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BigDug May 22
BigDug May 22

From Phonics to Bookworms

March 16, 2022, 9:57 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with approaches that instill a love of reading, says Gemma Smith
From Phonics to Bookworms

As a one-form entry church school, I was ecstatic when we received a ‘Good’ Ofsted rating at the end of 2021, after an incredibly challenging period.

It was a wonderful way to start the new year.

Among the positive aspects the inspectors picked up on is the way we ‘prioritise’ reading. A comment that particularly filled me with pride was “pupils learn not just to understand what they read, but also to love books.” 

Engaging children in reading and inspiring them to love books is something on which the school has consistently worked hard. It has taken us a lot of research, experimentation and dedication to find an approach that produces fluent and confident readers.

However, I believe it’s the culture of our school and the passion of our staff that has inspired a true love of reading amongst our pupils. 

Establishing a strong base for reading

At Orsett, we follow an established scheme of work based on letters and sounds, which has been adapted over time and is regularly reviewed to best fit the needs of the children. 

We have invested in resources such as Bug Club; an online reading platform where parents access support to engage their child in reading from home. We also produce our own short videos to introduce the sounds the children are learning. 

Meanwhile, Phonics Boot Camp challenges children to complete short and snappy phonics-related physical activities, similar to a Joe Wicks HITT session.

This kinaesthetic approach allows pupils to apply the skills they’ve learned, gets them active and enables staff time to work with individual children who may have struggled with a concept that week. 

Being flexible

As educators, we appreciate the need to be flexible, and phonics is no exception. If it’s not working for a specific group of children, we change our approach to best suit them.

For instance, we decided to spend longer on the teaching of split digraphs as we found the suggested one week for this wasn’t leading to effective retention. Simply tweaking this to two weeks on these trickier sounds has led to better retention and application.

Our flexibility in approach is fundamental with our lowest 20% and SEN children, who are always at the forefront of our minds.

Through regular pupil progress checks and weekly meetings with the SENCO, we ensure the robust interventions we have in place are working for each individual child. For some, extra daily reading is enough but for others we delve into nationally recognised interventions, precision teaching and sight recognition.

Our SENCO always encourages staff to identify the barriers that obstruct fluency, whether that be a speech and language need or an issue with confidence and self-esteem. Whatever the need, we ensure we provide a solution as best as we can.

Bridging the gap

Bridging the gap between phonics and reading fluently is a skill that is built up over Key Stage 1 and Early Years and into Key Stage 2 for some children. I’m often asked if there are any books that do this particularly well and my answer is always yes – all books! 

All reading materials enable phonics to be developed. However, choosing the right reading scheme, alongside clear teaching and learning, is paramount in supporting all children. 

In KS2, we highlight segmenting syllables to aid fluency, and ensure that reading aloud in a supportive environment is practised during guided reading. We actively encourage our children when faced with unknown words to use their phonic skills and take a ‘learning risk’. 

Phonics books aren’t always the most inspiring – there are only so many words you can make with s,a,t,p,i, n, so we ensure that they have a ‘reading for pleasure’ book too. If a book is challenging, we encourage them to persevere, which is one of our school Christian values. 

Building a love for reading

I have found, over the many years I have been a teacher and a senior leader, that developing a strong reading ethos needs staff to regularly revisit the question, ‘How do we develop a love for reading at our school?’

There is no magic formula but I believe it’s a careful balance of commitment, time and a strong desire to want to embed an effective reading practice. 

All of our staff model a love for reading and regularly discuss the books we have read with the children. If we show that we are avid readers, we are providing a reason for children to do the same. 

As a head, I try to ensure that I read with children as often as possible. I deliver two reading worships a week where I read high-quality texts that inspire a love of reading – one to each key stage. When the reading chair is at the front of worship, they know this is the case and it’s delightful to see children’s faces light up. 

Our library is a testament to our school-wide love of reading. It is a welcoming and colourful safe haven, and home to a full-size Doctor Who TARDIS, which the children love.

We have library prefects who ensure the space stays clean, tidy and is respected. This is all overseen by my mum, a retired librarian, who makes sure everything runs smoothly.

Bedtime stories

We are looking forward to reintroducing bedtime story nights, where the entire school stays for a bedtime story.

During a particularly challenging COVID outbreak, children and staff all came to school in pyjamas and we snuggled down in our bubbles with our favourite stories – giving the message that a good book can bring hope, escapism, and, at times, familiarity. 

Ultimately, we believe the key to creating confident and successful young readers is to encourage them to make choices that hone their skills and help them discover what and why they love to read. It is from here they will develop a real love of books.

What to consider

  • Utilise a diverse range of books for learning phonics - Phonics books have their place, but any book can be utilised for phonics practice if it is a book your pupils are interested in.
  • Encourage staff to consistently talk about books and their own love of reading - Pupils need to see that their role models are reading regularly and enjoying a variety of genres.
  • Ensure they always have a book of their own choosing - Personal choice is crucial when it comes to encouraging children to become engaged readers.
  • Create a library or space that is colourful, imaginative and comfortable - Creating a space where the children want to visit, explore and hopefully stay and read is key.
  • Make story time part of the school schedule - Having a range of stories read by a variety of people will naturally instil reading as an everyday activity.
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  • Read as often as possible – Use reading in all parts of the curriculum, encourage it at home and school. The more they read the more pupils should love it!


Gemma Smith is headteacher of Orsett C of E Primary School, Essex