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How do pupils learn to read?

Reading ability can pose a barrier to many pupils in accessing the curriculum. Therefore, in order to support all pupils to succeed, you should develop their ability to read so they can meaningfully engage with the curriculum.

In addition, disciplinary literacy recognises that reading skills are both general and subject specific (EEF, 2019). For example, the requirement to decode words is a general skill, whereas the requirement to consider the author and their context when the text was written is subject specific. In Biology, a pupil may read an informational text about photosynthesis and assume that it is an authoritative account, suppressing thoughts about the author, whereas, in the English classroom, a pupil could read with an active awareness of the author.

Therefore, you should support pupils to develop their reading ability regardless of the phase or subject you teach. In order to do this successfully, you need to have a foundational understanding of how pupils learn to read.

The Simple View of Reading identifies two main elements that are required when reading:

  • Word recognition – pupils being able to read or accurately decode words
  • Language comprehension – pupils’ level of understanding of the text
Diagram showing the relationship between decoding and language comprehension. Being at the bottom end of both scales results in poor word recognition and poor comprehension whilst being at the top end of each scale results in good word recognition and good comprehension.
Figure 1: ‘The Simple View of Reading’ Adapted from

As the graph illustrates, pupils with good decoding and good language comprehension are typically good readers. Therefore, a balanced approach to reading, which develops both word recognition and language comprehension, is essential for pupils to be able to read.

Of course, reading is much more complex than simply decoding and comprehending; these two elements are made up of multiple strands.

Listen to Ruth Everett, an English and Literacy consultant, talk in more detail about the Simple View of Reading and how it can help you develop your pupils’ literacy. When watching the video, consider the following questions and record your responses in your notebook:

  • which components enable word recognition?
  • which components enable language comprehension?
  • how can the Simple View of Reading help you to support pupils who are struggling?

How do pupils learn to read – Ruth Everett

Video transcript

Learning to read is a complex process, which draws on multiple knowledge sources and skills. This makes the process of reading development quite challenging to understand. Therefore, The Simple View of Reading is a great place to start as it highlights two connected but separable strands: word recognition and language comprehension.

So what does word recognition and language comprehension entail?

Simply put, word recognition is the ability to read individual words, whereas language comprehension is a process used to identify the meaning of written or spoken language.

In order to understand these two strands in a bit more detail, it is helpful to look at The Scarborough Reading Rope.

This diagram is useful to highlight the complex processes involved in both word recognition and language comprehension.

Word recognition is comprised of three main elements. When reading, pupils will use sight recognition to read familiar words, which means they can read the word just by looking at it. However, when they come across unfamiliar words, they will need to decode them, which means breaking a word down into its sounds – also known as phonemes. In order to be able to do this, pupils need to have phonological awareness, which is why early reading is taught through phonics. A pupil with poor word recognition may struggle to sound out complex vocabulary.

Language comprehension involves the integration of multiple sources of knowledge and skills. In order to comprehend a text, pupils need to have literacy knowledge, such as knowing to read text from left to right. They also need to understand the meaning of the vocabulary their reading, and the syntax, so they can make sense of words and sentences. Background knowledge of a topic is also important as this enables the reader or listener to verbally reason and to make inferences. All these components weave together to comprise effective language comprehension. A pupil with poor language comprehension may struggle to understand what a task is asking them to do or misinterpret key points in a text.

How can you develop pupils’ reading?

The Simple View of Reading highlights the need for a balanced approach to supporting pupils to become fluent readers. Both word recognition and language comprehension need to be addressed. When supporting pupils to read, it is important that you are aware of the individual reading challenges your pupils face and what their next individual steps are to improve.

This is particularly important for pupils who are struggling with reading as they need to catch up with their peers. The Simple View of Reading can support you in targeting pupils who are behind. By assessing both word reading and comprehension, you can identify which components need targeted development.

Word recognition

Early reading should be taught using systematic phonics. Systematic phonics is part of the National Curriculum as it is underpinned by extensive research that shows it is the most effective way to teach pupils to read words (EEF, 2016).

Systematic phonics should form part of a balanced approach to developing reading during Early Years and in Primary-aged children. If you are in the Secondary setting, you should be aware of how early reading is taught, so that you can support pupils to continue strategies they learnt in the Primary setting where necessary.

