Reading in the Larch at Simon Balle All-through School

A child’s reading journey begins with ‘learning to read’ and moves into ‘reading to learn’ (Oxford Owl)

One thing we have been sure about for some time is that reading, and learning to read, is complex. Some literature, schemes or programmes attempt to paint a simple picture of what is required (perhaps with the intention of more easily selling their product!) but what they often do is teach one aspect or too few, perhaps separately, of what is required in a child’s reading journey. As set out in the blog ‘What do we mean when we talk about reading (and writing) fluency?’, what is needed is to attend to the increasingly interwoven threads of reading as the developing reader progresses towards proficient, integrated reading. Our aim as a school is to identify all of those threads, and then consider the sequencing, progression and interweaving of them, such that children master and can apply all aspects of what it is to be an expert reader: for learning, for life and for enjoyment.

The simple view of reading is organised along two continuums: language comprehension processes and word recognition skills. Both have to be at play for reading to happen.  It is a multiplicative model. If one aspect is missing, the effect of multiplying by 0 holds true. The act of reading has to include both the act of decoding words and understanding what the words, phrases, clauses, sentences (or lines and verses, say) come together to mean.

The idea of decoding and comprehension is not new to schools. But our aim at Simon Balle is to consider in much more depth how both are taught and to what extent the component parts of each have been learned (by which I mean understood and applied in all reading in all subjects).

After much deliberation we have decided to base our ten strands of the art of teaching reading at Simon Balle on Kate Cain’s model (Lancaster University).

Of this model, Galway (2019) writes that this representation is carefully constructed to work up from the ground floor with the implicit understanding that each successive storey rests on those lower down. Two things strike me: firstly, that the pinnacle of reading will only be achieved where teaching is secure in all other areas; secondly, and I hope I am not pushing the analogy too far here, that we are going to need to ascend and descend (on repeat!) a lot of stairs to support reading mastery over time giving due attention to each part (and recognising that the emphasis needed for teaching which part and when will differ from cohort to cohort, group to group, and child by child).

It is essential for us at Simon Balle that, in all areas and certainly not just reading, home and school work in close partnership. And yet, it seems to me that reading might be one of the most important areas in which it is essential for this partnership to work well.

Though the process of teaching and learning to read is complex, our aim is simple. We aspire for all of our children to achieve fluent reading as quickly as possible, because where this reading is efficient, readers can focus on the meaning of what they are reading. It is this that has the potential to open every possible door in their future learning and in life.

We are indebted to the English team at Herts for Learning, whose blog ‘What do we mean when we talk about reading (and writing) fluency?’, published 2 October 2019, has inspired us as a staff, invited us to read and research further, and shaped our thinking around the teaching of reading in the Larch at Simon Balle.

How do we teach reading at Simon Balle? Our ten strands. 

Please note that these ten strands are not written in this order to imply that it is a straight pathway through. Whilst the first bullet points are undoubtedly needed at the early stages, the process is not linear. 

Phonics is taught systematically from day one of Reception at Simon Balle (and indeed throughout Nursery provision at Busy Lizzies if children attend Nursery on site). The whole-class teaching of phonics is valued, where all children are supported to reach at least age-related expectations. Additional group and individual provision supports and challenges learners. Careful attention is paid to medium term planning to ensure an appropriate pace of learning. Regular assessments ensure that children have understood, and can remember and apply their phonics. Teachers’ subject knowledge is advanced in order to anticipate misconceptions: for example: upper and lower case letters must both be taught. Sufficient time is needed for those concepts that take longer to embed (for example, consonant clusters and split digraphs). See appendix one below for a phonics glossary of terms.

‘Tricky’ words are introduced similarly from the very beginning of Reception. Children are taught to recognise less common and rare spellings, and to use what they do know to support word reading.

It is important to distinguish between teaching children to read, and allowing time for children to practice reading. The latter is very important, both at home and at school. Our reading scheme at Simon Balle has been created by us, taking the very best of published schemes and combining them. We believe that when children are learning to read, it is essential that their practice books are at precisely the right level for their acquisition of phonics (the sounds that they can recall with ease) and their recognition of words (automaticity in word reading).