Every school has a reading scheme.
Many schools choose Oxford Reading Scheme, starring the ubiquitous Biff, Kipper and Chip. These are very popular because the books have also been turned into a television cartoon serial, and also because versions of the school reading books are available for parents who wish to read with their children at home, and shadow what the children are being taught in school. Many children who have learned to read in the last fifteen years will have learned to read alongside Biff and Chip.
Some schools have reading schemes that fit alongside their phonics scheme of choice.
Most schools choose an off the peg reading scheme that promises to give their children the structure and support they need through their reading journey.
Reading schemes are important for giving children who are starting their literacy journey achievable and manageable steps to the freedom of reading.
But there are problems with them:
They can be very boring. Early readers have to have simple words, the right proportion of high frequency words and lots of repetition. This means that it can be hard to maintain a child’s interest in the books they are required to read.
They can be very expensive if you are buying a whole reading scheme for a whole school with adequate copies for everyone.
It can really fall down if a child hates a particular character/group of characters. Most reading schemes tend to use characters that recur throughout the scheme to give children a sense of continuity, and a feeling that the characters are growing and developing with the children. This problem doesn’t happen very often, but it can happen.
Reading schemes, or indeed any educational scheme, can fall out of fashion/favour – and if you have spent a great deal of money on a particular scheme, which in hindsight does not seem relevant to your needs, what do you do with those books?
We have developed a scheme of colour banded books as a way of trying to deal with some of these issues. Our books go from Red, which are the easiest books to Lime, which are the hardest books on our structured scheme. We then have a further stage before a child is left to choose their own reading material. This intermediary stage between the end of colour banded reading and free reading is called Guided Free Reading.
Guided Free Readers consists of a wide selection of what I refer to in this blog as transitional or chapter books. These are books that would not be out of place in a regular bookshelf, and are clearly not part of a reading scheme, but which are shorter than regular novels and which often have a higher proportion of illustrations than regular novels (which may have only a few illustrations or none at all). The text in the Guided Free Reader books tends to be of a slightly larger font than regular books, and there will usually be more white space on the page. It gives children a good bridge between reading scheme books which are clearly tailored for educational purposes, and the sometimes bewildering complexity of unlimited freedom of choice.
We have a system for banding our reading books which breaks down into basic principles such as; number of words on a page, font size and design, repetitive words, number of high frequency words, number of challenging words etc.
When we receive a book into the school which looks like it might make a good banded reader we assess it given our criteria and then colour band it. We use any and all books in our scheme. We mix fiction and non fiction, we add in books from reading schemes that have fallen out of favour, we use books that are donated – anything that looks like it might fire a child’s imagination and be appropriate within the criteria with which we assess the books. Because we are a Catholic school, for example, we have recently purchased a number of religious story books which we have introduced into our reading scheme at various, appropriate points.
We try to allow a little leeway within each colour band, so some Red books might be slightly more challenging than others, for example. If a child manages the more tricky books with ease, then we know that they are ready to move up to Blue books. If they struggle with the harder books, we guide them into choosing something a little less challenging within the same band.
We keep our banded books in boxes, marked with the colour name. The children work through the boxes, picking books they like, rather than ones prescribed to them by us. We know that as long as they are staying within the colour band they have been allocated, the book should not be beyond their capability. This way of doing things means that the child is given the illusion of choice, which makes them more willing to read the book they take home. It also means that we can see what the children are interested in, which will help us guide and tailor their reading as they progress, or if they reach a point where they are struggling to cope with being a free reader.
Sometimes a child will fall between bands. They may be ready to leave Gold books for example, but not quite ready for White books yet. If they have worked their way through what we have to offer in the band they are on but still need stretching before we push them up a band, we have a series of books which we describe as ‘sideways’ books. These are often high interest, lower ability books which give them a bit more meat on the bones of the subject matter they are reading about, but which will not stretch them too far linguistically. A few weeks of reading these are often all that is needed to help a child bridge the gap between colour bands.
These sideways books are also great for children further up the school system who perhaps have more mechanical reading difficulties, like dyslexia for example. These children need more mature material than the colour band that they are technically on might offer, but will not cope with the more sophisticated language that often goes hand in hand with more mature reading content.
The other strength of our reading scheme is that we also, when time permits, allow the children to visit the library, or the book corner in their classroom and take home any book they like, regardless of whether they can read it or not. We encourage them to explore what books have to offer. We expect them to read every day, but what they read and mark down on their reading cards is very much up to them. Allowing them a reading book and a book for pleasure means that they are more likely to read when they get home.