As teachers we often have to make informed professional decisions about when to move a child on to the next stage or introduce a new concept or resource. In Special education this process can be further complicated by the range of developmental need of the children we work with and the variability in their individual developmental patterns.
It is important that these decisions are taken objectively and informed by evidence of the child’s understanding of preceding development, rather than on a professional hunch. To support this the school I work in has produced a developmental, skills based curriculum and a broad portfolio of assessments that allow us to establish the specific developmental point of the child, so that when we move them on we do so with a degree of confidence in their ability to succeed.
One area in particular that we find causes our pupils, and ourselves, significant difficulty is reading. In particular when to move from focussing on the prerequisite cognitive skills, often worked on in isolation, to using them in combination within the context of books. So, if you have children who you are unsure whether or not it is time to start formal reading, or you have a child who isn’t progressing as expected, then you may want to consider the extent to which these areas of development have been consolidated:
1 SHAPE MATCHING : At a word recognition stage, we process the visual information given to us by a written word largely through rapid shape discrimination; i.e. when we first begin to read, we look at the shape of a word and cross reference it with the shape of all other words we know. Once we have encountered that word often enough, we remember its shape and only need to compare it with words of very similar shape. Therefore, before beginning reading, shape matching and matching split symmetrical shapes needs to have been thoroughly mastered.
2 SHORT TERM MEMORY : The ability to retain information over a short period of time is essential for fluent reading. There is little value in learning to read a sentence at the top of a page if you can’t remember it halfway down. Similarly, there is little value in reading a sentence if, when you get to the full stop at the end, you cannot remember what was at the beginning. There are no short cuts to teaching short term memory – daily practice with simple activities involving short term memory (by which we generally mean under 15 seconds) is the most effective way. It is vital that a pupil’s visual and auditory short term memory is thoroughly assessed on his or her first joining the school and at regular intervals thereafter. It must be remembered that short term memory develops all the time but it must be reasonably reliable before beginning reading.
3 LEFT TO RIGHT SEQUENCING : A word, a sentence or a book, is a series of symbols moving from left to right. Basic, non-conceptual, left to right sequencing, as a mechanical process, needs to become a habitual approach so that the written word can be processed in the correct order. This must be well-established before beginning reading.
4 TEMPORAL SEQUENCING : The ability to retain and process a series of concepts, linked to convey a wider concept, is vital if reading is to be a meaningful exercise. Teaching of temporal sequencing, beginning with photographic, then illustrative, then symbolic sequences can be important groundwork before beginning reading.
5 LANGUAGE COMPREHENSION OF AT LEAST A 2 INFORMATION CARRYING WORD LEVEL : Reading skills cannot be expected to overtake a pupil’s general level of language development, although they may enhance it. It is, therefore, unreasonable to expect pupils whose language comprehension is at only one or two-word phrase level to decode, understand and read aloud written phrases of any greater length. It is similarly unreasonable to expect children whose vocabulary is very limited to develop a large word recognition vocabulary in advance of their comprehension.(For more information on the concept of Information Carrying Words it is worth exploring the Derbyshire Language Scheme.).
Language development and reading skills at best go hand in hand. Not all of the pre-reading skills outlined above will be brought into play at every stage of our developmental progression but, problems at every stage can often be traced back to at least one of them, sometimes a combination of two or three.
These developmental descriptors are taken from the Frank Wise School Curriculum Framework. The Curriculum in its entirety can be downloaded free of charge here: