The importance of early reading comprehension

Learning to read is often used as a very broad term when it comes to teaching and learning, however, learning to read can be broken down into two very distinctive strands: word recognition and language comprehension.  In order to teach children to read, teaching and learning strategies must take into account both of these strands, as illustrated in Hollis Scarborough’s ​‘reading rope’.

Scarborough's Reading Rope Image

When an individual develops an understanding of all these elements, they are a competent reader, able to use reading for enjoyment and learning.

Of course, children in the early years are yet to master reading, though some will be beginning to understand certain elements, depending on their prior learning and home experiences.

So, how can we best support language comprehension in early years settings,  in order to ensure a good foundation for children to both enjoy reading and to support them being able to read themselves?

From birth, when adults talk with children about the world around them, read books with them, enjoy rhymes, poems and songs together, the foundations for language comprehension are being laid.  Every child’s early home experiences of reading books and listening to the adults around them will vary enormously, so it is our role to ensure that we are providing a rich reading environment for each child in our setting in order to support, challenge and close gaps in the best way possible.

As an early years practitioner, begin by looking broadly at children’s reading and language starting points,

  • Do children have a high level of language deprivation?
  • Is English a second language for a high percentage of children in the setting?
  • Do you children generally come to you with a rich variety of experiences or not?

Of course don’t make sweeping assumptions about individual children before any specific assessment or observations have taken place, but asking ourselves broad questions, such as these, can give us a general picture of the cohort in order to support long term planning for both teaching and learning and the early years environment.

What does the research tell us?

As we have established, both reading comprehension and phonetic understanding plays an important role in children becoming competent readers.  This is supported by research carried out by the UCL, which demonstrated that synthetic phonics alone is not the best way to teach children to read. They found that a more effective method is to combine phonics teaching with whole texts, meaning that children learn to read by using books as well as learning phonics. 

In this article they go on to state,

“(Our research has shown) the phonics screening check is narrowing teaching. For example, 237 teachers in our survey said that they were giving extra phonics lessons to help children pass the test. The word “pressure” appeared 97 times in teachers’ comments about the phonics screening check. One teacher felt that they had to “live and breathe phonics”.

Further to this, the Education Endowment Fund states, based on extensive evidence to support this area from a range of studies over the last 30 years, that the explicit teaching of reading comprehension strategies is found to support an average gain of +6 months’ additional progress and studies in the UK have found that there is evidence that children from disadvantaged backgrounds may benefit more.

So how do we ensure that reading comprehension and language acquisition is as much of a priority in the classroom as phonics, in order to give children in our setting the best start on their reading journey?

4 strategies you can use to support reading comprehension in your setting

  1. Provide children with a wide selection of reading material

A wide selection is more than just having lots of books available to children in the setting, in fact more books isn’t necessarily better.  Have a small selection of books placed in different areas of the environment:  some in a reading snug, a couple of castle-themed books near the castle small play area, a teacher’s favourite basket on the carpet – you get the gist.

Consider the cultures, backgrounds and interests of the children in your unique setting and ensure the books on offer represent these.  If you’re not sure where to start, check out the lists below,

Throw out any damaged or out dated books.  It may seem like an uncomfortable thing to do, especially if you have a tight budget, but having books that are of no interest to the children or that have ripped pages doesn’t give books and reading the elevated status we’re aiming for.

  1. Regular sharing of books

This might seem like an obvious one, but with the continued pressure on timetables for some schools and nurseries, sharing a story can sometimes be the first thing to be forgotten or to not have time for.

If this sounds familiar or if you are looking to fit more story sharing into your day, try these 3 ways to get in more book-shares,

  • Read a book during snack time
  • Read books outside on a picnic blanket
  • If you’re in a school with older children, invite the older children to read to nursery or reception children once per week
  1. Provide lots of opportunities for children to make their own books

Making their own books is a great way for young children to explore what a book is used for and how.  Try providing zig-zag books for children to recreate their own stories and have a go at mark-making.

  1.  Make time for nursery rhymes and songs

Reading comprehension is not only developed through reading stories and books with our children, it is also developed through rhymes and songs.  Studies have shown that children who enjoy music, singing and rhyming on a regular basis tend to learn to speak more easily, they have more words to express themselves, are more confident and creative and find reading and spelling are easier to learn at school.

So it is clear that although phonics plays a key role in children’s early reading, the development of comprehension skills and language acquisition plays a pivotal – and some would argue – an even more important part in developing life-long readers.

In February, Is It Time To Play is launching our signature reading program, Reading Magic.

Reading Magic is a new set of reading comprehension plans that are specifically targeted to the EYFS, with the aim of building not just key language and early reading skills but also embedding a love of reading and developing children’s engagement in the magic of stories.

Reading Magic has been designed to minimise teacher workload through easy to follow planning that fits into 10 minute slots, 4 times a week, with linked provision enhancement tasks to follow up and familiarise children with the story.

Want to sign up to Reading Magic? You can- it’s available here!