The importance of early reading


06th February 2020

The importance of early reading

EYFS expert Gill Quantrell takes a look at what Ofsted are saying about early reading.

The latest inspection reports contain a section about the teaching of early reading, whether this has been picked out as an area of strength or an area to develop. Ofsted’s Deputy Director for Early Education, Gill Jones, said: ‘We’ve made the early reading deep dive mandatory because it’s so important that children learn to read fluently as quickly as possible.’ What developments in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) are inspectors looking for, and how does reading fit into these changes?

The importance of early reading

What does Ofsted say about early reading?

The School inspection handbook states that ‘During all inspections of infant, junior, primary and lower-middle schools, inspectors must focus on how well pupils are taught to read as a main inspection activity.’ In paragraph 298, it gives the seven aspects of early reading that will be evaluated during an inspection. This can be found in the School inspection handbook if you haven’t seen it already. 

The inspectors will want to see that reading is a top priority across the school for all children ‘regardless of their background, needs or abilities.’ In the EYFS  there are four primary concerns that Ofsted expects to see addressed.

  • Fostering a love of reading and sharing stories, poems and rhymes to develop vocabulary and comprehension.
  • Having a secure, systematic, synthetic phonics programme taught from the beginning of reception.
  • Creating opportunities for children to read and reread books that match the phonics stage taught.
  • Effective use of assessment to quickly pick up children falling behind and giving targeted support. 

In her Ofsted blog, Gill Jones has said that inspectors will consider how ‘direct phonics teaching is taught every day… However, we do not expect to see phonics in ‘continuous provision’ activities.’ She has also said that inspectors would not look for ‘phonics lessons’ in nursery classes.

What does this look like in practice?

Every EYFS class is unique and there is no one right way of teaching reading. Getting this right for you, your children and your school can be a big challenge. Inspectors will not expect to see any particular style of planning, teaching or assessing. However, whatever your approach to early years teaching, it is clear that phonics and reading need to have a high priority, especially in Reception. It is not just about being ‘Ofsted ready’, but about embedding a culture where books, vocabulary and reading take top priority. Short, focused, daily phonics sessions are crucial in developing these reading skills, but supporting children to become independent readers who love reading is undoubtedly our ultimate goal. The Reading Agency Reading facts researched the benefits of reading and found ‘that reading for pleasure can promote better health and wellbeing, aids in building social connections and relationships with others and is associated with a range of factors that help increase the chances of social mobility.’

Early years Curriculum Projects

Raising the profile of reading

Ensuring that reading remains a priority in your early years curriculum and setting is one way to embed a love of reading in your students. Here are some practical ideas to consider:

  • Ensure that your curriculum is language and story-rich. Base learning and activities around stories and non-fiction where possible.
  • Have baskets of books around the classroom linked to the children’s interests or the topics you are teaching.
  • Make small cosy spaces for children to read either alone, with a friend or with an adult. 
  • Choose books carefully to read to the class. Ensure they have an excellent ‘reading diet’ over the year including a variety of stories, non-fiction books, poems and rhymes.
  • Use a variety of questioning techniques to develop children’s comprehension skills. Encourage the children to ask questions about books, clarify what different words mean, summarise what they have heard or read and predict what might happen. Reciprocal Reading | Projects
  • Put together story sacks for the children to use in their play. They could include the book and some small world toys to act out the story. 
  • Make storytimes special. Demonstrate how much you love reading. 
  • Make time for children with additional needs or gaps in their vocabulary to listen to the story in a small group first. 
  • Have a voting station for the storytime book so that children are making choices about the book they would like to share.
  • Make sure that the books children are reading link independently to the phonic stage taught.  
  • Assign pairs of children as reading buddies. The children could even read to teddies or toys.

