How should we teach reading?

/, Featured, literacy, reading/How should we teach reading?

A few months ago I posted a piece in which Roy Blatchford (founder of The National Education Trust) outlined his manifesto for ensuring that every child gets at least a C grade in English. But, reading is complex.

cfde6d1d0f0dfb91a39dabd9fb56217aSo how exactly should we teach children to read? This vexing question is utmost in many teachers’ minds and is tangled up in three separate issues:

  1. Decoding – the process of turning symbols into sounds – generally taught using synthetic phonics
  2. Understanding – actually comprehending what’s been read after it’s been decoded
  3. Enjoyment – it’s World Book Day tomorrow and getting kids to enjoy reading is something close to every English teacher’s heart. Whatever else we do it’s really bloody important not to put students off reading.

This week I have mostly been reading The Knowledge Deficit by ED Hirsch. This is, apparently the text upon which Gove has built his understanding of how education should work and as such I approached it with a certain amount of trepidation. It’s actually much more plausible than I was expecting. In it Hirsch argues that the reason attempts to raise the standards of reading in American schools has failed is because they’ve focused on teaching transferable reading skills rather than on giving students the background knowledge necessary to understand a wide range of texts.

Now, this comes as something of a blow. Particularly in light of the fact that at my school we have recently relaunched the Reading Strategies as a way of boosting students’ ability to comprehend what they’re reading. Is this possibly a huge waste of time?

One of the points Hirsch makes which I found especially interesting is the way he equates reading with listening and speaking with writing. He says,”If children are brought to speak and understand speech well in the early years, their reading future is bright.” He suggests that “In the classroom, the teacher can and should ask children frequently to make formal prepared and unprepared presentations to the class.” Now, that’s interesting. Could getting students to focus on speaking & listening be the key to improving their reading ability?

The other string to Hirsch’s bow is that we need to teach students knowledge. It wasn’t all that long ago that I had a heart-felt (but knee-jerk) opposition to this premise, but Hirsch explains that much of our thinking about education and children’s development stems from Romanticism. The Romantics believed that education should be ‘natural’ and that studnets should be allowed to ‘grow’. These words have since become synonymous with ‘good’. The problem comes from the belief that children will become better at say, reading, if they are allowed to develop naturally. After all, they learn to speak without much interference, don’t they? Well, yest they do. But as EB points out, reading is a deeply unnatural thing to do; there is very little chance that a child will learn to read without help.

Here’s an example of how a lack of knowledge can make your ability to decode meaningless:

A manifold, contained in an intuition which I call mine, is represented, by means of the synthesis of the understanding, as belonging to the necessary unity of self-consciousness; and this is effected by means of the category.

What is the main idea of this passage?

– Without a manifold, one cannot call an intuition ‘mine.’
– Intuition must precede understanding
– Intuition must occur through a category.
– Self-consciousness is necessary to understanding

See my point?

Comprehension depends on constructing a mental model that makes the elements fall into place and, equally important, enables the listener or reader to supply essential information that is not explicitly stated. In language use, there is always a great deal that is left unsaid and must be inferred. This means that communication depends on both sides, writer and reader, sharing a basis of unspoken knowledge. This large dimension of tacit knowledge is precisely what is not being taught adequately in our schools. (Hirsch 2009)

So back to my list of what we need to teach:

1. Decoding. We’ve become pretty good at this (or at least, primary teachers have.) As long as kids pick this up in Year 1 or 2, they’ll be fine. Problems arise if they arrive a secondary school without being able to do this with much facility as most of us secondary trained English teachers lack the training or time to do much about it.

2. Understanding. Hirsch’s claims that “There is every scientific reason to predict that an intensive and well-focused effort to enhance language and knowledge … will not only raise reading achievement for all students, it will help to narrow the gap between social groups.” Bold words. And when you consider that we need to understand at least 90% of the vocabulary in a text beofre you can process it, let alone enjoy it then maybe expanding students’ background knowledge doesn’t seem so daft. I’m inclined to give it a go, especially as it fits snugly with Daniel Willingham’s views in Why Don’t Students Like School?

And just because these ideas can be tarred with a right wing brush doesn’t mean that they have to be dull or badly taught. As Phil Beadle says, students “deserve you to be brilliant”. And teaching reading maybe requires more brilliance than anything else.

3. Enjoyment. The idea of more speaking & listening as the solution to improving reading and writing certainly sounds fun. But will it give students a love of literature? This is something that English teachers still need to pour their hearts and souls into, and we need to make sure that we’re exposing to our students to as broad a range of wonderful books as we can in the hope that maybe, just maybe, they’ll like one of them.

Related posts

Reading should be our top priority
A return to guided reading

2015-10-23T20:58:41+00:00February 29th, 2012|English, Featured, literacy, reading|


  1. Helen Wilson March 1, 2012 at 7:01 pm - Reply

    As a teaching assistant, a large part of my job involves delivering literacy interventions so this post really chimes with me.

    A main issue though seems to be the expectation of students that they will not enjoy reading which makes the second and third principles difficult to work on. Any ideas for increasing student’s enjoyment of reading. I already model reading for pleasure and support choice of library books on a subject of interest at the right reading level.

    • learningspy March 2, 2012 at 10:28 pm - Reply

      I think the answer lies in teaching as much as we can about the world and giving kids texts which broaden their horizons. If we just drill them in reading strategies we’re not going to be doing much to enhance either their enjoyment or their ability to reading with understanding.

