Help your child with reading from an early age with Usborne Very First Reading. The advice below, combined with our Very First Reading series, will help give your child a great start.

Using Usborne Very First Reading with your child

The books in the Very First Reading series were designed to be read in order, and support the first two years of learning to read at school. Even if you think your child is too advanced for the first few books, it can be very helpful to read them for practice and to build confidence.

From Book 7 - Stop that cow!

You can find more detail about the structure of the series below, but broadly speaking:

  • Books 1-4 introduce all the letters of the alphabet, in their simplest and most common forms of pronunciation (c as in cat, a as in ant, y as in yell, etc.) in simple one-syllable words. This represents about one term's work in Reception or Primary 1 at school.
  • Books 5-8 introduce those sounds in English that are commonly written with two or more letters (ch as in chip, ai as in aim, etc.) This represents about another term's work in Reception or P1.
  • Books 9-13 focus on different patterns of spelling and pronunciation.
  • Books 14-15 focus on particularly tricky spelling patterns and longer words. These two stages would normally be covered during Year 1 or P2, with plenty of reading and writing practice to develop confidence and stamina.

It is helpful if your child is familiar with the new letters or letter-combinations in each book before they start reading (find these on page 30 of the book). See Learning letters for some suggestions.

Ready to read?

  • You can sit down to read at any time of day, but do choose a time when you can sit quietly without distractions or deadlines
  • Before you start reading, look at the book's cover and title together. What do you think the story is about? What can you see in the picture?
  • The story in each book starts on page 4. On each double-page spread, try reading your part first, then give your child plenty of time to read their part. Or you might like to let your child read their part first to get to grips with new words, so that then you can read your part and they can read their part more fluently.
  • To begin with, your child will probably need help to sound and blend the words. Encourage your child to make the letter sound ("t" not "tee" - you can listen to all the letter-sounds in our guide to Pronouncing the phonemes), then read the sounds quickly one after another until your child hears how they come together or blend to make the word: "t – a – p", "t-a-p", "tap".
  • Almost all the words in the first book, Pirate Pat, are phonically regular; that is, they are made up of letters with the same, consistent sounds. The only irregular words are "I" and "is". Children generally don't find it difficult to recognize and learn irregular words, provided they are introduced gradually and carefully. The capital "I" on page 11, for instance, looks different from the lower case "i" that your child has already met in "sit" on page 7, so children are not surprised that it should have a different sound. And although "is" ends in a /z/ not a /s/ sound, children are very familiar with the word in speech and soon recognize it on the page. Each book in the series introduces one or two irregular words in this way.
  • Your child should be able to read all their part of the book just by sounding and blending the individual words; they should not have to guess from the picture or context (although this is a very common instinct and will later be a useful reading skill).
  • Do give your child plenty of encouragement and praise for successful reading.
  • If your child makes a mistake, don't jump in to correct it straight away – children will very often correct themselves if you give them the chance. Otherwise, when you get to the end of their sentence or section, go back and look at the problem word, encouraging your child to sound and blend it. Be positive – don't say "That word was wrong" but "Let's go back and have another look at this word, shall we?" and then praise them when they get it right.
  • If your child is tiring, you don't need to finish the story – it's fine to pause, put the ribbon marker in where you stopped and come back later or another day.

The puzzles

It's an excellent idea to read the story several times; your child will gain in fluency and confidence each time. You can also find more puzzles and practice activities for each book in the Resources area. Then, when you feel your child is ready, you can go on to the next book in the series. Don't rush, though – remember that the fifteen books in the series cover a great deal of material, and practice and confidence are essential at each step. Above all, motivation is vital to successful reading – do what you can to make sure reading is fun, and something your child is really keen to do for themselves.

For more information, see the Help your child with reading section below.

I particularly like the fact that they are so easy to follow, and therefore easy for parents. Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg, Llantrisant

From Book 5 - Grizzly bear rock

From Book 9 - Run, rabbit, run!

The structure of the series

Usborne Very First Reading is underpinned by a solid structural framework, ensuring that children develop their reading vocabulary and stamina at a steady, manageable pace.

