Reception Reading: How Your Child Will Learn To Read At School And What You Can Do To Help At Home

How Your Child Will Learn To Read At School And What You Can Do To Help At Home

Learning to read is probably the most important thing your son or daughter will do in reception (well, maybe equal with having fun!) but it won't all happen in class: parents need to help at home too.

We've consulted reading experts and teachers to bring you our guide to how your child will learn to read at school and what you can do to support this yourself.

How is reading taught these days?

The way reading is taught has changed over the years, and the current favoured method in British primaries is through phonics. The Government has backed this approach and it's definitely here to stay for the foreseeable.

So what is phonics teaching all about then?

Whereas many of today's parents learned to read whole words using the 'look and say' method (think Ladybird's Janet and John series), phonics is a systematic approach to teaching children the sounds that make up words. Words are broken down into the sounds they're made up from and then these sounds are 'blended' together to make the word.

So, for example, with 'dog', children learn the sounds the letters d,o, and g make separately and then how they blend to say 'dog'.

Note that it's the sounds the letters make that are important at this stage and not the letter names (i.e. not 'ay', 'bee' as in the alphabet song etc).

Phonics also helps children spell as they can hear the sounds in a word and then translate them back into the letters needed.

How will phonics be taught in my child's reception class?

Schools have some freedom to choose their teaching materials and books to support their phonics teaching programmes so this varies. Read Write Inc, Floppy's Phonics and Jolly Phonics are among the most common schemes, along with the Department of Education's own Letters and Sounds materials.

Teachers will start off with simpler single letter sounds (typically s,a,t,p,i,n) and then move to those which involve two letters such as 'oi', 'ou' and 'ai', or more e.g. 'igh', 'ough' or 'eigh'. Again, how quickly they progress through the sounds will vary.

At the same time as children are learning the sounds, according to Sara Wernham of Jolly Learning, the company behind the popular Jolly Phonics materials, they will also begin to add them up to read words.

"Learning the letter sounds is merely the first step. The really important bit is to teach the children what to do with them. How to blend them together for reading and how to listen for them in a word to spell it. Start simply with CVC words [consonant vowel consonant words, such as cat, hat, hop] and gradually introduce longer and more complex words."

After a while children will start recognising some words automatically and only using phonics decoding to break down new words the first few times. You can't fight against this and as long as they aren't guessing new words incorrectly instead of 'decoding' them, it isn't a bad thing.

What about words which can't be decoded with phonics?

Some words such as 'friend' can't be decoded easily, either because a child hasn't covered the more complicated sounds of English yet or where a word is irregular (perhaps those with origins in another language).

They might need other strategies to work these words out, including looking at context, sounding out some of the word if part of it is regular and using that to work out the rest of it, and thinking of other words that look the same and could provide clues.

Your son or daughter will probably receive a list of 'tricky words' to learn from school.

When might my child get books to read from school?

Reading scheme books will be given to reception children by schools but when they start to get them varies. Some begin giving them out in the first week or two (these might be picture only books though – see below), many hold back until they have covered at least the basic sounds.

This could be by October half term or Christmas or in some schools as late as the summer term. It really does vary.

You will usually also have some sort of reading diary sent home with the book. This is designed for parents and school to log reading and communicate on any relevant issues (so a parent might write that their child found a particular book too hard or they struggled with specific words).

If you're unsure about how the reading diary works at your school, ask the teacher for guidance.

When my son can't read a word, should I read it for him?

Julie Bowtell, Senior Lecturer in Primary English at the University of Hertfordshire, advises:

It's vitally important to give children some thinking time if they get stuck on a word. Don't jump in too quickly. Obviously you don't want your child to struggle but sometimes adults don't allow enough time for the child to use their problem solving skills.

Do help them after a little while though, especially if they start to look frustrated! Remember to help them sound out the word rather than just reading it for them.

What if my child already knew their sounds and how to read before school?

Won't they be bored during all these phonics sessions?

They almost definitely will have to join in with the others, listening to the letter sounds but don't worry too much about this – if the school is following a fun scheme such as Jolly Phonics, they might still enjoy picking up the songs and each session will only be for a small part of the day.

If you're concerned your child is getting bored or not learning anything new, do have a chat about it with their teacher. They might send books home earlier for your child or give them extra activities in class so that they are progressing at their own pace.

