We all know that learning to read is a very important step for any child to make, but how can we be sure that we are offering children the best introduction to this skill. Roger Hurn unpicks some of the issues currently under debate.

Professor Kathy Sylva, a leading researcher into pre-school education, caused quite a stir last summer (2005) when she told a Social Market Foundation think-tank that four-year-olds should not start reading in reception classes. Professor Sylva felt that teachers of reception classes would be better employed teaching their charges social and behavioural skills. She argued that children would be better equipped to master the complex skills required for reading if they have first learned to concentrate and listen.

Perhaps it is rather stating the obvious to say that all children need to be able to concentrate if they are to make significant progress with reading. However, the key question raised by Professor Sylva is: when is the right time to teach children to read? 

What’s the answer?
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this. Children develop at different rates but research from the United States (National Research Council, 1998) has shown that children should be being prepared for reading well before they come to school. This is because the first three years of a child’s life are critical for the development of a child’s brain and it’s during this time that children develop most of their capacity for learning.

Why is this?
Children are born with over 100bn brain cells called neurons. These neurons form connections, called synapses, which make up the wiring of the brain. Children’s brains work on a ‘use it or lose it’ principle and only connections that are regularly activated will continue to function effectively. So, depending on the amount of intellectual stimulation the brain receives in the early years, it can gain or lose up to 25% of the synapses it has. Therefore, the opportunity for creating the foundation for reading and, indeed all other learning, begins at this time (Smith, 2004).

Is a child’s ability to learn to read dependent on their intelligence?
A child’s ability to learn to read isn’t just determined by their innate intelligence. As Howard Gardner (1993) has shown, intelligence is not fixed at birth but dynamic. The brain benefits from exercise and stimulation and it is when very young children’s brains are exposed to experiences and sensations that they develop the new neural connections that make learning to read possible.

Parents and carers can stimulate their children’s brains so that they will be receptive to learning to read by talking, singing, telling nursery rhymes, showing and sharing books and reading aloud to their children. In fact, the children of parents and carers who treat the process of learning to read as a form of entertainment, rather than as a task to be mastered, tend to have a greater facility for reading than those who don’t (Dawson, 1994).

Moreover, according to the National Research Council (1998), in the same way that children develop language skills before they can speak, so they can also have literacy skills well before they are able to read. In the light of what we know about how the brain develops, we can see why children who are read to and exposed to books and language games from an early age are more likely to develop into good readers when they come to school than those who aren’t. However, this leads us on to consider what research can tell teachers about how to teach reading effectively.

Isn’t the National Literacy Strategy the answer?
The fact is that the teaching of reading has never really been grounded in research. According to the Reading Reform Foundation, the whole National Literacy Strategy is based on a compromise of methods, with no attempt made to subject the programmes advocated to evidence-based testing to discover what are the most effective methods for teaching reading. Indeed, the House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee report, Teaching Children to Read (2005) supports this view. In fact, the Committee called for the National Literacy Strategy to be reviewed as, in their opinion, it isn’t based on sound research. The government has responded and a review is now being undertaken by Jim Rose.

So how should teachers teach reading?
Jim Rose, in his interim review of the National Literacy Strategy (2005) has been careful to avoid what he describes as a ‘futile debate’ over which strategies are most effective but he does recommend that synthetic phonics should be the first strategy teachers use, as it ‘is the most effective, systematic approach to teaching reading.’

However, not everyone agrees that synthetic phonics is the answer to teaching children to read. Critics point out that English spelling is full of irregularities and that children must be given a comprehensive selection of strategies to decode text successfully. They also argue that an over-emphasis on synthetic phonics distracts children from engaging with books. Even advocates of synthetic phonics can’t agree on exactly how to teach it, as Mike Baker points out in his BBC report ‘Phonics: Strategy but no consensus’ (December 2005).

This lack of consensus is further exacerbated by the findings of a new research study undertaken by Warwick University and led by Dr Jonathan Solity, which claims that children can master the basics of reading by learning just 100 words. (TES, 9 December 2005). The researchers argue that children who are taught these 100 words find it much easier to cope with real books and make sense of the new words they encounter, rather than by memorising the 150 words at KS1 and a further 100 at KS2, as currently recommended by the National Literacy Strategy .

Moreover, there really isn’t much comfort to be had for those who rely on reading schemes as Dr Solity (2003), in a paper delivered to a DfES phonics seminar, also highlighted the work undertaken by the Early Reading Research, which seriously questions the effectiveness of teaching children to read by using reading schemes.

Where do we go from here?
So, despite Jim Rose’s wish to avoid being dragged into a debate over how to teach children to read, it looks as if the battle will continue to rage for quite some time yet.  However, he has agreed to investigate Dr Solity’s research and take its findings into account by the time he makes his final report. Yet, while all this is going on, teachers still have to help children achieve the Early Learning goals of ‘Exploring and experimenting with sounds, words and texts; reading a range of familiar and common words and simple sentences independently and knowing that print carries meaning and, in English, is read from left to right and top to bottom.’

Perhaps the best way to do this is to draw on what research has taught us about how the brain functions. To become good readers children need to be stimulated and excited by the reading process, as when a child’s brain learns a new concept or skill, it creates a new neural network for it. This network can only be reinforced by repeated use and the best way to do this is to find fun ways of practising the new skill. This causes the brain to produce pleasure chemicals (endorphins), which naturally motivate the child to go on learning (Skelton, 1999). Therefore, when children are given the chance to learn to read in this way, they become focused and highly motivated learners.

So, Professor Sylva’s earlier assertion that reception teachers shouldn’t teach children to read, isn’t really relevant if we look at teaching reading as an enjoyable activity, which has the power to engage even very young children by using the way that their brains are naturally programmed to learn (Smilkstein 1993).