From Book 4 - Dog diary

Each of the first seven books introduces a small group of phonemes (the sounds made by letters, or combinations of letters). Where there are alternative titles, (e.g. Book 1: Pirate Pat or Book 1: Double trouble), both books cover exactly the same group of phonemes, so either book can be used to introduce those phonemes or for further practice. Later books introduce new spelling and pronunciation patterns to help children build up a secure and rational understanding of written English.

Based on a recognized national framework

Very First Reading has been developed to follow the teaching sequence in Letters and Sounds, the UK Government-developed synthetic phonics programme used in thousands of primary schools (find out more about synthetic phonics below). (Letters and Sounds is not used in Scotland, but many compatible programmes are.) Many other synthetic phonics programmes used in schools have been developed or redeveloped to support Letters and Sounds.

Letters and Sounds consists of six phases and is designed to be used through Reception and Key Stage One (Y1/Y2). The equivalent stage in Scotland would be P1-P3.

  • Phase One mainly consists of listening-based pre-reading activities.
  • Phases Two and Three teach the forty-four phonemes in a defined sequence, in phonically regular CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant) which are easy for children to decode.
  • Phase Four introduces consonant clusters – groups of consonants at the beginning, middle or end of words. "Ran", for example, is a simple CVC word. "Bran" is a CCVC word – it has a consonant cluster at the beginning, and "brand" is a CCVCC word, with a consonant cluster at the beginning and the end.
  • Phase Five introduces alternative spellings: for instance, the /ai/ sound (as in "paid") can also be written "ay" as in "play", "ey" as in "they", "a-e" as in "pale" and "a" as in "apron".
  • By Phase Six, children's reading should be fairly well established, and the focus is more on writing and specifically on spelling, which generally lags behind reading ability.

Letters and Sounds is a highly organised teaching sequence and programme of practice activities; however, it does not in itself provide the opportunity to read real books. Very First Reading offers exciting, engaging stories, carefully tied in to key stages of Letters and Sounds, offering the real reading experience at accessible levels and with the close support of an adult.

Download the full structure of Very First Reading (PDF) for details of the material covered in each story and how the books tie in with Letters and Sounds.

From Book 3 - A bus for Miss Moss

Excellent for home reading especially for parents to support early reading. Clear links with phonics programme. Woodlea Primary School, Caterham

From Book 2 - The dressing-up box

About synthetic phonics

Synthetic phonics has been very much in the news over the past few years. Most schools now use some phonics teaching in the early stages of reading.

From Book 14 - Knight fight

What is synthetic phonics?

Synthetic phonics involves learning to recognize the distinct sounds, or phonemes, that go together to make up words. There are 44 phonemes in the English language. Some phonemes correspond to a single letter, like the c-a-t sounds ("cuh-ah-tuh") in the word "cat", and others to combinations of letters, such as the sh-ar sounds in the word "shark".

How does it work?

Children start by learning just a few phonemes, then learn to combine these in order to read whole words ("synthesizing" the phonemes, or running them together, hence "synthetic phonics"). This gives them the confidence to tackle new and unfamiliar words, an important step towards independent reading. They are soon introduced to more phonemes, then learn different ways of spelling the phonemes they know. Usborne Very First Reading introduces all the phonemes in a tried and tested order of progression, from simple letter-sounds to complex and variable spelling and pronunciation.

Can you read everything using synthetic phonics?

Unfortunately not. Words in English can be divided into two basic groups: regular phonic words, such as "cat", and words which are wholly or partly irregular.

Around 85% of English words are regular, but some very common words, such as "I" and "the", are irregular. These are sometimes called "sight words" or "tricky words", and make up many of the 100 "high frequency words" that children have to learn in their first year at school. Each book in Very First Reading introduces one or two of these "tricky words", along with other, phonically regular, high frequency words, at the stage where children can most easily decode them.

So is that how all children learn to read now?

Not necessarily. Many schools still use the look and say or whole word method, where children are encouraged to learn to recognise whole words, and use "cues" or clues from the picture or context if they can't guess the word. For some children, this method is fine, especially if they have the encouragement of enthusiastic parents or teachers. For others, especially children with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, the whole word method is laborious and deeply confusing.