The importance of family support for young readers

Developing a culture of reading doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t just happen in the classroom. We need to engage families to get involved, which can be a challenge. The National Literacy Trust published a report in 2007 Why Families Matter to Literacy to show the impact that parents can have on their child’s motivation to learn. Their research found that there is ‘ample evidence that parents who promote reading as a valuable and worthwhile activity have children who are motivated to read for pleasure.’ The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) also found that parents who are actively involved in their child’s learning before school can boost their progress by up to 5 months. With this in mind, the government has set up a campaign called Hungry Little Minds to help parents support their child’s development. 

Developing a language-rich environment to support early years

Developing a language-rich environment

A critical part of supporting early reading skills is to improve children’s language and communication skills and create a language-rich environment. It is especially important to do this in Nursery. More so than ever, children are starting Nursery with a variety of communication and language needs. Working with speech and language teams has become a crucial part of a Nursery teacher’s role. 

Teachers will be pleased to hear that Gill Jones has said that inspectors ‘do not expect to see phonics lessons’ in pre-Reception settings. This means that Nursery teachers can focus on developing children’s speaking and listening skills within their play and take time to work with children on skills that are relevant to their development. Working with small groups or individuals to read stories, play games or sing nursery rhymes and counting songs is essential, especially for those children who haven’t experienced this at home. To develop children’s listening skills and their awareness of phonics, there are activities in Phase One Letters and Sounds that will help support this. There are five phases of phonics children need to be taught before the end of Year 1. Phase One is designed to support children to develop sound awareness in readiness for learning the skills needed for reading and spelling. However, phonics teaching often starts in Phase Two, learning phonemes and graphemes. Children need to develop listening skills and the ability to tune into and discriminate between sounds before they start to learn letter sounds. The seven aspects of Phase One in Letters and Sounds give lots of activities that can be incorporated into the day or games that can be played in small groups. 

Although the layout of classrooms and outdoor learning spaces can be crucial to supporting talk, a language-rich environment is primarily about the importance of having high quality and meaningful interactions with all children. Having a good understanding of child development and a strong knowledge of the children is vital to support this. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Ensure that all staff are making time to listen and respond to the children.
  • Wait to be invited into conversations and follow the lead of the child. Make sure responses are relevant and not just a chance to assess an area of learning.
  • Know which children need the most support with language development and find the best strategies to support them. Share this with all staff.
  • Make time to model good speaking and listening skills.
  • Work with your speech and language team to find the best ways to support language development. 
  • When talking to a child, use a 5 to 1 rule 5 comments to 1 question. 
  • Find out where your communication ‘hot spots’ are. Where does the most talk happen and why? Where are the children most relaxed and happy to talk? Where do you and your team feel the most comfortable when talking to the children?
  • Track a child and find out where and to whom they speak most freely.
  • Use your knowledge of the children to provide activities and resources that link to their interests.
  • Promote talk with pictures of the children, their friends and families or photographs of the local environment.
  • Look at the environment and question how ‘communication friendly’ it is. Are there a variety of spaces for the children to work in, including small quiet spaces? 
  • Download the FREE Communication friendly environment audit.

For more information on quality interactions with children and developing communication friendly spaces, I suggest reading Julie Fisher’s book Interacting or Interfering Improving interactions in the early years and The Communication Friendly Spaces Approach by Elizabeth Jarman. Another useful site to visit to support language development is The Communication Trust.  

Early years Curriculum Projects

In summary

The Oxford University Press recently published a report which shows the importance of actively promoting talking and reading in school. After surveying teachers, they reported that by Year 1, 49% of pupils ‘have limited vocabulary to the extent that it affects their learning.’ They also found that ‘93% of primary school teachers believe a lack of time reading for pleasure is the root cause of the word gap.’ Why closing the word gap matters: The Oxford Language Report – Oxford Education

Early reading is a significant focus for Ofsted, but with good reason. As early years teachers, we can make a real difference. If we can work to involve parents early on and create a culture where communication, language and reading skills are highly valued, we can support all children to be successful lifelong learners.

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