Teaching phonics develops pupils’ phonemic awareness (the ability to hear individual speech sounds) and teaches pupils about the relationships between speech sounds and letter combinations. When applying phonics during reading, pupils will break up unfamiliar words into individual sounds (segmenting) and then put those sounds together (blending) to say the word.

This is a very effective way for pupils to decode unfamiliar words. However, not all words are phonetic. That means there are some words which can’t be broken down into individual sounds. Therefore, a part of teaching phonics involves explicitly teaching pupils these ‘tricky’ words, so that pupils recognise them from sight.

Teaching phonics supports pupils with their reading and spelling, as it enables them to sound out a word as they write it.

If you wish, you can watch Sophie teaching phonics to year 2 pupils to see what it looks like in practice.

Teaching phonics - Reach Academy If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Teaching phonics - Reach Academy [AD]


Phonics helps pupils to read unfamiliar words, but word recognition is only a part of the skill of reading. Pupils need to be able to understand what they read, which is why it is important to develop their comprehension in any phase or subject.

Language comprehension

A balanced approach comprising of teaching both phonics and comprehension should be taken when teaching pupils to read. For pupils to understand words and sentences that they have decoded, they need to have good comprehension, but how can you support this development as a teacher?

Comprehension strategies

Prior knowledge and understanding key vocabulary are essential for pupils’ comprehension. However, they are not the only factors that are important. Pupils need to be able to monitor their understanding of a text as they read, ensuring they remain focused while processing the text.

There are some specific strategies that Early Years, Primary and Secondary pupils can be taught to monitor their comprehension and overcome potential barriers (Teaching and Learning Tool Kit, 2015). These strategies are (EEF, 2019):

Activating prior knowledge – pupils think about what they already know about a topic, from reading or other experiences, and try to make links. This helps pupils to infer and elaborate, fill in missing or incomplete information, and use existing mental structures to support recall.

  • If reading Cosmic – a story where a boy finds himself in space – pupils might consider what they already know about space
  • If reading a text about Henry VIII, pupils might consider what they already know about life in Tudor times

Prediction – pupils predict what might happen as a text is read. This causes them to pay close attention to the text, which means they can closely monitor their own comprehension.

  • If reading Chinye – a fairy-tale - pupils could predict what might happen to the character based on what they already know from the story, as well as what they know from similar stories
  • If reading about Migration in the UK, pupils might predict the impact of international migration on English seaside towns

Inference – pupils infer the meaning of pictures or sentences from their context, and the meaning of words from spelling patterns.

  • If reading a poem about World War Two, pupils might infer what different similes or metaphors are describing
  • If reading Tuesday – a picture book – pupils might infer why the frogs are looking up to the sky

Questioning – pupils generate their own questions about a text in order to check their comprehension.

  • If reading Oliver Twist, pupils might generate five key questions they hope to answer in the next chapter
  • If reading about an artist, pupils might generate five key questions they hope the text will answer

Clarifying – pupils identify areas of uncertainty, which may be individual words or phrases, and seek information to clarify meaning.

  • Pupils might come across words they don’t know the meaning of and seek to find this out
  • If pupils are reading non-fiction, they might check that they understand any images or graphs that are presented alongside the text

Summarising – pupils succinctly describe the meaning of sections of the text. This causes pupils to focus on the key content, which in turn supports comprehension monitoring.

  • After reading Little Red Riding Hood, pupils might tell their partner the key events that happened. A teacher might scaffold this using picture prompts
  • After reading a text on photosynthesis, pupils might write a summary of this process

Teaching comprehension strategies

It is important that pupils are explicitly taught these strategies. Detailed explanations and high-quality modelling, such as ‘Think Alouds’, should be used to teach pupils how to apply each strategy when reading. This helps to make the implicit strategies of a good reader explicit to pupils, providing them with techniques they can apply independently.

Before pupils are expected to apply these strategies independently, they must be given multiple opportunities to try out each one during guided practice, with a partner, or in a small group. Their independent use of these strategies should be built up gradually, until they are able to apply multiple strategies at once. The level of independence that pupils are expected to achieve when using these comprehension strategies will depend on the phase you are teaching, as well as any specific barriers to learning for a child.