Synthetic phonics has long had its supporters amongst teachers specialising in special educational needs, but there is increasing evidence that it works well in the mainstream. A famous seven-year study in Clackmannanshire in Scotland found that children who learned to read using synthetic phonics were two to three years ahead of their peers in word reading, and eighteen months ahead in spelling. This was true for children across different social backgrounds and, very unusually, boys tended to outperform girls. The Clackmannanshire study had a considerable influence on the Government-commissioned report in 2006 by Sir Jim Rose on the teaching of reading, which strongly recommended that children be taught "first and fast" using synthetic phonics. The Rose report in turn led to Letters and Sounds, the synthetic phonics programme used in thousands of primary schools (find out more about Letters and Sounds in The Structure of the series section above).

Very First Reading has been developed specifically to support Letters and Sounds, but it will also provide valuable support and practice for whole word teaching.

From Book 1 - Pirate Pat

From Book 15 - Mr. Mystery

Help your child with reading

Reading is a vital skill – it's not just something your child learns at school, it underpins everything they do at school. Anything you can do to help children feel positive and confident about reading will stand them in good stead throughout their time at school and well on into their adult lives.

From Book 4 - Dog diary

It's never too early to be positive about reading

  • You can lay the foundations for good reading from the very beginning. There are some wonderful books for babies, with bright colours, textured pages, squeaks and rattles and sound chips. If you're looking for inspiration, try Usborne's award-winning range of books for babies and toddlers.
  • You can have your child join your local library at any age from birth onwards. Many libraries and bookshops have weekly story and rhyme sessions for babies, toddlers and young children – these will encourage your child to see books as exciting and fun, and something to enjoy sharing.
  • Read to your child often. A regular story can be a lovely, calming and settling part of the bedtime routine, but do read at other times during the day too. You don't have to be a brilliant reader yourself, your child will enjoy the experience of sharing a book and some time with you.
  • And do let your child see you reading for pleasure yourself – books, magazines, newspapers – to build up the association of reading and enjoyment.

How to make the most of reading to your child

  • You can read during the day or at night, at home or when you're out and about, but make sure you're somewhere reasonably quiet, without distractions such as TV or radio in the background, and you can make yourselves comfortable.
  • With a new book, look at the book's cover and title together. What is it about? What can you see in the picture?
  • Give yourselves time to enjoy the story. Don't read too quickly, and allow time on each page or double page to explore the pictures together and for your child to ask you questions.
  • You can have fun trying different voices for different characters, or exaggerating sound-words - roars and squeaks, bangs and whispers. Even if you don't think you're a great actor, your child will love the effects. And when your child knows the story well, they might like to join in in places or say certain lines themselves.
  • Don't try reading for too long at a stretch – for very young children, just a few minutes at a time is enough, and little and often works best.
  • If your child enjoys a story, be prepared to read it again. Children love repetition, so you may find yourself reading things many, many times. Bear this in mind when you are choosing books at the library or bookshop!
  • Encourage your child to think about stories afterwards: they might like to act out the story with family members or friends (popular fairy tales like Goldilocks or the Three Little Pigs are particularly good for this). Or your child might re-enact a story, or make up a new story with the same characters, using their toys; or draw pictures based on stories they like.

You can find lots more invaluable advice and ideas, suitable for children from birth to 11 years, in the Usborne book Help your child to read and write.

One of the best features of the series is the shared reading concept. Hollytree pre-school, North Baddesley

From Book 11 - Wild school

Learning letters

Children who are familiar with the letters of the alphabet have a great advantage when they start school. Learning letters can be fun, and will give your child a lot of satisfaction. Don't try too much at once: learning one letter a day will help your child to get them firmly established. Here are some ideas for ways for children to practise their new-found skills.

Teach Your Monster to Read is a free game to help children learn letters and sounds. Find out more.

