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Beginning with Books


Books are a rich starting point for learning in an early years setting. Jo Graham writes that they 'provide an exciting way into worlds children could not otherwise visit' (Practical Preschool, Issue 21, 2000). These worlds can be real or fantasy, fictional or non-fictional. Books are open to different interpretations. They therefore allow children to create and extend these new worlds through their imaginations in a way that films and television cannot do. As children engage with a focus book their own ideas and interests become apparent. Being open to the children's interpretations will provide opportunities for child-initiated learning as well as adult-led experiences. The focus book may last a week, or the children's ideas may gather momentum and the links between the book and their learning experiences may last much longer. A good book will create possibilities for learning in all the Areas of Learning and Development. But before beginning with a book, it is important to revisit what it means to be a reader and how a setting can support early reading.

Pre-reading skills

Pre-reading skills are the abilities children need before they begin to decode the written word. As Teena Kamen explains, they are learning these skills as soon as they are born: 'reading is a complex process involving different skills, some of which - for example visual discrimination and communication skills - the child has been developing since birth' (EYE, volume 4, January 2003). Practitioners working with the under threes have a vital role in creating a platform for literacy. One of the ways in which they do this is by reading books to babies. Helen Bromley writes that 'the baby learns about the way language arises from the page each time an adult opens a book' (Nursery World (NW), October 2005, p.20). As well as this association with books and words, sharing a book with a baby or toddler builds positive feelings about reading. It is a special time of warmth and togetherness. Babies who play with board books begin to negotiate page turning as they flex their fine motor skills. Bromley explains that 'book handling is an important skill. The youngest children need to feel 'in control' of their reading and handle books independently' (NW, October 2005, p. 20). Pre-reading skills can also be supported by singing songs and rhymes, playing matching games or telling stories using simple props. The EYFS highlights storytelling at the 22-36 months stage: 'Find opportunities to tell and read stories to children, using puppets, soft toys or real objects as props' (Practice Guidance for the EYFS, p.53). The emphasis at this early stage is on language and communication, facial expression and gesture, and special time to share.

The Emergent Reader

The pre-reading skills of the toddler provide the basis for becoming an emergent reader. The child begins to develop knowledge and understanding of how books and the words and pictures within them work. They learn that print carries meaning. For example, they might recognise the shape of their own name or a familiar logo on packaging or signs. Spotting logos or picture-and-word labels around the setting can support children in understanding that pictures carry meaning in books as well. They learn that words say the same thing each time you read them. A familiar book might later be 'read' to a toy with the child turning the pages and repeating the story by heart, possibly following the words with a finger without actually being able to recognise them. In the same way they might be demonstrating their knowledge of the direction of print, that in English print goes from left to right and from top to bottom. Children who understand this will soon correct an adult who tries to read a book back to front. They learn that there are separate words and that these are made up of letters that have sounds. Children can demonstrate this by knowing the initial letter and sound of their name. They might spot that letter or sound in other written and spoken words. From here they will begin to recognise other letters and sounds and the formation of some words. Now they are on the way to becoming independent word decoders and builders.

