Reading in Primary Schools: Guide

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Early reading

Developmental pattern

The typical developmental pattern is that in the early years children learn receptive and expressive language skills. They learn letter sounds and develop necessary auditory skills for this. Then by putting sounds together they are able to decode words. As they encounter and remember more words, they develop a “sight vocabulary” of words which are recognized at a glance, without any need for decoding. Then they develop more visual skills and learn whole words. As they progress there is increasing emphasis on comprehension. Eventually they get to the stage of not “learning to read” but “reading to learn”, where the focus is completely on meaning, rather than the process of extracting it. Practice with reading is essential to develop fluency. Good readers read many times the amount of poor readers. Better readers will get to the stage of being aware of how they read and be able to control how they read for different purposes. Eventually there is less emphasis on the process of reading and more on the value of what is being read (Topping, 2019).

Primary schools in England encourage reading for pleasure whilst also emphasising the importance of understanding a wide range of texts throughout the curriculum. Balanced curricula have a focus on building a strong foundation, and this is particularly so for reading. Research such as the DfE’s EPPSE 3-16 project (2014), has proven the impact of good early years provision.

According to Reade, A. & Sayko, S. (2017), children typically move through several stages as they learn to read:

  • Emergent readers (usually birth to age six) are learning our sound system and how print works, including letter-sound relationships, and the meaning of stories read to them.
  • Early readers (usually age six and seven) are linking speech sounds to letters to make words, learning to decode words, and beginning to make sense of what they read.
  • Transitional readers (usually age seven and eight) are usually reading “like they talk” and have strategies to help them decode words and read with understanding, but may still need support with more difficult reading material.
  • Fluent readers (usually ages eight and up) are reading independently with confidence and understand longer and more difficult types of material. They use word parts to figure out words and relate sections of the story to one another.
  • As fluent readers enter middle and high school, they often read material that has many viewpoints and more complex language and ideas. They draw on what they know from other reading material and experiences to judge what they read and come to conclusions.

Bold Beginnings  (Ofsted, 2017) emphasised the importance of securing the essential skill of reading and starting this early. It detailed how schools, in which outcomes were above the national average, placed an emphasis on the teaching of reading in a “...systematic and structure way, building up children’s phonic knowledge and skills explicitly and providing regular story times where children could be taught to understand what they heard.” See pp19-22 on early reading.

In the new OFSTED Education Inspection Framework (September 2019) are clear parallels between the practice observed in Bold Beginnings, and what inspectors will be evaluating on the new framework. Paragraphs 296 to 298 set out how the teaching of early reading will be inspected:

In England 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. They will pay particular attention to pupils who are reading below age-related expectations (the lowest 20%) to assess how well the school is teaching phonics and supporting all children to become confident, fluent readers.

Inspectors listen to several low-attaining pupils in Years 1 to 3 read from unseen books appropriate to their stage of progress. They should also draw on information from the school’s policy for teaching reading, phonics assessments, phonics screening check results and lesson visits.

In reaching an evaluation against the ‘quality of education’ judgement, inspectors consider whether:

◼ the school is determined that every pupil will learn to read, regardless of their background, needs or abilities. All pupils, including the weakest readers, must make sufficient progress to meet or exceed age-related expectations.

◼ stories, poems, rhymes and non-fiction are chosen for reading to develop pupils’ vocabulary, language comprehension and love of reading. Pupils are familiar with and enjoy listening to a wide range of stories, poems, rhymes and non-fiction.

◼ the school’s phonics programme matches or exceeds the expectations of the national curriculum and the early learning goals. The school has clear expectations of pupils’ phonics progress term-by-term, from Reception to Year 2.

◼ the sequence of reading books shows a cumulative progression in phonics knowledge that is matched closely to the school’s phonics programme. Teachers give pupils sufficient practice in reading and re-reading books that match the grapheme-phoneme correspondences they know, both at school and at home.

◼ reading, including the teaching of systematic, synthetic phonics, is taught from the beginning of Reception.

◼ the ongoing assessment of pupils’ phonics progress is sufficiently frequent and detailed to identify any pupil who is falling behind the programme’s pace. If they do fall behind, targeted support is given immediately.

◼ the school has developed sufficient expertise in the teaching of phonics and reading.


Ofsted (2017) Bold beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools, Manchester: Ofsted.

Ofsted (2019) Education inspection framework (EIF). Manchester: Ofsted.

Reade, A. & Sayko, S. (2017). Learning about your child’s reading development. Washington, DC: U.S.A.

Topping, K. (2019) Children’s Reading and Instruction.



National Centre for Improving Literacy

Beginning reading

Good practice

Dfe/Early Education (2012) Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) This non-statutory guidance material supports practitioners in implementing the statutory requirements of the EYFS.