Subject specific comprehension strategies

The five strategies outlined can be used on both fiction and non-fiction texts. However, the subject does matter, especially in Secondary school. Therefore, it is important that the model is adapted to suit the content you are teaching.

For example, the questions that pupils generate in English Literature might be related to character development or the mood generated by the author, whereas in P.E. the questions might be focused around physiological changes that happen to the body during exercise.

You might also include additional subject specific reading strategies. For example, in a History lesson, you might ask pupils to identify the source of the information they are reading or make notes on the context of when it was reported, such as the political climate.

Supporting reading in your subject is vital, and therefore, it will form part of the focus of your next training session.

Engaging parents and carers

To help pupils develop their reading ability, it is important that they get as many opportunities to practise reading as possible. You can encourage pupils to utilise their time outside of school to develop their reading further. One way to do this is to engage parents, carers or families in their child’s reading development, which may increase the amount of time a pupil spends engaging with texts at home.

Listen to Kelly Challis discuss shared reading. Consider the following questions and make notes in your notebook:

  • why is it important for parents to read with their children?
  • how can you support parents to read with their children?

Shared reading – Kelly Challis

Video transcript

Why is it important for parents to read with their children at home?

The following poem by Dr Seuss sums it up well.

‘The more that you read,

the more things you will know.

The more that you learn

the more places you will go’.

Parents and carers should be informed that reading with their children can broaden their child’s vocabulary and increase their knowledge which supports both word recognition and language comprehension. By helping to develop their child’s literacy skills, parents and carers have the potential to improve outcomes for their children.

The Education Endowment Foundation – also known as the EEF – state that overall, there is consistent evidence that the level and quality of parental involvement in learning is linked to a child’s communication, language, and literacy capabilities, and supporting parents to help their children learn has the potential to improve outcomes.

Promoting shared reading is one way to engage parents and carers in the education of their children. Research indicates there are benefits of reading to children before they can read themselves and reading with them when they do begin to read.

What approaches are useful for parents?

Approaches that focus on how to read effectively with children appear to be more successful than those which focus more broadly on the promotion of reading or on the provision of books according to the EEF.

It might be helpful to share with parents that successful reading is made up of many processes, which can be categorised into two strands: word recognition and language comprehension. There are also reading strategies that you can share with parents to support their child’s reading development.

Firstly, you can encourage them to ask a range of questions about the book to check for understanding, such as:

  • Asking questions using the five W’s - who, what, where, when and why.
  • Asking a mixture of closed and open questions.
  • Asking about and discussing the meaning of vocabulary - what does that mean? When else might you use that word?
  • Asking their children to summarise what has happened so far and predict what might happen next. Secondly, you can encourage them to support their children to see links between what they are reading and the real world. This can help children develop their understanding of ideas in the book itself. For example, while reading about Cinderella going to the ball, a parent might discuss the similarities between a ball and a birthday party.

You can share these strategies with parents and carers and encourage them to read with their children at home by proactively seeking out interactions during the school day, at drop off or collection, or, if you don’t see parents regularly, then you can use parents evening as a good opportunity to talk to them about the importance of their children reading at home and provide them with approaches to do so.

All children can benefit from shared reading regardless of their age or reading ability. Sharing stories can stretch a child’s understanding of the world, fuel their imagination and expose them to a more sophisticated range of vocabulary and language structures which may not always be available to them in the books they can read alone.

As Kelly said, there are strategies that you can share with parents or carers to support them when reading with their children at home. In addition to this, it is important that you promote reading for pleasure to both your pupils and their parents or carers. You can do this in the classroom by reading a range of high-quality texts to pupils.

Building relationships

Another benefit to engaging parents and carers in their child’s reading development is that it creates an opportunity for you to build effective relationships with them. This can improve a pupil’s motivation, behaviour and academic success.

One way to do this is by sharing children’s reading successes with their parents. For example, if you have been working with a parent to improve their child’s reading, or if reading is their child’s area of development, you could seek an opportunity to speak to parents/carers or send home a message in a journal to inform them of their child’s achievements. The message could say something like “Zack tried really hard to sound out the words ‘elements’ and ‘atomic’ in his science lesson today. He is working hard and making good progress in his reading.”


Consider the following questions and record your response in your notebook:

  • how do you currently engage parents in their child’s learning?
  • what more could you do?