Observation and Assessment

The stages of reading development cannot easily be confined to ticks in boxes. There are many paths to becoming a reader and many ways in which children can show an enthusiasm for, and understanding of, words and books. Bromley believes that practitioners should 'have the broadest definition possible of what it means to be able to read, so you can see the skills that all children have' (NW, October 2005, p.22). Practitioners need to make time to observe reading behaviour in children as they explore and play. The Look, Listen and Note columns in the EYFS offer practical pointers to focus observations across the broad spectrum of early reading skills, with ideas for possible next steps coming from the Development Matters/Early Learning Goals columns. For example, at the earliest stages a practitioner will be looking for 'how babies' responses develop as they learn to anticipate and join in finger and word play' (8-20 months, Look, Listen and Note, p.53). As children begin to understand how to use books, practitioners might observe 'children's familiarity with the way books work...turning the pages and telling the story using the pictures and using phrases such as 'Once upon a time' (30-50 months, Look, Listen and Note, p.54). The next step for a child could be to 'suggest how the story might end' (30-50 months, Development Matters, p.54). Later, the same child might show their increasing knowledge of how a story is put together, demonstrating 'understanding of the elements of stories, for example, Mehmet refers to the 'beginning' and 'end' of a story. He says "I don't like that ending. I think he should have run away and been happy ever after" ' (40-60+ months, Look, Listen and Note, p.55). These examples from across the developmental stages in the EYFS show how progress in reading is not just about learning letter sounds or recognising words. In the EYFS Practice Guidance, 'Linking Sounds and Letters' and 'Reading' are separate sections, emphasising that equal value is given to children becoming familiar with books and how stories work. Progress in all aspects of becoming a reader can be recorded anecdotally, with notes, photographs and tape recordings of children using books, building up a very personal story of their journey into reading.

Working together as a staff

Practitioners in a setting need to share an understanding of what it means to be a reader. Supporting pre-reading skills and valuing the different kinds of book behaviour early readers can demonstrate are an important starting point. Time should be set aside for discussion and training in these areas. Practitioners should also have time to get to know the books in the setting and assess the resources that support reading (Bromley, NW, October 2005). During a session, an adult should be able to take a moment to read if a child approaches them with a book. Laura Gould and Lucy Draper feel that being accessible as a reader in this way is very important: 'Ensure that there are quiet, designated spaces and interested adults to share books with' (NW, 'Early Literacy' pullout). Practitioners need to see themselves as reading role models. Nigel Hall believes that staff should be aware of their own reading habits and be seen to be reading in lots of different ways (Practical Preschool, September 2006). They could open letters and talk about what they say, or bring in a book that they are reading and explain the plot in simple terms. In these ways practitioners can build a strong ethos that celebrates all reading behaviours.

Partnership with Parents

Parents play a vital role in helping children to become readers. To support them, early years practitioners can share their knowledge of reading development and explain the way their setting promotes early reading. Having a leaflet to send home is an ideal way of doing this. It could include a list of pre-reading skills and emergent reading development; what is done in the setting to value and support all the stages of reading; and some activities that parents can do at home with their child across the age range. This information can empower parents to do more with their child at home and help them to understand the different ways a child can engage with books. Some parents may not have many children's books at home so it is helpful to have books that can be borrowed (Draper and Gould). Practitioners should make time to talk with parents about their child's favourite song, rhyme or book from home and get to know it if it is new to them. Inviting parents in to share books with children, or to make story tapes for the book area is especially valuable for bilingual children. When the learning experiences in the setting are centred on a focus book, explain to parents what this is about and suggest follow up activities and things to talk about with their child.

Resources for focus books and early readers

The following resources will bring a focus book to life and reinforce early reading skills. They are also valuable additions to a reading area at any time.

  • Big book version of story
  • Magnetic story boards of main characters/places using pictures from the book, laminated with magnetic tape on the back
  • Puppets
  • Props or larger size toys for retelling the story
  • Small world representation of characters
  • Enticing story bag containing objects related to the story
  • Pointers to use when reading a Big Book - use a wooden spoon, magic wand, feather duster
  • Normal sized texts for sharing
  • Other books by the same author/illustrator/theme
  • CD or tape of the book - you could make your own
  • Materials for book making
  • Themed role play area
  • Related visitors or a special day when everyone dresses up as a character from the book

Practitioners can model how to use some of these resources each time the book is read with the children, keeping them in the reading area where the children can access them on their own. More generally, make sure the setting contains a wide variety of reading material that is available in different places. For example, car mechanic magazines or Lego catalogues can be kept in the construction area, or bird spotting books could be stacked by a low window. The role play area is the ideal place for magazines, travel brochures, recipe books or catalogues, depending on its theme. The book corner should include comics, TV guides and a good selection of non-fiction books. Bromley explains that this allows 'children to find their own 'way in' to reading' (EYE, July 2004). Environmental print can offer another 'way in'. Familiar road signs could be copied for directions around a setting, or a collection of popular food packaging brought in by the children could be made into a display.

