Why start 'Steps' early?

“It matters little what else they learn to do in elementary school if they do not learn to read at grade level.”
(Fielding et al., 2007, p.49)

Unfortunately far too many children are not learning to read to 'grade level' (whatever 'grade level' means)  

Many who understand this are teaching their own children to read, before they start school. It can be as a 'preventative' approach, but it can also be, quite simply, that the vast majority of children CAN learn to read before they start school. If reading is valued in the household, why wouldn't parents choose to teach their own children to read during the early years?

 'Yes, we taught both of our girls to read at home before they started school'

Timothy Shanahan served as a member of the Advisory Board of the National Institute for Literacy under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and
helped lead the National Reading Panel (NPR). So he knows a thing or two about teaching children to read !


Research indicates that many teachers think there is something 'wrong' with the child when they struggle, and that they 'just need more time' or more of the same instruction. If the child continues to fail they then look for a learning difficulty, and often say they 'must be dyslexic'. Of course some are; but what worries us is that they think this because they have exhausted their 'tools' and aren't sure how to teach the child. With an understanding of evidence based instruction they would be meeting the needs of the child, whether dyslexic or not, from the beginning! By starting early we offer children an early 'prevention-orientated' program ! 

The science indicates that 'dys
teachia' is the issue for 95% of children. They are instructional casualties ie 'Never Been Taught' (NBTs) See Children of the Code video below.
By starting early we are actually teaching them early; the instruction enables them to actually learn. We are not leaving it to chance ie that children will be in classrooms where they are able to learn to read and spell.    


Please note that most teachers ARE teaching phonics, but the pace is so slow (and the whole class more of less learns at the same pace, participating in the same lessons regardless of current skills set) or there is no explicit teaching order; it can take years before they reach the 'orthographic mapping' phase - if at all.

Three-quarters of white working-class boys fail to achieve the UK government’s benchmark at the age of 16. Despite years of 'synthetic phonics' instruction 1 in 4 UK children still cannot read to the expected level. In reading, 75% reached the expected standard down from 76% last year. 

There is also a lot of confusion among teachers, who are teaching phonics, about how to segment words, and whether to start at the phoneme level. Orthographic mapping is the means by which readers turn unfamiliar written words into familiar and instantly recognizable sight words.  The 'elephant in the room' at the moment, regarding the 'science of reading' is which which orthographic unit is optimal for teaching beginners to read and write: small grapheme-phoneme (GP) units or larger syllabic units. According to Ehri’s phase theory, small units should be more effective in an alphabetic writing system. However many teachers spend a long time getting to the stage of working with phonemes (starting with syllables and onset and rime as if a continuum) and some teach children to 'look for the syllables' in order to work out words. Does this make a difference, if becoming a 'reader' as quickly and easily as possible is the goal?  In order to be a quick and fluent reader, the child needs to build up a large internal lexicon of orthographic representations in long-term memory. The process of building up new orthographic representations is referred to as orthographic learning (Nation & Castles, 2017),
Ehri’s influential four phases of reading development: pre-alphabetic, partial alphabetic, full alphabetic and consolidated alphabetic. Children do not necessarily progress through these phases in strict sequence. The final 'phase' is equivalent to Frith’s orthographic stage. With continuing practice at reading in this final phase, recurring letter patterns become consolidated or unitised. Ehri discusses the advantages of this process for reducing memory load. 

Instructional Casualties.

Alessi (1988) contacted 50 school psychologists who, between them, produced about 5000 assessment reports in a year. The school psychologists agreed that a lack of academic or behavioural progress could be attributed to one or more of the five factors below. Alessi then examined the reports to see what factors had been assigned as the causes of their students’ educational problems.


1. Curriculum factors? No reports.

2. Inappropriate teaching practices? No reports.

3. School administrative factors? No reports.

4. Parent and home factors? 10-20% of reports.

5. Factors associated with the child? 100%.

In another study this time surveying classroom teachers, Wade and Moore (1993) noted that when students failed to learn 65% of teachers considered that student characteristics were responsible while a further 32% emphasised home factors. Only the remaining 3% believed that the education system was the most important factor in student achievement, a finding utterly at odds with the research into teacher effects (Cuttance, 1998; Hattie, Clinton, Thompson, & Schmidt-Davies, 1995).

This highlights one of the ways in which assessment can be unnecessarily limiting in its breadth, if the causes of students’ difficulties are presumed to reside solely within the students, rather than within the instructional system. Assessment of students is not a productive use of time unless it is carefully integrated into a plan involving instructional action. What may hold back such intervention is a teacher belief that since most students do learn to read in my class, then surely the problem doesn't originate from my teaching.

