Early Reading Strategy

The Report of the Expert Panel on Early Reading in Ontario, 2003

Why Early Reading Matters

Becoming a reader is a continuous process that begins with the development of oral language skills and leads, over time, to independent reading. Oral language – the ability to speak and listen – is a vital foundation for reading success. In every culture, children learn the language of the home as they observe, listen, speak, and interact with the adults and children in their environment. This process happens naturally and predictably in almost all cases.

While developing oral language is a natural process, learning to read is not. Children must be taught to understand, interpret, and manipulate the printed symbols of written language. This is an essential task of the first few years of school.

Reading success is the foundation for achievement throughout the school years. There is a critical window of opportunity from the ages of four to seven for learning to read. Children who successfully learn to read in the early primary years of school are well prepared to read for learning and for pleasure in the years to come. On the other hand, children who struggle with reading in Grades 1 to 3 are at a serious disadvantage. Academically, they have a much harder time keeping up with their peers, and they increasingly fall behind in other subjects. They are far more likely to suffer low self-esteem and, in their teen years, are more likely to drop out without completing high school. Children with unaddressed reading difficulties have not failed the system; the system has failed them. We now know that this is not inevitable, even for children who face significant challenges. With the right instruction and support, all children in Ontario elementary schools can learn to read.

Stages of Reading Development

As children learn to read, they progress through a series of stages. These stages are named and described in different ways by different reading specialists, but they are essentially the same.

  • In the earliest, pre-reading stage, children mimic the reading process without actually reading. They begin to understand what reading is about and how it works. They learn that what can be spoken can be written down and read by someone else.

  • In the beginning reading stage, children learn to pay attention to the details of print and to the way that printed letters and words represent the sounds and words of oral language. They need to understand how the sounds of the language map onto the letters. To help children through this stage, teachers need to understand what is complex about the symbol system and present it in a way that is simple.

  • In the fluency stage, children are able to identify words with greater skill and ease, and read with better comprehension. They need many opportunities to read texts that are predictable, patterned, and interesting in order to read words quickly and without effort. With extensive reading practice, they develop a level of fluency that enables them to read with increasing enjoyment and understanding.

Teachers are expected to provide the conditions and instruction for children to progress from one developmental stage to the next and to inspire a love of reading, using interesting books that the children want to see, hear, and hold.

Reading to Learn

The focus of instruction in the early years is on learning to read, but over time the focus shifts to reading to learn. This, ultimately, is why people read and why reading matters. To reach this goal, children need help in becoming deliberate and reflective readers. They need explicit instruction in comprehension and thinking skills that will enable them to obtain and remember important ideas from the text. They also need help in integrating the information in the text with their prior knowledge in order to build on their learning and deepen their understanding.

The ease and speed with which a child progresses from learning to read to reading to learn will depend on several factors, including:

  • exposure to a rich language environment in the preschool years, with plenty of storytelling, conversation, books, and encouragement to ask and answer questions
  • the quality and quantity of reading instruction in the early school years
  • focused early intervention for those who are at risk of reading failure
  • ongoing support from the family and community

Making It Happen

Although some children learn to read at an early age with little formal instruction, it is a fallacy to assume that this happens simply because they have been exposed to "good quality" books. Most children require explicit, planned instruction – as well as plenty of exposure to suitable books – to crack the complex code of written language and become as fluent in reading as in speaking.

Effective instruction activates children's visual, auditory, and kinesthetic senses, and makes reading a living and lively experience. A good classroom program includes direct and systematic instruction, modelling and coaching, frequent practice with a variety of texts, ongoing assessment, timely feedback, and opportunities to celebrate successes. Through active engagement in the reading process, children learn ways to use their growing knowledge and skills flexibly and in combination. This enables them to read with greater fluency and comprehension. Over time, children demonstrate an increasing sophistication in their ability to read more complex texts and solve problems when the meaning is unclear. They are able to reflect on and communicate their understanding and reasoning about the reading material.

Laying a Strong Foundation

The best time for children to start learning to read is when they are very young, usually at the preschool level. In the early years – whether at home, in child care, in a preschool program, or in Junior and Senior Kindergarten – children gain a definite advantage when they are given opportunities to engage in purposeful oral language and early print activities. These activities include:

  • observing others reading
  • enjoying and discussing a variety of books that are read aloud by others
  • experiencing and pretending to read predictable and familiar books, alphabet books, poems, rhymes, and more
  • acting out stories, retelling familiar stories, and singing songs
  • sharing experiences with adults and talking about those experiences
  • observing print in the environment and connecting print with spoken words and their meaning
  • understanding book conventions and concepts about print (e.g., that a book has a front and a back)
  • recognizing that words are made up of sounds, and manipulating those sounds through rhyming games, sound substitution games, alliterations, and more
  • building new vocabulary through books, experiences, and interactions

Through these activities, children improve their oral language skills and become involved in the joy of reading.

Reading in a Second Language

Strong oral language is the base on which reading success is built. Whether or not the child's first language matches the language of instruction, a rich background in oral language will help to develop a strong foundation for reading. Children whose first language differs from the language of instruction will need additional support to build their oral language skills in the language of instruction as they learn to read. If they do not have access outside the school to rich language experiences in the language of instruction, the school is expected to fill the void. This is particularly true for French-language schools, because their students are less likely to be exposed to the French language and culture outside of school.