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 fifteen books in the Very First Reading series are designed to be read in order and support the early years of learning to read. 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 material is commonly introduced in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.
  • 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 corresponds with material that is commonly introduced and reviewed in pre-kindergarten through first grade.

When these two stages are introduced will depend on your child and on your child’s teacher and school, but the books will ensure plenty of reading and writing practice to develop retention and confidence.

  • Books 9-13 focus on different patterns of spelling and pronunciation.
  • Books 14-15 focus on particularly tricky spelling patterns and longer words.

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

Ready to read?

  • You can sit down to read at any time of day, but 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 plenty of time for the child's part. Or you might like to let your child read first to get familiar with any new words, so you can both read your parts 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 his or her part of the book just by sounding and blending the individual words; and 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).
  • Give your child plenty of encouragement and praise for successful reading.
  • If your child makes a mistake, don't jump in to correct it right 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 rather "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 and come back later or another day.

The puzzles

The puzzles after each story are intended to do several things: test comprehension, give further reading practice and provide a fun activity for your child. Generally, the first puzzle checks whether your child has understood the story, for example by asking the child to retell it or match speech bubbles or captions to pictures. The second and third puzzles tend to be more word-based. You will need to read the instructions to your child, and then discuss or check the answers.

When you have finished

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 interested in doing.

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

We love these books! It has helped my son develop confidence in his reading. Teachers' Choice Award comment

From Book 5 - Grizzly bear rock

From Book 9 - Run, rabbit, run!

The structure of the series

Usborne Very First Reading is based on 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). 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

The Very First Reading series is backed by decades of phonics research, and supports reading programs currently used by schools around the world. One such program - Letters and Sounds – has been implemented in schools across the UK, and shows promising results. Many other reading programs used in schools around the world are now being developed or redeveloped to support this program. Very First Reading implements this research to make available exciting and engaging stories that are reading-level appropriate and provide an interactive reading experience with an adult.

Supports US Government policy

Very First Reading makes use of scientifically based research to support the teaching of reading, as required by the Reading First initiative, implemented by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Very First Reading actively develops the five skills, outlined by Reading First, that all children need to master in order to become fluent readers: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and text comprehension. The methods of teaching of reading are, as they should be, the subject of intensive debate and ongoing research. Government policies can and do change to reflect the latest research and best practice. It is now widely accepted that phonics can play a significant role in learning to read. Reading materials are also constantly evolving, and many who considered phonics methods in the past to be restrictive and boring are won over by the high quality, as well as the proven effectiveness, of new series such as Very First Reading.

Download the full structure of Very First Reading (PDF) for details of the material covered in each story.

Glossary of technical terms

Here are meanings of some other technical terms in the structure table that you may not know.

  • graphemes – the written form of phonemes: they may be single letters, such as the c-a-t in cat, or combinations of letters, such as the sh-ar-k in shark.
  • GPCs – grapheme-phoneme correspondences: the way a phoneme is written. Simple GPCs are where one letter corresponds to one phoneme, as in the c-a-t example above.
  • digraphs – a phoneme commonly written using two letters, such as /ch/ /sh/ or /ng/ (consonant digraphs) or /ai/ /ow/ or /ur/ (vowel digraphs)
  • trigraphs – a phoneme commonly written using three letters, such as /air/ /ear/ or /ure/
  • split digraphs – a digraph “split” by a consonant, such as the “a-e” sound in “bake,” “made” or “pale.”
  • Sight words/tricky words – commonly used words which are wholly or partly irregular in their spelling and pronunciation patterns. Your child may need a little help to read these words at first.

From Book 3 - A bus for Miss Moss

These books are well made, excellent developmental reading books and they are written to be timeless in interest to children. Teachers' Choice Award comment

From Book 2 - The dressing-up box

About synthetic phonics

Phonics has been very much in the news over the past few years. Many schools now incorporate some phonics teaching in the early stages of reading. Very First Reading is based on the approach known as "synthetic phonics."

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 that 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 known as "sight words" or "tricky words" that children have to learn when starting to read. Each book in Very First Reading introduces one or two of these "sight 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 recognize 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 learning difficulties, the whole word method is laborious and deeply confusing.

Synthetic phonics has long had its supporters among teachers specializing in special educational needs, but there is increasing evidence that it works well in the mainstream. A seven-year study 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 study had a considerable influence on the development of reading programs in the UK which strongly recommended that children be taught “first and fast” using synthetic phonics.

According to the US National Institute for Literacy, phonics-based programs are best introduced when children are first learning to read, and offer the following benefits over whole word methods:

  • Improved word recognition and spelling
  • Improved reading comprehension
  • Success for students from a wide variety of social and economic backgrounds
  • Particularly helpful for struggling readers.

Very First Reading has been developed specifically to support phonics teaching, but it will also provide valuable support and practice for other methods.

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's essential to everything he or she does at school. Anything you can do to help children feel positive and confident about reading will enhance their prospects for success 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 colors, textured pages, squeakers 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 visit your local library at any age. Many libraries have weekly story times 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 an enjoyable and comforting part of a bedtime routine, but try also to make time for reading at other times of the day. You don’t have to be a great reader yourself, your child will enjoy the experience of sharing a book and some time with you.
  • It's also important to 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 bookstore!
  • Encourage your child to think about stories afterwards: it might be fun 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 reenact a story, or make up a new story with the same characters, using their toys; or draw pictures based on stories they like.
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 so much satisfaction. Don't try too much at once: learning one new letter a day will help your child’s retention.

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 wall border (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 his or her name, and to recognise it 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 (fairly 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 pen). 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 fairly large type) and help your child to circle the letter. (Make sure 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 practice letters your child has already learned.
Lots of help is offered to parents, at the end of each book, in the parent guide and online too. Teachers' Choice Award comment

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.

  • Encourage an interest in books from the earliest age, reading aloud to your child and joining your local library.
  • Look for signs of "reading readiness", when children start taking an interest in words they see around them – "Mom, 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 he 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's class has been doing reading for over a year at school, but she doesn't seem to be progressing. 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 learning disabilities. Bright children can often seem to 'plateau' once they have mastered the basics. Very First Reading provides a structured and methodical approach that 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 he knows all the phonemes, try Book Seven.

I think my child may have a learning disability. Will these books be right for her?

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

Does Very First Reading support a variety of learning styles?

The flexibility and simplicity of the series is helpful in supporting a wide variety of learning styles. 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 solid foundation 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 Program - 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 Program.

From Book 7 - Stop that cow!