When the incidence of failure is unacceptably high, as in the US and Australia, then an appropriate direction for resource allocation is towards the assessment of instruction. It can only be flawed instruction that intensifies the reading problem from a realistic incidence of reading disability of around 5% (Brown & Felton, 1990; Felton, 1993; Marshall & Hynd, 1993; Torgesen, Wagner, Rashotte, Alexander, & Conway, 1997; Vellutino et al., 1996) to that which we find of 20 - 30% (or higher). A tendency can develop for victim blame. "Learning disabilities have become a sociological sponge to wipe up the spills of general education. … It's where children who weren't taught well go (p.A1)" (Lyon, 1999).

Source - Literacy assessment based on the National Reading Panel's Big Five Components 

Reading proficiency by the end of third-grade can predict a child’s success in school and in life (Donald Hernandez, 2011). Stephen Covey, an educator and author, states that we should, “Begin with the end in mind” (Covey, 1990). If we want to give our children the best chance to graduate high school and become successful contributors to society, we must start as early as possible in their young lives. 

Laura Stewart (author and National Director for The Reading League) states: 

A prevention-oriented approach is more effective than intervention. There are devastating educational, social, and emotional consequences of reading failure that can be prevented with effective early instruction (Fletcher, Lyon, Fuchs, & Barnes, 2007; Foorman, 2003; Torgesen, 2002). Higher levels of literacy are possible when students achieve basic reading skills early in their school careers (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Foorman, Francis, Shaywitz, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1997). Although older students with reading difficulties can improve, the later the intervention, the longer it takes (Torgesen, 2002); also, many times the effects of remedial instruction may dissipate over time (Quirk & Schwanenflugel, 2004). 

By starting early children can begin to 'self-teach' and are not relying on quality instruction when they start school. 


A growing body of research (see Kilpatrick, 2015) shows that once typically developing readers become reasonably proficient at phonic decoding they begin to ‘self-teach’.  This self-teaching hypothesis proposes that every time these readers encounter an unfamiliar word, they work out the 'Code Mapping' by attending to the structure of the word. They then use this new knowledge to establish an orthographic representation of the word in their long-term memory. In readers with good phomemic awareness the storing of the word in long-term memory occurs after one to four exposures to the word. Children taught using Steps will enter school with good phonemic awareness, even if not yet at the stage of 'self-teaching'. We are reducing the chance that they will fail, even with poor instruction when they attend school.

Fluent reading requires you to have orthographic recognition; accurate spelling requires you to have orthographic recall. 

Orthographic mapping is the process competent readers use to store written words so that in future encounters with that word or similar letter strings they are able to automatically recall that word or letter string without needing to go through the decoding process again. In this sense, a 'sight word' is one that is instantly recognised. When a word is (phonics) decoded, which can only occur with good phonemic awareness (awareness of the smallest units of spoken sounds in the word) and well-developed 'code knowledge' the student can link to this to other similar word patterns already stored in long-term memory. 

Dr. Kilpatrick discovered three essential ingredients to effective reading interventions. Together, they facilitate “orthographic mapping” Every successful intervention contained the followed three elements:

(1) they corrected the student’s phonological awareness difficulties (e.g., blending & segmenting) and taught phonemic awareness to the advanced level (e.g., manipulating phonemes within words, such as deleting, substituting, and occasionally reversing phonemes),
(2) they provided phonic decoding instruction and/or reinforcement, and
(3) they provided ample opportunities to apply these developing skills to reading connected text (i.e., authentic reading).

The Steps to Reading Program offers all 3 elements. So we are doing everything possible to ensure that no child struggles to learn to read and spell.

You will also recognise the intensity and pace, when observing children undertaking the Steps program. Intensity matters! Instruction should be data-driven and focused on essential skills. All students receive high-quality, evidence-aligned tier one instruction. Students at risk can therefore be identified early on and provided with specific, targeted instruction; progress is monitored and adjusted continually (Fuchs, Fuchs, & Vaughn, 2014; Kilpatrick, 2015) Otherwise children can still be struggling to decode in grade 2, a lot of working memory is being used just to figure out words (and are therefore unable to understand the words) and many feel such shame and frustration they have already decided they don't WANT to read or write. The statistics are alarming in many cases. Illiteracy is a society-wide problem that belongs not just to one strand or tier but to everyone. It is a deep-rooted problem which, despite huge investments from government, remains a long way from being solved. The earlier we help children the better.  It also means they will more likely read more, and as a result will develop their vocabulary and reading strategies better than those who are reading less. The Matthew effect is a well-known concept when it comes to learning to read: it says that the rich get rich and the poor get poorer (see p380 onwards: https://rsrc.psychologytoday.com/files/u81/Stanovich__1986_.pdf). Learning to read early (and ensuring we prevent difficulties) can change lives.

