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Infant Insights: Supporting Early Readers At Home

Andrea Strachan, Primary School Curriculum Coordinator/Curriculum Research and Development Lead, UWCSEA Dover
26 January 2024

One of the most important skills a child will learn in their lifetime is the ability to read. This is because reading allows people to participate in the world around them. They can read the news to find out about current events, read literature to engage with culture, read for research to gain new knowledge, read instructions to learn how to master a new skill, read directions to find out how to use something new or to remain safe, or simply read for the joy of it! Young children learn to read so that they will eventually be able to read to learn.  

Reading is a gateway to lifelong learning, supporting individuals in continuing to acquire knowledge and skills for years to come. A child’s reading ability is a strong predictor of future success in other academic areas, and in life.

Children are made readers on the laps of their parents. - Emilie Buchwald

What do we know about how children learn to read?

Some children appear to learn to read simply by osmosis.  We read to them regularly, and they appear to become good readers quite naturally. Other children can struggle with developing reading skills. We read to them regularly, and it is still challenging for them. 

The big ideas here are that no two children learn in the same way, and that reading is an incredibly complex process. It is important to keep in mind that reading comprehension (understanding and making meaning from what we read) is always the goal.

Here are some of the many components involved with learning to read to consider:

  1. Background knowledge: In order to fully understand written text, readers need to have an understanding of the topic. For example, a child who is an ‘expert’ on dinosaurs but is a weak reader will comprehend more from a dinosaur book than a more proficient reader with limited knowledge of dinosaurs.
  2. Vocabulary: It is not enough to be a good ‘decoder’ of words.  Children must also know the meaning of the word. You can not read and understand a word that is not in your vocabulary.
  3. Language Structure: It is not enough to be able to simply decode and understand individual words. Readers also need to understand how the arrangement of words in sentences impacts the meaning.
  4. Verbal Reasoning: Readers need to be able to understand the concepts that are framed in words and sentences in order to understand the meaning of a written passage.
  5. Literacy Knowledge: Readers need to understand how different types of texts work.  This includes concepts of print (e.g. reading left to right, top to bottom), as well as structures and elements of different genres of texts (e.g. poetry, recipe books, fiction, non-fiction, etc.).
  6. Phonological Awareness: Phonological awareness is an understanding of how spoken language can be broken down into individual sounds (phonemes) and then matched to individual letters or letter combinations (graphemes). It sets the stage for decoding, blending and word reading.
  7. Decoding: Readers need to understand how to turn printed words into sounds. This involves phonics knowledge and phonemic skills that often require consistent, intentional and structured teaching approaches.
  8. Sight Recognition: This is knowing a word by sight, rather than needing to break the word apart to figure it out. Sight recognition is important as the more words children know automatically, the more they can focus on the content of what they are reading rather than decoding. Sight recognition improves reading comprehension. Sight recognition does not involve simply ‘memorising’ words. Rather, it involves ‘orthographically mapping’ words – having multiple exposures to reading and spelling words.
  9. Motivation and Engagement: Enthusiastic readers read more, and this drives increased learning and interest in even more reading. Children are more likely to read books based on interest and choice.
  10. Attentional Focus and Self Regulation: The ability to think, retrieve and attend to written information is connected to one’s ability to focus on the task at hand. Children who struggle with attention and self–regulation may also struggle with reading.
  11. Visual Focus: In order to read the words, you need to be able to see the words. When children struggle to learn how to read, one of the first things we check is vision (do they need glasses?) and tracking (being able to visually focus on, or ‘track’, the letters and the words).
  12. Active Working Memory: Readers need to be able to hold on to the information they are reading (store it) in order to make sense of it (process it). This involves storing and processing decoding information, vocabulary information, language structure information and content information. Students need to become active readers (posing questions, pausing to reflect on what they are reading, making notes, etc.) in order to strengthen their active working memory.
  13. Reflection and Synthesis Skills: Readers need to be able to connect new learning to prior learning in order to make sense of what they are reading.

When reflecting on the many components of reading listed above, it is no wonder that some children struggle when learning to read! It is also important to note that children can struggle with different areas of reading – again, no two learners are alike. 

For teachers, it’s important for us to monitor how children are reading and to identify what areas of reading development to focus on. This is why we are shifting away from ‘levelled’ books (it is actually impossible to accurately assign something as simple as a ‘reading level’ to a child), and focusing more on specific skills instruction combined with text complexity. 

The good news is that all children can become good readers, and teachers have at their disposal an array of strategies and resources to support the many readers who join our classrooms.

Reading comprehension begins with language comprehension

A child cannot read and understand a word that they don’t know. As a parent, vocabulary building is one of the best ways that you can support your child as a developing reader. Vocabulary development is something that continues throughout our lifetime. Our job as adults, is to expose children to new language structures, new words, and new concepts until they can access these themselves by reading increasingly complex texts. 

Engage your child in conversations about a variety of topics. Take time to share and listen to personal stories. Every evening, engage in bedtime reading with your child, fostering interactions through captivating texts that contain intriguing vocabulary beyond their current independent reading level. Be sure to maintain your home language(s) and to read in your home language(s). Your child’s home language is one of the most powerful learning tools they bring with them to school, and provides them with a foundation on which to layer and add new languages.

For more ideas on building vocabulary, please take a look at Ms. Begg’s article here.

Reading comprehension is connected to background knowledge

It is essential for beginning readers to have access to complex ideas and experiences. The more they know about ‘stuff’ (the world, subjects, areas of interest, etc.), the better they will be able to make sense of what they are reading. Processing written text involves making personal connections. The more connections a child can make to what they are reading, the better they will understand it.

Read with your child – both fiction and non fiction books. Take your child out into the city to explore! Go for walks in nature, visit the museum or the zoo, attend a sporting event, travel.  All of these experiences help to build your child’s background knowledge about the world, which will ultimately strengthen reading comprehension. Amazing, right?

What kind of books should my child be reading?

We are moving away from encouraging ‘levelled’ readers as home reading. There are a few challenges with levelled readers. Firstly, they simplify what is actually a very complex process – whether or not a book is at a child’s right ‘level’ is actually connected to how much background knowledge and vocabulary they bring to that specific book. This makes ‘levelling’ often inaccurate and unhelpful. The second main challenge is that early reader books are not very engaging. When we limit children to reading simple books that they can decode on their own, we may not be engaging them in reading experiences that match their cognitive abilities and interests.

For developing readers, it is much better for you to read aloud to your child a book that is beyond their independent reading level. You, as the parent, can model for your child's reading behaviours, and you can discuss together what the book is about. Focus on words, decoding and vocabulary building together! You can make it fun!

For more ideas on how you can read alongside your child at home, take a look at this Engage with the Page guide we have developed for you. The best book for a child to read is one that they want to read (one they have chosen and are interested in).

Develop a home reading routine

One of the most impactful things that you can do to support your child’s reading development is to create time to read and/or read together each day. Here is a visual of the difference 20 minutes a day can make:

(Nagy & Herman, 1987)

For more ideas on how to develop a home reading routine, please take a look as Ms. Mitzi’s article here

If you have questions about your child’s reading development, please reach out to your classroom teacher. We are here to help!