Reading in Primary Schools: Guide

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Instructional approaches

Is there an optimum way to teach reading in schools? A best approach? Studies of schools and classrooms where children are taught to read most effectively show consistently that high achieving classes are characterized by:

 • a balanced approach in which attention to word recognition skills is matched by attention to comprehension “with the consistent message that understanding and effective communication - not just word recognition - are what literacy is about”  (Taylor & Pearson 2002, p.365)

 • attention to individual children’s literacy skills, experiences and interests through high quality interaction and close monitoring of individual progress (Pressley et al. 2001)

• high levels of engagement in reading (Guthrie et al. 1996)

UKLA proposes that reading instruction should encompass balance, attention is paid to individual children’s literacy skills, experiences and interests and engaging readers, whilst at the same time recognises that reading is not confined to print but embraces reading in a digital age. (Dombey et al. 2010 )  See here.

The most common teaching approaches in Primary schools are:

Guided Reading

Informed by Vygotsky’s (1978) Zone of Proximal Development and Bruner’s (1986) notion of scaffolding, this is a structured approach to reading. Children put into practice their developing expertise at an appropriate level. Teachers differentiate the instructional reading programme and guide groups of children at a similar level of skill to develop independent reading strategies on new and increasingly challenging texts. It uses a partnership approach that includes direct teaching and is tailored to specific needs of individuals or groups.  Texts increase the reading challenge of the individuals and require teachers to guide pupils through them. They then re-focus on the text, re-models the questions asked and increase and decrease the pace as appropriate. It follows a prescribed teaching sequence of book introduction; teaching focus and strategy check; independent reading and a return and response to the text. Guided reading sessions are made up of three parts: before reading discussion; independent reading and after reading discussion. The goal of guided reading is to help students use reading strategies whilst reading independently.

See resources from One Education at - reading skills, part one and reading skills, part two.

Whole class reading

This is where one student reads aloud while their classmates follow the text. A useful article here is by Coleman in 2016. This is available here.

He draws on the work of US professor Tim Shenahan who advocates alternatives include reading in pairs, where students alternate after each paragraph, choral reading, where students and teachers read the same section of the text simultaneously, and repeated reading, where students read the same passage multiple times. In all cases, Shanahan argues that students read more and have greater opportunities to improve fluency and cites citing studies reviewed by the US National Reading Panel (NIHCD, 2000).

See the blog by Shanahan, ‘Are read-alongs (round robin, pop corns) a good idea?

Silent reading

There is some evidence that when reading individually students are likely to read more quickly and cover more text (Hilden and Jones, 2012). Effective readers often employ strategies such as re-reading an unclear section of the text. These strategies can be utilised when reading alone, but not when reading aloud as a whole class.

Reciprocal Reading

This model for teaching reading comprehension was developed in Australia, New Zealand and the US and is credited with raising attainment in reading. Its popularity has grown in the UK where it is known by a variety of names: Reading Detectives, Reading Circles, Guided Reading, etc. All  versions are based on the same simple messages: • It is reciprocal because you gradually give away more and more teacher control as pupils develop independence in groups, in pairs and the as individuals. •The instructional concepts which underpin it include expert modelling, expert support as the child begins a task, children supporting each other and gradual reduction of support as pupils develop competence. • Pupils are supported to develop reading strategies before, during and after reading. • Pupils are encouraged to monitor their own reading abilities.

Shared reading

Shared reading is an effective way for teachers to demonstrate reading strategies and behaviours in continuous text. It is part of a suite of practices the teacher can use to support the teaching of reading. It is located at the higher end of teacher support in the Gradual Release Model (Duke and Pearson, 2002). Initially, the focus of the reading is on meaning and enjoyment. Once understanding is established, the teacher can reread the text to explicitly demonstrate reading strategies and engage in problem solving using meaning, structure and visual information. Shared reading usually involves the whole class and the teacher reading an enlarged text (e.g. big book, website projected via the interactive whiteboard or large-screen tv) that is beyond the level students can read by themselves. Big books are traditionally one of the more common shared reading text types.  The purpose of the enlarged text is so students can follow the words as the teacher reads. Initially the teacher may do much of the reading. However, as students become more familiar with the text they will assume more control, particularly at repetitive sections or when rhyme and rhythm are present. Students are expected to be actively engaged whilst the teacher is reading, following the text and when confident, joining in and reading with the teacher. 

Reading comprehension

Reading comprehension strategies focus on the learners’ understanding of written text. Pupils are taught a range of techniques which enable them to comprehend the meaning of what they read. These can include: inferring meaning from context; summarising or identifying key points; using graphic or semantic organisers; developing questioning strategies; and monitoring their own comprehension and identifying difficulties themselves. On average, reading comprehension approaches deliver an additional six months’ progress. Successful reading comprehension approaches allow activities to be carefully tailored to pupils’ reading capabilities, and involve activities and texts that provide an effective, but not overwhelming, challenge. Many of the approaches can be usefully combined with Collaborative learning techniques and Phonics to develop reading skills. The use of techniques such as graphic organisers and drawing pupils’ attention to text features are likely to be particularly useful when reading expository or information texts. (Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit, 2020).

See  - comprehension strategies.

Paired Reading

Involving parents and children read at home is a major factor in children's reading progress, irrespective of socioeconomic status or other variables. In this method the child chooses the reading material, irrespective of its level of difficulty. The technique allows for children to be supported through texts of high readability levels, with understanding supported by associated discussion and questioning. The reading together aspect of PR was designed as participant modelling, in which the child receives a model and continuous prompt for correct reading during his/her own attempt to read the words. The independent reading phase gives the child practice in responses acquired during simultaneous reading. This technique constitutes a simple, coherent, durable, and easily deliverable package for parents and other non-professionals.