We want children to learn to read and spell without difficulties, and to do so early; to not only be ABLE to read but also to WANT to read. 'The quest to get every child reading for pleasure is not just an optional extra – it’s an imperative.'

A growing number of studies show that promoting reading can have a major impact on children and adults and their future. Upon reviewing the research literature, Clark and Rumbold (2006) identify several main areas of the benefits to reading for pleasure:
• Reading attainment and writing ability;
• Text comprehension and grammar;
• Breadth of vocabulary;
• Positive reading attitudes;
• Greater self-confidence as a reader;
• Pleasure in reading in later life;
• General knowledge;
• A better understanding of other cultures;
• Community participation; and
• A greater insight into human nature and decision-making.
Evidence suggests that reading for pleasure leads to increased attainment. Clark and DeZoya (2011) found a significant positive relationship between enjoyment and attainment indicating that pupils who read more are also better readers.

Research is accumulating that suggests that a growing number of children do not read for pleasure (Clark and Rumbold, 2006). Between 2000 and 2009, on average across OECD countries the percentage of children who report reading for enjoyment daily dropped by five percentage points (OECD, 2010) This can be because schools are so caught up with 'reading levels' and 'testing' that children have little choice in the books they read at school or take home.  

Wendy Scott, of the primary assessment campaign group More Than A Score, said: “Heads, teachers and parents agree: the phonics check is a waste of extremely valuable teaching time. Rather than learning to love reading, five and six-year-olds are spending months being drilled in nonsense words just so they can be tested.”

If children can already read, teachers are more likely to let them choose, as they are not responsible for teaching the child to read.  Nine million adults in the UK are functionally illiterate, and one in four British five-year-olds struggles with basic vocabulary. The Steps to Reading Program is going to change lives. Many parents will learn to read and spell alongside their children.  

A 2019 study found that young children whose parents read them five books a day enter kindergarten having heard about 1.4 million more words than kids who were never read to. This 'million word gap' could be one key in explaining differences in vocabulary and reading development. Many parents are UNABLE to read to their child. Research has shown that there is a strong relationship between a parent’s education level—in particular, the mother’s education—and a child’s oral language skills or vocabulary upon entering school (NICHD, 2005). In Australia a study shocked the public, indicating that nearly half of all Australians can't read or write properly. The survey, which involved analysts from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, found that 7 million Australians were below the acceptable benchmark for understanding their own language. According to the National Literacy Trust 16% of adults are considered to be 'functionally illiterate' in the United Kingdom. Literacy levels are falling among the younger generations and it is stated that 1 in 5 adults struggle to read and write. In the USA approximately 32 million adults can't read, according to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 50 percent of U.S. adults can't read a book written at an eighth-grade level.

Teaching children to read early is another way to expose children to more words. The more children read the less they will need to rely on parents reading to them, or teachers teaching effective comprehension strategies when they start school. The ability to read fluently depends heavily on being able to understand what is being read. If information is not being retrieved or inferred from a text then a reader will be understanding very little of what they read and will therefore struggle to read fluently. So the text we use are appropriate to each child; but early reading means they can learn more words, and ...“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” ― Dr. Seuss. Generations of children have been lured into an appreciation of books and reading by works like The Cat in the Hat at the same time that their brains were being exposed to the cadence and rhyme that we now understand is so important for the development of literacy.

So the question, really, is why anyone wouldn't want their child to participate in the Steps to Reading (& Spelling) Program? If children are excited about the activities, and view 'Monster Mapping' as 'play', and if every child is engaged and WANTS to learn, then why deprive them of the opportunity to 1/ avoid reading difficulties and 2/ read for pleasure?  

Please do also refer to the Motivation to Read page. 

2 & 3 year olds learning to read!
  • Steps to Reading - Part of the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach

© 2020 Steps to Reading Program - Teaching Reading and Spelling in the Early Years - Part of the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach from Miss Emma, The Reading Whisperer 

Steps to Reading Program

Parents and EY Teachers please use this link to order a membership.