Story time in EYFS

The Very Hungry Caterpillar? No.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears? No.

Matilda? YES!

Each year, I ask my class to choose a book from the Roald Dahl collection in our classroom  as a way of exposing children to stories beyond what they can read independently.

Children often look forward to story time as it marks the end of the day when they can wind down, listen to  a story, drink their milk, and prepare to go home. You would imagine that the thought of going home would excite them, but often, they would rather stay in school as they are engrossed in what is unfolding in the story and so that we can ‘read just one more chapter’ together! Their groans as a reaction for being told to get their things and to go home as their parents stand glued to the window bring a different kind of satisfaction. We have the luxury of working with children who have love and respect for books, and that is an achievement in itself!

This year my class chose to read ‘Matlida’. A book that is clearly beyond their decoding and blending ability. I won’t call it reading as a whole because I have found that children can develop reading comprehension even though they cannot read for themselves. My classes have demonstrated time, and time again that though they cannot read all of the words on the page, they can retell the story, they can answer literal comprehension questions, they can deduce information from the words of the author, and they can even answer inference questions such as ‘how might Matilda be feeling when her father tears her book to shreds?’ and ‘why do you think Matilda’s parents dislike her?’.

Once the book has been chosen, the children are shown the inside of the book so they can see that there aren’t many illustrations to help them visualise the story while being read to. Then begins the debate about whether or not this book was a good choice, and whether the children should choose another book instead. As the children exchange their thoughts with one another and put forward their very strong arguments, the teacher acts as facilitator and the suggestion of the children creating their own pictures ‘in their heads’ is made. This way, the children work on developing their imaginations and creating their own images, characters, settings and surroundings, and opinions of everything between the lines with nothing to influence them than the story itself. Each one will see something different. Each one will be correct.

By now, the children’s excitement is tenfold and all they want is for you to read to them.

As I read, each character is given a voice to suit their behaviour and personality. I become animated and my whole body tells the story. My facial expressions change depending on what is happening  and the children often mimic this subconsciously.

In each session we get through two, maybe three chapters of the book and still the children are reluctant to put the book down. At the start of the session there is a chapter review where children are asked to tell the story thus far and collectively, they share the smallest of details of what has happened to Matilda and how she has dealt with every issue. The children even recall the comprehension questions they were asked during the reading session and share the answers with one another, often recalling story language and imitating the voice and expressions given to the character. Only when the children can recall the events that have unfolded so far do they get to hear what happens next.

So, we have a class full of four and five year olds that are engrossed and fascinated by Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’. Regardless of the children’s abilities, their attention spans, their desire to approach the book corner or the school library, they still respond positively to hearing a story that is beyond their own reading age.

If children don’t have a love for books, what could we as practitioners do to spark that fire? Doing more of the same has never worked, and reinventing the wheel is not always necessary. What has worked for me in my Early Years classroom is choosing a text that brings mystery, that entices children’s imaginations, that encourages children to reach beyond what others may tell them is their limit.

Maybe it’s time to move the goal posts?


How To Get A Four Year Old To Write – EYFS

When children start school in Reception, it is not uncommon for them to have significant difficulties in reading and writing.

I’ve had moments where I’ve found it a struggle to decipher a starting point to build upon and enable me to maintain my sanity, but the truth is that it doesn’t matter where you start as long as you do!

Children are wonderful creatures that will do what they are shown but sometimes we forget to do the showing. If we don’t model the expectations, how can we expect children to meet them? Often we become frustrated because a child ‘isn’t listening’ or ‘won’t do as he/she is told’. If we don’t model what good behaviour is, we mustn’t expect it. If we don’t show children what good sitting is, we shouldn’t complain when they don’t do it.

Writing requires the same strategies: model what you want the children to learn.

If we look at the Early Learning Goal for writing, it states that:

1. Children use their phonic knowledge to write words in ways which match their spoken sounds.

2. They also write some irregular common words.

3.They write simple sentences which can be read by themselves and others.

4. Some words are spelt correctly and others are phonetically plausible.

Though the Early Learning Goal must be seen as a whole, it helps to pick out the key points and see exactly what is expected. Let’s look at each part as numbered above.

1. For a child to be able to write words that are phonetically correct, they must have phonetic awareness. Therefore, a good starting point would be to boost learning with phonics sessions and demonstrate that language is a set of sounds put together in varying order. We speak in sounds, so all we need to do is listen and hear what we say. If we can get children to listen and hear, half the job is done!

What to model: sounding out words correctly. For example, it’s not ‘muh, ah, tuh’, it’s ‘m, a, t’.

2. The trouble with phonics is that it’s taken the limelight and shunned it’s good friend ‘High Frequency Words’ off the stage and down a back alley. High frequency words need to be brought back and taught alongside phonics for a greater impact on reading and writing. This is where we go back a few decades in time and appreciate rote learning. High frequency words are often referred to as ‘sight’ words by practitioners as they are just that; words that need to be learnt by sight. Once children can read and write these, they have the skeleton of the sentence and just need to add the flesh. This is why phonics and high frequency words should be taught side by side.

What to do: bring life to high frequency words. Find them, read them, love them.

3. This is the part where children apply their sounds and use their knowledge of sight words to put their thoughts and ideas into writing. In the early stages of writing and mark making, we ask children to talk to us and explain their writing because we cannot do that independently. Often, the conversation stops because we ‘can’ read the writing on the page. But we mustn’t stop asking children to read back their work as this is a skill in itself and doesn’t come easy.

4. Teacher Assessment. Can you read the writing or do you need help from the author? If you need help it isn’t phonetically plausible. Look out for the high frequency words… found them?

Writing in my Classroom:

We usually choose a focus text that the children will enjoy and supports the learning objectives. To prepare children for writing, it is essential that there is ample opportunity for immersion in the text. One strategy we employ is using a Text Map to internalise and retell the story and this works well because children learn the pattern of the text and have visual prompts to help them recall important details. This is also a great way of getting children to understand how to correctly punctuate their writing by looking for ‘clues’ on the page. What does a full stop mean? Why has the author put an exclamation mark here? What does a comma mean?

Text Map for Hansel and Gretel:

Once the story has been internalised and the children can retell the story, they can use the text map as a plan to write the story. You’ll find that the writing is grammatically accurate and perfectly punctuated!

Because the concrete learning has already taken place in the form of phonics and learning to read sight words, the teacher can spend more time in supporting children to apply and assimilate what they know.

So, what now?

Teach phonics! Say the sounds and make all the noises you need to. Encourage the sounding out of words for writing as well as for reading.

Teach high frequency words! Practise. Practise. Practise.

Model EVERYTHING! No child is born knowing what you expect. Maintain high expectations, just remember to show children how to climb up.

When we combine teaching children the required phonetic knowledge, high frequency words, and the language of story with explicit modelling of what writers do, we can secure some fantastic outcomes.