My child has been sent home with their first book but it only has pictures not words!

How on earth will that help them learn to read?

These wordless picture books are renowned for confusing parents who struggle to see the point of them but primary teacher Catherine Jones explains:

Books with no words can prove beneficial if discussed and explored at depth with an adult. They're a useful tool to get young children discussing stories and characters.

You probably wouldn't want your child doing them for weeks on end, but a few should help their reading comprehension longer term.

How often will they be reading to an adult in school?

In an ideal world children would be reading to a grown-up every day in school but unfortunately time and resources don't always allow this. They should however be doing some reading of one sort or another daily and reading individually at the very least once a week.

This might not be to their teacher though (remember if he or she heard all 30 children for 10minutes each, that would be 300 minutes - a huge chunk of lesson time).

Many schools have children read to teaching assistants and outside volunteers (usually parents) instead.

School doesn't change my son's books very often so he's left with the same one for so long that he loses his enthusiasm!

There's no harm in re-reading a book once – in fact it could be beneficial but after that, either politely ask school if he can change it, or go to the library and move onto reading something else.

Different schools have different systems for book changes – some let parents or children change theirs themselves on an ad hoc basis, others have quite strict policies that only the teaching staff can swap books over and only on a particular day if the week.

If your child is becoming disheartened by having the same book for too long, or conversely is feeling pressured by being expected to read a book a night, then by all means mention it to the teacher.

My daughter is very unenthusiastic about reading – how can I get her interested in books?

According to Julie Bowtell, it's about engendering a love of books and stories.

Parents could aim to provide bedtime stories, have story CDs in the car, DVDs of classic tales, to make regular visits to the local library.

The result of this exposure to books and stories will hopefully be children who can retell favourite stories, have opinions about books and authors, can discuss a range of different stories, and predict what's likely to happen next in a narrative. These skills are vital to future success in school-based literacy learning."

She adds: "Parents being role models as absorbed and intent readers can demonstrate to children the power and pleasure of reading."

Clare Bolton from the National Literacy Trust suggests that it's not just books that will help your child learn to read:

Don't just read books. Encourage him or her to read newspapers, TV guides, comics, cookery books and magazines too. They are all valid forms of literature.

Even reading the back of the cereal packet or signs in shops is decent practice.

Julie Tollervey, a Deputy Head of an Essex primary school, agrees. "Reading doesn't have to just be books. Reading street names on the walk home, packets in the supermarket... anything. The most important thing about reading is that the child is enjoying it!"

One tactic worth trying if you have the time, is to write a few simple stories 'starring' your child and/ or on a subject close to their heart. If he's a train enthusiast, write a little tale of them him a train somewhere using appropriately simple language. It doesn't need to be the next prize-winning novel - just 10 sentences. You could even ask him to illustrate it for you with some pictures of his own.

How can I help ensure my child actually understands what they're reading?

Comprehension is absolutely key. Even if your son or daughter can 'decode' the words on a page and read them out loud, it doesn't mean they'll truly take in what's going on. If they don't understand the story, then they will struggle to enjoy reading.

To help with this, make sure you don't just listen to your child read - ask them some questions about the book too and make observations yourself.

"Make up your own versions of what could happen next in a story you are sharing. Talk about what the author decided. What else could have happened?" suggests primary teacher, Catherine Jones.

Some school reading scheme books have comprehension questions inside the front and back cover.

How do I know if a book is too easy or too difficult?

"As your child is learning to read, their books should have a small amount of challenge, but not be so difficult that they are struggling regularly throughout the story. Just enough reading work consolidates children's existing reading skills - too much reading work and the reading process breaks down," explains Julie Bowtell.

She adds:

Books that are too difficult will not accelerate reading progress – in fact these may turn emergent readers into reluctant readers.

For newer readers, a rule of thumb often used is that they should be able to read 90% of the words.

If a book is a little too difficult or your child is tired but you and they want to read it anyway try Julie Tollervey's tip "share out the reading by taking it in turns to read. For example, you could read a page, paragraph or sentence each."

She adds to remember to be supportive even when they are struggling: "Really praise the child for all of the words that they are getting correct. When you're learning to read in the beginning each new word read is a huge step."

For more ideas, tips and activities on reading visit

Liat Hughes Joshi is author of Raising Children: The Primary Years