  • Teach your Monster to Read, a free game produced by the Usborne Foundation, is a great way to help children learn letters and sounds.
  • Look for an alphabet book or frieze (try to find one where the pictures begin with the most common letter-sounds, e.g. I for ink not ice-cream), an alphabet puzzle or magnetic letters to help your child become familiar with letter-shapes.
  • Start with letters that have some connection for your child. Help your child to learn the letters in their name, and to recognise their name not just as a whole word but letter by letter.
  • Very often, children start by learning the letters s a t p i n (these are introduced in Very First Reading Book One, Pirate Pat, along with m and d). These letters are quite distinct from each other, so not easily confused, and can be combined to make some of the most-used words in English (a/an, in, it, is etc). Your child only needs to know eight letters for you to try reading Pirate Pat together.
  • Choose a letter, and make the letter-sound (sss for s, etc – you can listen to all the letter-sounds in our guide to Pronouncing the phonemes). Think of some things that begin with that sound.
  • Show your child the letter written down (quite large) on paper. Then, together, try tracing the letter on paper with your finger; writing it in the air, very large; drawing it in a box of sand or rice; copying it on paper with a pencil or felt-tip pen (these are easier for your child to write with than ballpoint). Can you copy it a few times and incorporate it in patterns or pictures?
  • Play "Spot the letter" when you're out and about, or in a book your child knows – look for all the words starting with that letter. Or cut out text from a newspaper or magazine (choose quite large type) and help your child to circle the letter. (Check that the letter form is the one your child is familiar with though – printed a's and g's can look very different from handwritten ones.)
  • You could make a letter scrapbook: cut the letter out of bright or patterned paper and stick it in the scrapbook, then cut out pictures of things beginning with the letter-sound.
  • Don't forget to go back often to check and practise letters your child has already learned.
I particularly like the fact that they are so easy to follow, and therefore easy for parents. Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg, Llantrisant

From Book 5 - Grizzly bear rock


When should I start reading with my child?

Every child is different, and you should take your cue from your own child.

  • Do encourage an interest in books from the earliest age, reading aloud to your child and joining your local library.
  • Look out for signs of "reading readiness", when children start taking an interest in words they see around them – "Mum, what does that say?" – typically around four or five years of age.
  • Try Very First Reading and see how your child responds, but don't be afraid to pause or slow down if your child is having difficulty.
  • Above all, do everything you can to help your child see reading positively - not a competition or a chore, but something enjoyable and exciting that they will soon be able to do for themselves.

My child has already started reading at school. Won't she get confused?

Usborne Very First Reading closely supports the synthetic phonics methods used by many schools, and provides valuable reading practice even if your child is using a different method.

My child has been doing reading for over a year at school, but doesn't seem to be getting anywhere. Will your books help?

Many children find reading difficult in the early stages, for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with intelligence or specific difficulties such as dyslexia. Bright children can often seem to 'plateau' once they have mastered the basics. Very First Reading provides a structured and methodical approach which teaches or reinforces basic phonic knowledge, enabling children to decode even unfamiliar words highly effectively.

My child can read a little already. Does we really need to start with Book One?

You may find that it's reassuring to start at a level or two below your child's ability and progress quickly, and children will enjoy all the stories even if they find the text easy. If your child is familiar with all the letters of the alphabet, you could start with Book Four, and if she or he knows all the phonemes, try Book Seven.

I think my child may be dyslexic. Will these books be suitable?

If you suspect your child has dyslexia, talk to his or her teacher or your doctor, who may suggest eyesight or hearing tests as a first step. In fact, many children with dyslexia find synthetic phonics methods particularly helpful, so the Very First Reading approach may well be what works best for your child.

How will Very First Reading work for children with special educational needs in general?

This is where the Very First Reading structure is very important. For children with dyslexia in particular, but also for children with other SEN, the traditional "look and say" methods of learning to read could be chaotic and overwhelming. With Very First Reading, new reading patterns are introduced in a very controlled and logical order, gradually building understanding of how the written language works. The shared reading principle is also particularly supportive and flexible, allowing children to go at their own pace.

What do we do when we've finished all the books?

Very First Reading gives your child a sound basis to start reading more widely – still with your support in the early stages, but with an increasing degree of independence and choice. There is a huge range of titles for developing readers in the seven-level Usborne Reading Programme - fairy tales and folk tales, original fiction and non-fiction, children's classics and history, biography and literary classics for older readers, with the same principles of engaging writing, world class illustration and high quality production.
Find out more about the Usborne Reading Programme.

From Book 7 - Stop that cow!