      Thanks, David

  2. […] background-color:#6247d7; background-repeat : no-repeat; } – Today, 11:15 […]

  3. Stephen March 4, 2012 at 9:26 pm - Reply

    Firstly, good article. Your thoughts almost directly tap into Bloom’s Taxonomy, which I have recently become obsessed with.

    Secondly, my six year old has recently started reading independently. He is at that ‘read anything, anywhere’ age, and it is a joy to behold. My theories behind this:
    A story every night
    Books galore, everywhere in the house
    Meals at the table
    Libraries and books as treats

    This is something accessible to almost all people, and I’m fairly convinced it works!

    • learningspy March 4, 2012 at 10:23 pm - Reply

      Glad you liked the post although I am not a fan of Bloom’s. Have a look at some of my posts on the SOLO taxonomy for a better option.

      Your son’s experience is very similar to my daughter’s. She currently obsessed with Enid Blyton, but it took years of perseverance and hard work. It’s no wonder that in some families the battle is seen as not worth fighting. And that’s where WE step in…

  4. Laura March 4, 2012 at 10:07 pm - Reply

    You’ve hit the nail on the head with the picture – teaching content *is* teaching reading. As a teacher of Humanities I basically consider myself a non-fiction teacher of English. In the same way that students study books in English I have started using mentor texts with students about the topics we look at, then we analyse the writing – look at keywords, colloctions, verbs and nouns common in the type of writing we are studying (all of which improves their reading) – and then we try to create our own writing.

    In doing so they learn reading and writing AND knowledge AND skills. Among those activities there is also the ‘soft stuff’, collaboratively building word banks or questioning each other’s choices in their writing, but it is also seeping factual knowledge into their brain because the books we look at are about factual things (e.g. voting systems, immigration or the environment).

    What is important now is that we all agree that none of these things is *more* important than the other. If all I ever taught was a list of facts that would not be as productive for the future as the multi-faceted approach above; but that’s also true if all I teach in a lesson is a reading strategy on a pathetic piece of writing with no context and that teaches nothing beyond what the student already knows.

    • learningspy March 4, 2012 at 10:28 pm - Reply

      Bloody hell Laura! Forget me fumbling about with my hammer: you’ve really nailed it!

      Balance in all things. Good job

      Ps. You sound like the teacher is have liked to have had.

  5. Cristina Milos March 5, 2012 at 9:09 pm - Reply

    Hi David,

    I knew the video and had it in my YouTube Favorites about a year or two ago. It completely reshaped my teaching and although I did teach reading strategies, I decreased the emphasis on them. Students CAN apply reading strategies with ease once they comprehend the text – even more so in the case of second-language learners (like the ones I teach).
    I think more teachers of language should read this post.

    • learningspy March 5, 2012 at 9:55 pm - Reply

      Thanks Cristina. Hersch does acknowledge that reading strategies can be useful but makes the point that drilling children in their use is both dreary and counter productive. I am in the process of my complete rethink.

  6. […] posts How should we teach reading?  Is grammar glamorous? Should we be teaching knowledge or […]

  7. […] How should we teach reading? […]

  8. […] How should we teach reading? Post a Comment    (0) Comments   Read More […]

  9. […] How should we teach reading? […]

  10. Gia January 1, 2013 at 10:59 am - Reply

    This is a great article! Good study habits begin at home with a study table for kids.

  11. Adam Simpson (@yearinthelifeof) January 2, 2013 at 11:17 am - Reply

    This is fundamentally the art of teaching reading. Thanks, David. I’ve been considering writing a post on reading for a while and you’ve just negated my need to do so!

  12. […] How should we teach reading? […]

  13. Eddie Carron February 5, 2013 at 8:04 pm - Reply

    I recently read the comment about sport “If we want children to become involved in sport, perhaps we should stop teaching it!” It is tempting to suggest that this could also refer to reading. Reading is one of the great pleasures in life but when it is broken down in box-ticking components in this way, it is possible to see how this might indeed apply.

    We have an alphabet-based othography therefore commonsense dictates that we should teach the sounds which the letters of our alphabet represent and when this is done well and rigorously in all schools, there will be no need to discuss the evil of illiteracy because it will virtually cease to exist. That Utopian situation however is a long way off and until it arrives in our classrooms we need to bring a more practical approach to the problem of the large numbers of children arriving at secondary schools unable to read and write confidently. Continuing to press phonics on young teenagers with only a few years of formal school left is clearly not the way to go.

    Perceptual Learning can be shown to deliver a good standard of literacy to such unfortunte children and in a relatively short period of time. Moreover, it can do so without formally or ritually teaching them anything. Highland Area council are currently taking a close, empirical look at this problem by examining the potential of perceptual learning in primary schools following its undoubted success in many of its secondary schools.

    Charleston Academy, one of these secondary schools has produced an excellent video to show perceptual learning in action which is at
    This video includes comment from the one stakeholder groups whose views are usually ignored. About 15% of children who take the perceptual learning course haev their literacy deficits restores in one half term and a similar number on one term.

    The Highland Area primary reseach project will report at the end of the current academic year and could yet be the means of banishing illiteracy from UK schools. Any school interested in receiving a free copy fo the resources being used in the video should email me at

  14. Hope Adams December 17, 2013 at 7:29 am - Reply

    Really very useful and informative blog..i am excited to read more of your blogs..stay blessed.

  15. Mama Love January 6, 2014 at 5:08 am - Reply

    Thank you for this enlightening article. I’ve found with my own children that enjoyment is the most important part of teaching kids how to read.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: