Successful reading practices in the young learner classroom

Dr. Peter Watkins

Nora Ephron, a celebrated American writer and filmmaker once said: “Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter.” Reading, alongside other literacy components: writing, communication and critical thinking, is instrumental in helping young learners achieve success in school and in life. How can we support young learners on their journey towards literacy? In this article, Dr Peter Watkins shares some insights into successful reading practices, looking particularly at Extensive Reading (ER).

The role of Extensive Reading (ER) in the reading curriculum is clearly to provide opportunities to read for meaning and pleasure

ER involves learners reading relatively large quantities of material that are comfortably within their linguistic range, and there is therefore a focus on reading fluency. Before learners can move onto such text-level reading they must have sufficient vocabulary to deal with the texts and be able to decode frequent words with a good degree of automaticity. One key assumption of ER is that reading will be a pleasurable experience.

In primary, the teaching of phonics – the systematic instruction of how sounds match to letters and letter combinations – should be part of any reading programme

Phonics instruction is essential in developing reading skills; however, it is also important to help young learners develop a love of reading. In order to do this, young learners need to experience a number of texts of different genres, particularly stories, so that they see that the ultimate purpose of reading is meaning-focused. Young learners benefit from reading instruction that combines phonics and more ‘whole-language’ approaches.

We know that young readers of foreign language texts go through similar stages of reading development as their native counterparts. This suggests that young readers of English as a second language benefit from successful practices used in the teaching of reading in the first language, such as:

  • shared reading,
  • silent reading in class,
  • reading outside the classroom.


Shared reading in class

A first step on the way to encouraging individual silent reading is to promote a love of stories in the classroom by engaging with a shared story selected by the teacher. The teacher may introduce the story and read it aloud to the class, gently checking understanding by putting questions to the class as a whole. The teacher is likely to show accompanying pictures to the class and ask learners to comment on how they relate to the story, or invite them to speculate on what will happen next in the story. Such activities provide a potentially memorable, shared experience for the learners, which can help enhance class rapport.

Silent reading in class

According to Day and Bamford’s 10 principles of implementing Extensive Reading, as learners develop greater reading proficiency, teachers need to provide more time in class for sustained silent reading. This instils good reading habits and increases the likelihood of learners reading outside the classroom. The success of ER programmes, particularly with young learners, is likely to depend on the investment of classroom time.

We should remember that non-fiction texts also have a part to play in reading programmes. As learners move from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’, they need to become familiar with the conventions of non-fiction writing. Well-chosen non-fiction texts can potentially support both reading development and the assimilation of content from other parts of the school curriculum. Some learners may also simply prefer reading non-fiction texts.

Reading outside the classroom

In the longer term, there is no substitute for learners doing substantial amounts of reading, if they are to become proficient readers. Given the pressure on classroom time, much of this will need to happen outside the classroom. At primary level, this will require teachers to enter a partnership with a parent or other caregivers so that there is the best chance possible of creating a positive and encouraging environment for reading at home.

This partnership may be created in several ways. For example, there may be initial meetings with parents to explain the rationale for reading in English at home and the benefits it is likely to bring. Teachers and parents may set targets for how much reading should be undertaken over the course of a week, or a month. After each session of reading, the responsible adult may be encouraged to write (in either English or mother tongue) a brief note commenting on what was achieved. There may be opportunities for this communication to take place online in many teaching contexts.

Parents can provide guidance in their mother tongue, and those who do not speak English themselves might enjoy the opportunity to learn with their children. Any support that a school could give in this endeavour would obviously be useful.

Building the necessary links to the home environment is essential because, without support at home, young learners are less likely to engage with ER. This in turn can lead to a lack of progress in reading, with weaker readers soon falling behind – the so-called ‘Matthew effect’, whereby the strong get stronger and the weak get weaker very quickly. As children become weaker in relation to their peers, they read even less, and this quickly leads to big differences in reading ability.

Here are some useful tips to help parents of pre-school children make the most of reading time outside the classroom.

The importance of success

In contexts where English is the medium of instruction, such as where Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) is practised, any lack of achievement in reading can have very significant consequences, particularly when learners reach the stage of reading in order to learn about other subjects. At this point, a lack of basic reading skills begins to impact upon the learning of other subjects and that will hold back progress across the curriculum as a whole. With this in mind, it is clearly essential that teachers monitor the progress of young readers so that support can be given immediately, should they start to fall behind.

For more insights into reading practices for primary, check out our white paper Extensive Reading for Primary ELT. And check out our blog post Ideas for extensive reading in the Primary classroom for some practical suggestions for involving a whole class in reading.

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