Books Outside

Helen Bilton believes that 'we as practitioners need to see outdoor play as somewhere that words and sounds can be played with and enjoyed in a variety of contexts, which absorb both the child's imagination and physical energy' (NW, October 2006, p.20). The outside space can have special and inviting places to read, such as a story tent, a bench, or a blanket and cushions under a tree. There should be a variety of books for taking outside including a collection of non-fiction books that are useful in the outside area on subjects such as mini-beasts, flowers, birds or building sites (Bromley, NW, October 2005). Reading the focus book outside can add another dimension to children's learning, using the space to re-enact the story, including props and dressing up.

Introducing a Focus Book

Reading a focus book to the group over a number of days gives the practitioner time to discuss the features of books with the children. These include:

The title - What does it tell us about the book? What do you think the story is about?

The author and illustrator - Are they the same person? Who does the words and who does the pictures?

Cover illustration - What does the picture tell us about the story inside?

Blurb on the back cover - What is the blurb? Do any of the children know the book and can they tell you their own blurb about it?

Title page - Compare the information with the front cover.

Repetition in the text/rhymes - Lots of participation.

Look for places where the text is bigger or smaller - Why has the author done that?

Illustrations - What is happening in this picture? Is it telling us the same thing as the words?

A good practitioner will be led by the children in these discussions, gauging their interest in the way books work and their eagerness to get on with the story.

Reading a Story

Knowing the book is the key to a successful story time. Bromley writes that 'practitioners need to plan for story time and select books carefully. It is not appropriate for story time to be the first occasion that you have read them yourself' (NW, October 2005, p.23). The reader's voice, body language and facial expression are important tools for engaging children with the story. Different voices could be used for characters and a change in volume or pace can build suspense. If a character is surprised or grumpy, the reader can recreate those expressions in their face and voice. In this way the adult is animating the book and drawing the children into the story. If it is a familiar text, pauses can allow the children to chime in with well known phrases. Practitioners should manage interruptions from children sensitively. A balance needs to be found between allowing children to express themselves and keeping the momentum of the story. The practitioner may decide to simply acknowledge a child's observation or stop for a moment to discuss it. Knowing the book, and the children in the group, will support this and enable the reader to maintain the magic and interest of the story.


Nurturing a love of books in very young children is a powerful beginning for their journey to becoming readers. A well chosen book can be an excellent catalyst for all sorts of learning experiences - a treasure chest full of possibilities to be unpacked and shared together.


Helen Bromley, 'Babies and Toddlers', 'All About Reading' and 'Book Up' in Nursery World, October 2005

Helen Bromley, 'Reading' in EYE, July 2004

Nigel Hall, 'Showing Children What Literacy Means', in Practical Pre-School, September 2006

Jo Graham, 'Understanding How Stories Work', in Practical Pre-School, September 2000

Helen Bilton, 'Speak Out', in Nursery World, October 2006

Lucy Draper and Laura Gould, 'Early Literacy' pullout, in Nursery World

Teena Kamen, 'Building blocks develop skills in the early years' in EYE, January 2003

Sue Palmer and Ros Bayley, Foundations of Literacy, Continuum Internet Publishing Group, London, 2004.

Juliet Mickelburgh
After doing her PGCE, more years ago than she’d care to mention, Juliet taught in Nursery, Reception and Year 1 classes in South London and East Sussex. She has also worked as a Learning Mentor. She was originally a freelance writer for the FSF and had a children’s picture book published. Juliet is now officially employed by the FSF and Tapestry, working in product support and as an Education Advisor. Along the way she has accumulated a husband, some children and way too many pets!

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