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Teaching reading in the early years

21 October 2015

Teaching children to read in the early years involves a variety of comprehension strategies for the development of literate practices, as Prue Anderson explains.

Very few students start school already able to read, yet from the first day, there are large differences in the reading literacy skills and understandings they bring from home. This gap typically persists into secondary school and, if we want to close it, we need to better understand what kinds of practices in the early years support the development of successful readers and then embed these practices in pre-schools, primary schools and parent education programs. 

Learning to read is typically considered to mean decoding, that is, knowing how to convert written words into spoken words. Automatic decoding skills are an essential pre-requisite of reading independently, but reading with understanding is much more complex than simply decoding. Students also have to learn how to comprehend written texts, and the foundations of this understanding can be established long before students enter school and start learning how to decode.

International assessments and experimental studies have established the strong relationship between comprehension and home literacy. Results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), for example, show that, in almost all countries, students whose parents read books to them as they enter primary school are more likely to have higher PISA reading scores at age 15. 

Engagement in reading and talking about books

Research also shows that reading to children is most effective when they are also engaged in high-quality discussion that is adjusted to their needs and interests. Initially children need to be engaged in conversations that help to build their vocabulary. They cannot talk about or understand a book that has too many words they do not know.

Once they know the meaning of most words, children benefit most from discussions about the meaning of the story, particularly discussions that focus on more abstract ideas such as describing what kind of a person a character is, predicting what might happen next, or comparing a character or situation with their own life. High-quality conversations need to go beyond literal recall of events. Children’s ability to infer information from an early age is also critical, with those who are able to make inferences at four to five years of age having improved listening comprehension skills at six years of age. Listening comprehension is important because it predicts concurrent reading comprehension in seven- to 12-year-old children.

Children also need to be an active participant in posing questions and speculating on answers and possibilities. Sensitivity to the level of skill and the interests of the child determines the effectiveness of shared book conversations. In essence, parents who can calibrate their interactions to children’s interests and follow their lead through responsive interactions have the most significant effect on the development of their children’s language skills.

Much research demonstrates that reading aloud and sharing conversations with young children about books promotes the development of language and other emergent literacy skills like understanding how to navigate texts, familiarity with the written language register and story structures, which in turn helps prepare them for school. 

What are literate practices?

Students need a constellation of skills and understandings in order to become successful independent readers. Many children develop these skills and understandings by being immersed in a rich literacy environment at home. The most important pre-requisite to understanding a written text is knowing what the words mean. Most texts contain many new and unfamiliar words that are not used in everyday conversation including picture story books written for children. That is why children need to listen to, and talk about, the meaning of books. They need to practise using these new words through talking with adults about the book as it is read to them. They can start doing this long before they are able to read themselves.

Written texts are also different from conversations in their length, complexity and structure. People do not talk like books. Simply engaging in everyday conversations is not enough to prepare children to read for meaning. They need to learn how to understand books, they need to become familiar with the way books are organised and how to interpret complex sentences and how to keep track of the meaning in paragraph after paragraph of new and different ideas. Children need adults to read to them and talk with them about what a book means so they can learn how to crack the ‘written code’ of texts that is so different from everyday conversations. Young children often want the same book read to them over and over again.  In many cases this is because it is initially so difficult for them to learn how to track meaning across an extended text, and they need to hear it repeatedly to build these skills.

For students who do not have rich literacy environments at home, there is plenty that schools can do to help students directly and by supporting their parents to create rich home literacy environments. 

Conversation strategies that develop literate practices

Conversation strategies for the development of literate practices need to occur in pre-school and early years classrooms. These strategies include:

  • making predictions;
  • relating the text to personal knowledge;
  • checking the sense and coherence of ideas;
  • retelling, enacting or visualising key ideas;
  • adopting the vocabulary of the text to expand and elaborate ideas; and
  • critically reflecting on the text.

Finally, research also shows that reading improves comprehension: the more students read voluntarily, the greater their achievement levels. The pre-school and early primary school environment and culture should enable and encourage reading.

Pedagogy for reading comprehension

Four different but inter-related skills are involved in learning to read with understanding. Firstly, students start learning how to interpret meaning from texts through listening to and talking about books when this is tailored to their level of skill. The comprehension skills they develop help them understand the texts they read independently when they become fluent decoders. This is an ongoing skill as students can always benefit from listening to and discussing increasingly complex texts.

Secondly, they also need to learn how texts work. Simple concepts about print are easily learned with explicit modelling and instruction and once understood, require no further instruction. Students who are learning these skills typically ‘read’ texts by interpreting the meaning of the illustrations alone or memorise the text as part of their emerging understanding of how texts work.

Thirdly, they need to learn to decode and develop fluency. Decoding is about being able to differentiate the sounds in words, knowing the sounds of letters and letter combinations, and recognising words by sight in order to read aloud. Students practise these skills by reading aloud, beginning with very simple books and gradually working up to longer, more complex texts. Once fluency is attained – that is, when decoding is rapid, accurate and automatic – and the student is able to focus almost entirely on meaning, further phonics instruction is no longer required.

The growth of students’ ability to read independently with understanding is supported by students having attained fluency and by having developed comprehension skills through listening to and talking about books. Development of this skill is ongoing as students read increasingly complex texts. 

The iceberg theory

If teachers assume that all students start school knowing nothing about reading, they may not see the hidden ‘iceberg’ of literate practices that some students bring from home. All students need to learn to decode, but some also need to develop the literate practices that will help them to process the meaning of written texts. Without this, they will struggle to comprehend texts as soon as the texts start to deviate from simple, familiar conversations.

Teachers who focus on decoding in their early years instruction may mistakenly attribute the success of a student with well-developed literate practices in learning to read to the decoding instruction and fail to recognise the skills the student brought from home. The bigger problem, however, is that such teachers may also intensify the decoding instruction for students with less-developed literate practices when they fail to progress in reading independently, without recognising that the deficit in literate practices has to be addressed first. ■

Further information:

This article draws on ‘The conditions of reading acquisition in contexts of low literacy,’ a conference paper presented by ACER Principal Research Fellow Prue Anderson and Dr Mary Fearnley-Sander from the University of Tasmania at the International Conference on Education and Development convened by the United Kingdom Forum for International Education and Training in August 2015.

RD

About the author

Prue Anderson is the Acting Research Director of ACER's Assessment and Reporting (Humanities and Social Sciences) Research Program.

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View selected works of Prue Anderson

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