Every school will have different policies on how to engage parents and how to support reading at home, so this is something you should consult with your mentor about in your next session.

Developing writing

It is important that you invest time in developing pupils’ literacy skills in the phase or subject that you teach as part of a whole school approach to literacy.

In your next training session, you will explore how to teach comprehension and how to support pupils’ writing in your phase or subject. In order to prepare for the session, listen to Ruth Everett and answer the following questions in your notebook:

  • why is writing challenging?
  • how can you support pupils’ writing?

Teaching writing – Ruth Everett

Video transcript

Pupils need to master many different forms of writing across the curriculum in all key stages.

In upper key stage 2, there is an increased focus on expository writing. This is writing that is used to explain, describe or inform, for example essays, newspaper articles, and instruction manuals.

In key stages 3 and 4, disciplinary writing instruction should be seen as inseparable from the teaching of the actual curriculum. So, there needs to be a focus on helping pupils develop a systematic way in which their writing responds to the questions posed in specific subjects.

For example, how a pupil might respond with the use of prose in history contrasts to the demands of science where pupils need to answer more succinctly using bullet points. Each approach requires development over time so that pupils can demonstrate their knowledge using the different writing approaches.

Given the importance of writing across the curriculum, it is essential that all teachers, regardless of phase and subject, are teachers of writing.

But what makes writing so challenging?

David McCullough, two-time Pulitzer prize winner, explains why writing poses challenges for pupils. He says, “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.”

As in reading, there are many componentswhich must be explicitly taught if a pupil is to become an effective writer, including handwriting, punctuation, spelling, word choices, paragraphing, imagery, word inferences.

Therefore, you need to break down the basics of writing instruction into smaller chunks. Too often, pupils are expected to tackle more complex tasks, like writing an essay, before they have all the knowledge they require, resulting in an overload of their working memory. The impact of this is the pupil’s effort is not focused on the content of the lesson, but on the structure and organisation of the piece of writing. To prevent this, you can scaffold the structure so teaching the content becomes the primary focus.

How you scaffold writing is likely to be subject specific. For example, an Art teacher might explicitly model the skill of writing detailed annotations of sketches, whereas a science teacher might model how to write an effective conclusion including Tier 3 vocabulary, or an English teacher might model how to use a non-finite verb after a quotation to clarify understanding and develop a learner’s analytical skills.

Therefore, pupils should be taught how to write for different purposes and be given a significant amount of time to practise these domain-specific writing skills.

How can you teach effective writing?

Pupils need to understand that writing is a process not a singular activity. A good piece of writing is planned, drafted and edited. These stages are best taught using explicit teaching methods such as modelling whilst thinking aloud. To effectively model the writing process, you need to use high-quality, clear and succinct oral language.

Therefore, it is helpful to plan, script and even rehearse what you will say when modelling.

Why is modelling so important when teaching writing?

Modelling and thinking aloud helps you to articulate some of the meta-cognitive approaches that happen automatically for you, and for some pupils, but not for all. Talking through your thought processes makes discrete steps explicit so pupils can understand the steps they need to take throughout the writing process.

Working with colleagues is a great way to practise modelling, so you can become adept at this important but quite difficult skill.

Another evidence-based strategy you can use when modelling is to provide pupils with a worked example on a visualiser or Interactive Whiteboard. This could be one of their peer’s successful pieces of writing. You can then highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the whole text, for example, vocabulary, a subordinate clause, an effective topic sentence. This way, the successful elements are labelled by deconstructing the text into its building blocks. Pupils can then see:

  • how a good piece of writing is created
  • and what the features are of an effective written piece. It is important to pitch this right to inspire rather than dishearten.

In summary, writing is a complex process, comprised of three_main phases: planning, draftingand editing. _Each phase needs to be explicitly taught by all teachers and broken down into chunks to avoid over burdening learners’ working memories. All too often, the most important phases - planning and editing - are only taught as a one-off activity.

You should embed writing instruction into the content of your curriculum and focus writing activities on what pupils are currently learning and reading about to ensure they have the prior knowledge required to successfully complete the written task.

In your next mentor meeting, you will be observed teaching the Tier 2 and/or 3 vocabulary that you identified and planned to teach in your last mentor meeting.