raw’, ‘rush’ and ‘ready’. To check they aren't struggling, we could ask: can they begin to blend sounds e.g. sh/o/p in shop? Can they delete phonemes e.g. taking off ‘e’ from ‘ripe’ to make ‘rip’?


Points of transition

Given the complexity of reading and the intimate knowledge of our children that is required to see them develop as readers, gaps can emerge between pre-school and primary.

Points of transition can see children slip back. From the summer-time gap, to primary teachers not having the intimate knowledge of a child like their key person, we need to ensure that communication about every child's foundational literacy skills are shared. A smooth passage to primary school should focus on settling in the school setting, but also finding out detailed knowledge of the language and reading skills of each child. ‘Closing the reading gap’ as early as possible will always be the most effective way to ensure a child's future success.

Closing the Reading Gap

  • This is the follow-up to Closing the Vocabulary Gap, providing insights and strategies for creating confident readers. Published in paperback by Routledge:

Useful resources

  • Cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading, Institute of Education

  • Language unlocks reading: Oxford University Press & National Literacy Trust

  • Childcare and Early Years Survey of Parents in England, DfE

  • Narrative Activity Pack, Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS

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