Early Reading: The Importance of an Eclectic Approach

Reading time: 2

Lynn How

Lynn is the Editor at Teacher Toolkit. With 20 years of primary teaching and SLT experience, she has been an Assistant Head, Lead Mentor for ITT and SENCO. She loves to write and also has her own SEMH and staff mental health blog: www.positiveyoungmind.com. Lynn...
Read more about Lynn How

Has the expectation for ‘age related’ phonics hindered learning in literacy?

As teachers, we all want to instil a love of reading in our pupils. We want to inspire them in becoming life-long readers with a love of literacy in adulthood. This process starts young.

In my teaching, I have maintained that an eclectic approach is best practice to allow this to happen. But with ‘end of year’ outcomes to meet in year one, I’m concerned that the current emphasis is tipping more towards a ‘bottom up’ approach rather than an eclectic mix. Here’s a brief overview of these terms:

Top down

  • Immersion in quality texts.
  • Being ‘read to’ and therefore appreciating narrative, rhyme and rhythm.
  • Discussion and understanding of vocabulary.
  • Question and answer opportunities to promote comprehension.

Bottom up

  • Learning the mechanics of reading, starting from single sounds.
  • Moving on to blending and segmenting. 
  • A graduated staged approach.
  • Less emphasis on understanding a text.

Eclectic mix

A balance of both of these systems is needed for a well-rounding grounding in reading. This, in turn, supports writing, as reading ability often (but not always), paves the way to progress in writing.

With the rise of the phonics assessment, schools have been mindful of the need for good mechanics for reading to be in place in order to meet end of year expectations. During the early years and year one, young minds are perhaps at the most impressionable stage. Therefore, rendering those ‘Top down’ experiences so important.


Moving forward, in order to ensure that the balance is right in your setting, consider the following:

  1. Demographics – Some families have plenty of books at home. Children will receive support from home to ensure that eclectic approach. However, many families do not own books. These children miss out on the daily joy of book sharing with an adult. Check that your balance of top-down and bottom-up approaches suit your demographic and individual families …
  2. Curriculum – With busy curricula plans, I have been in schools where quality time with books is being pushed out. Storytime at the end of the day is magical for children. In my career, I’ve spent thirteen years teaching reception and year one. It has been evident that even those children who struggle to concentrate normally, love storytime.
  3. Research – ‘Scholars agree that there are a lot of advantages in using the eclectic approach, which opens the language teacher to a range of alternatives and embraces all the four language skills of speaking, reading, writing and listening’ (Alsayad, Ali and Alhafian. 2019).
  4. Independent enquiry –  (Clark and Glazzard. 2018), surveyed 230 heads and 1,384 teachers. 85 per cent stated that the test should not continue to remain statutory.

The enquiry issues cited

  1. Unnecessary stress and anxiety in children.
  2. Phonics is not the only strategy to teach reading.
  3. The phonics test does not promote eclectic strategies such as picture and context cues or skills such as reading on and around the text.
  4. Notably, one respondent said, ‘Using phonics to the exclusion of other pedagogy, impedes understanding and the development of inference skills.’
  5. Phonics has become a ‘high stakes’ test for accountability, rather than to improve standards.

According to the DfE, in 2018 – 82 per cent of children reached the expected standard in phonics in Year 1, which is up by 25 percentage points since 2012. But at what cost?

Although children are able to adequately ‘bark at text’, some children are sadly lacking immersion in quality literacy experiences.

How can your setting reflect on and redress the balance?

3 thoughts on “Early Reading: The Importance of an Eclectic Approach

  1. I do think early reading is important to the development of a child, but the approach from parents overseas who want their child to learn English as a second language is too harsh.

    Phonics should be learnt naturally, with the child gaining the desire to develop independently. Forcing a child to read will only make them view as a chore, a task that needs to completed.

  2. I appreciated your consideration regarding the variation in the accessibility of books for children. I am an elementary teacher for an online public school. I feel my literacy instruction with students focuses heavily on the ‘bottom up’ approach. I would like to expand my ‘top-down’ approach to have more balance within my literacy instruction. However, feel I have limited time with my students in an online setting so I give less time to ‘top-down’ strategies. Since my school is online, my students are not surrounded by books like in a brick-and-mortar school. I am eager to learn how to create an ‘eclectic mix’ in the online setting.

    1. That’s a great question, Sarah. Having online access to books is pretty easy today – lots of available platforms for students. How to access copies physically in an online school setting is a little bit more tricky, but not impossible. Maybe have an office HQ to store a few copies, and have a postal system perhaps?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.