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Returning to School: Why Reception and Year 1 were a Priority

Posted on: 04 Jun 2020 by Group Education Director

As we enjoy the return of the first few year groups to school, the delight of the children and parents at the school gate has been clear. Across the sector, there is significant discussion around the year groups who have been allowed to return; the reason given for Reception and Year 1 has been that they are developing essential skills, and in the context of this blog, the focus is one aspect of skills development - reading fluency - and how the pathway to developing this skill demonstrates why our youngest children returning to school is a priority. 

The development of reading rests on a hierarchy of skills; within these, fluency is the ability to read with accuracy, speed and developing expression; a simple way of gauging fluency is the extent to which children read smoothly and with some expression.  On a skill basis, fluency represents the bridge into the comprehension of texts, and, more critically, into the pleasure of reading - as fluency unlocks the door to meaning. The science behind this is that fluency in reading frees up a reader's cognitive function to enable them to focus on the meaning of works, rather than decoding text.   As readers move through school, fluency becomes increasingly important - as the amount of text children work with and the complexity of instructions become greater, once children have fluency, we can start to develop strategies around comprehension and vocabulary that allow them to learn with greater independence.

Conversely, where fluency is not developed the child doesn’t ‘cross the bridge’, and isn’t able to decode words with sufficient automaticity to develop comprehension of text. Without being able to access meaning, the door to the enjoyment of reading remains shut, and children do not develop the motivation to read. The effect of this is that the gap between them and their peers continues to grow, good readers read significantly and further their decoding and word recognition skills, developing their vocabulary and further building on automaticity, while the vocabulary of less fluent readers suffers simply as a consequence of covering smaller amounts of text.

Ultimately developing fluency is a consequence of consistent application supported by specific teaching - it relies on learning to identify accurately words on sight, freeing up the brain to consider and enjoy their meaning. The first step in the independent development of sight vocabulary is gaining the ability to decode and blend the phonemes (sounds) in a word. Words do not become sight words until they are read correctly many times; and correctness means developing accuracy in the application of phonics.  As children in Reception and Year 1 are at the beginning of the journey through which they acquire sight vocabulary, and most children in this age group are still developing the full extent of their phonic knowledge.

The initial phase of this is the need for children to learn accuracy in. the pronunciation of the 44 phonemes within spoken English, which include individual letter sounds, as well as digraphs and trigraphs, respectively sets of two and three letters that make a single sound. As these sounds are learned, children need to develop the accurate application of these to the different graphemes (the way in which sounds are represented in writing), as not all sounds in English have a match between the phoneme and the grapheme - for example, the 'ow" in 'snow' is pronounced differently from the 'ow" in 'cow'. As they progress, exceptions to rules are introduced, for example where digraphs are separated by a letter, best illustrated by the 'ae' sound in 'name'.

The two most effective ways of supporting the development of fluency are giving children opportunities to read aloud, either individually or collectively, using texts that they can decode using their phonic knowledge, alongside a programme that ensures children develop scaffolded and progressive phonic knowledge. In turn, this requires careful matching of texts to the child’s point in developing fluency - which helps children build the speed of their reading, and also requires the careful, regular and skilled delivery of phonics lessons so that children can decode accurately; the more often this happens, the more rapidly children are likely to develop fluency.

This is why children in Reception and Year 1 do phonics sessions on a daily basis in many schools and why this, and reading have been prioritised in online learning for younger year groups during school closure. Through the period of closure, the Education team at Bellevue have been observing lessons as part of our work, and the effect of the work of continuing these sessions as a priority was visible in the online sessions we have seen. Children reading at home using e-books and scanned texts were supported in their day to day reading in Meet sessions, and through the course of these, teachers focussed tightly on the phonemes and blends that each child was working to acquire, enabling children to sight read words they had been unfamiliar with at the start of the session.

Now that these children are back at school, the opportunities to work with them on the development of focussed fluency on a daily basis are much greater, as are the opportunities to put those skills into practice in other areas of learning. For children in Reception and Year 1 across the country continuing their journey along the bridge to reading fluency is critical; given the importance of this to a child's future learning, prioritising these children in the return to school was very much the right decision.  Alongside this, children will continue to build their understanding and knowledge of the fundamental skills in written and numeric work, which will be the subject of future blogs.

While this piece has focussed on the learning needs of groups back in school, please be assured that we are continuing to work on how we can induct other year groups back into our schools.

Steven Wade

Group Education Director

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