Reading aloud

Reading aloud and discussing the text was a crucial strand of the Reading for Pleasure pedagogy identified in the Teachers as Readers research. It enables children to access rich and challenging texts, offers a model for silent independent reading, prompts children’s affective engagement and creates a class repertoire of ‘texts in common’ to discuss.  Adapted from pages Cremin, T., Mottram, M., Collins, F., Powell, S. and Safford, K. (2014) Building Communities of Engaged Readers: Reading for pleasure, London/New York: Routledge.  

To read more about the research: see the Executive Summaries and related papers at here.

Teachers read-aloud

The teacher read-aloud is an essential part of a child’s reading education. It turns the reading into an event, where the most experienced reader in the room can expertly guide their children through the text. It does, however, have its limitations.

The read-along

With the read-along (often referred to as the round robin), children take it in turns to read part of the text being studied, while the rest of the class follow along. I would rarely (if ever) attempt to get around the whole class in one session as this wouldn’t be an effective use of time. But asking a sample of children to tackle particular parts of the text is a great Assessment for Learning. As with the teacher read-aloud, this approach has clear advantages and limitations.




  • It provides an opportunity for children to read aloud to an audience. This is essential in developing children’s confidence in reading and promotes the joy of performance.  
  • It provides vital data for the teacher. One of the key advantages of the traditional carousel guided model has over the whole-class model is that, in the former, the teacher hears each child read aloud at least once a week; in the latter, this is not always possible if the teacher uses only the read-aloud. Using the read-along overcomes this drawback and allows the teacher to hear readers even if only for a short period. 
  • It provides an opportunity for immediate correction. If a child struggles with a word or phrase, then the teacher can intervene. This helps to prevent children from developing poor reading habits such as skipping difficult words, or not noticing mistakes at all, which will compromise the development of their comprehension. 
  • It develops a culture of listening and respect. It provides a regular and structured opportunity for children to practise listening to their peers. 
  • As with the read-aloud, only one person is doing the reading – this provides an opportunity for some to disengage. Making your choices of who reads next appear random can solve this issue. If children do not know whether it is them that will be reading next they are more likely to listen and follow attentively. 
  • It can place a limitation on your choice of text. In a class where reading confidence is likely to vary considerably, consideration must be given to the text you are asking them to read. You can differentiate by asking the more confident readers to read longer passages or passages where you know there are particular challenges, reserving the more manageable passages for less confident readers. This takes planning but the benefits are enormous. Even in challenging archaic texts or complex non-fiction there will be sentences the less confident readers can attempt. 
  • Before deploying this approach in the classroom, a culture of respect must be established. In addition, children’s confidence in reading and performing aloud to audiences must be developed.



Independent reading

Children read the text independently. Ultimately, this is the end goal – for children to develop in confidence so that they are able to independently decode and comprehend texts appropriate for their age group.




  • Develops independent reading stamina. This is essential for future academic success. 
  • This is what they need to do in order to tackle standardised tests. 
  • Developing this skill through explicit practice opens the door to the world of literature. 






  • It is likely to have a pronounced negative impact on the weakest readers; however, this approach also provides a clear opportunity for guided group work for children who may need additional support as the rest of the class tackle the text independently. Consideration would have to be given as to when these less confident readers read independently but this can be tackled with relative ease.
  • The more confident readers are likely to complete the passage more swiftly than less confident readers; however, having a carefully considered follow-up activity that assesses understanding, which has a high ceiling and low threshold, can overcome this. 
  • It is difficult to tell whether children are actually reading. Therefore, careful consideration must be given in order to make this reading accountable. 

Over the course of a reading unit, it is likely that using all three approaches will have the greatest benefits as opposed to focusing purely on one approach. It is, however, important that teachers take into consideration the needs of their class and the text in which they are studying and adapt appropriately if we are to maximise the impact of our classroom practice.


Bruner, J. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dombey, H. et al. (2010) Teaching Reading: What the evidence says UKLA argues for an evidence-informed approach to teaching and testing young children’s reading. London: UKLA

Duke, N.K. and Pearson, P.D. (2002). Effective reading practices for developing comprehension (Chapter 10). In A.E. Farstrup & S.J. Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction (3rd Ed.), Newark, DE: International Reading Association

Guthrie, J.T., Van Meter, P., Dacey-McCann, A., Wigfield, A. , Bennett, L., Poundstone, C. C., Rice, M.E., Fairbisch, F.M., Hunt, B. & Mitchell, A.M. (1996) Growth in literacy engagement: changes in motivations and strategies during concept-oriented reading instruction. Reading Research Quarterly 31 (3), pp. 306-332.

Hilden, K. & Jones, J. (2012). ‘A Literacy Spring Cleaning: Sweeping Round Robin Reading Out of Your Classroom.’  Reading Today. April/May 2012.

National Institute of Child Heath and Human Development (2000). National Reading Panel. Washington: NICHD.

Pressley, M., Wharton-McDonald, R., Allington, R., Block, C.C., Morrow, L., Tracey, D., Baker, K., Brooks, G., Cronin, J., Nelson, E. & Woo, D. (2001) A study of effective first grade literacy instruction. Scientific Studies of Reading 5 (1) pp. 35-58.

Taylor, B.M. & Pearson, P.D. (2002) (Eds.) Teaching Reading: Effective schools, accomplished teachers. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.