how to understand reading levels and book bands in primary school - Bubbablue and me

Primary school reading levels and book bands in Key Stage 1

When children start school the one thing that is the most confusing (other than where do all those lost jumpers and water bottles go?) is reading levels. Not the learning to read because the phonics system makes sense.  But primary school reading schemes, book bands and reading levels.

how to understand reading levels and book bands in primary school -

Back in the 70s and 80s when I was learning to read it was easy to understand. Everyone seemed to do Roger Red Hat, Billy Blue Hat etc, and then whizzed on to whatever books were on the book shelves that suited. We didn’t have book bands, book colours or reading schemes.   But now, if you worry about how your child is getting on and want to check the books your child is reading compared to children at a similar level, it is likely that schools nearby are using a different method and reading scheme.  Of course, we shouldn’t compare our children, but if you want to gauge how they’re improving it does help to understand reading schemes.

Some schools use one book scheme, but most schools seem to use a mix of reading schemes to provide children with a breadth of reading experience.  And to avoid parents getting totally bored of reading about the same characters over and over again.  You also find schools send home books in different amounts.  For example while most children I know were learning phonics and learning to read in their first half term, N’s school didn’t start their phonics until after the October half term.

Their first half term was spent learning to listen in class, listen and focus in on different sounds, and get used to a learning environment. It did worry me a little because I knew N preferred practical learning (or just playing), but it worked and they were certainly in the right frame of mind to then be able to listen and learn their phonics. They had school reading books from just before Christmas (rather than books for parents to read to them or to discuss the pictures).  In year 1, N had 1 book home 3 times a week, but over holidays he may bring a couple of books home.

books photo with kid

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Our school uses a myriad of reading schemes. The main one is Oxford Reading Tree (which includes Biff Chip and Kipper, plus Songbirds and Snapdragon series in the scheme). In reception they used Phonic Bugs books, and we’ve also had Pearson, Heinemann Storyworlds and Ginn 360 as well.

Each reading book scheme brings its own benefits. Most of the story books in a book band (or level) are based on phonics progression, using lots of repetitive words, phrases and rhyming.  As children move through the levels, schools often introduce non-fiction books and poetry.  The poetry books we’ve had are old fashioned, but they do introduce children to different types of writing.  The fiction books are seriously dull in our experience (for children as well as parents) and a little patronising in some cases.

Not all of the book schemes are enjoyable.  Certainly the Biff, Chip and Kipper* ones seem to annoy parents a lot (I mean, who calls a girl Biff?!).  But I found them preferable to most of the other books we’ve had home.  Having a mix of reading schemes does mean that if your child hates one range, they get more variety by having different books home. 

Oh, and you also get to spot typos, incorrect facts, or politically incorrect items to have a laugh at. N got very upset one time about quote marks not having 2 marks like they’d learnt at school, so I had to explain that 1 mark each side of the quote was still a speech mark.

With such a range of schemes out there, it’s hard to see how your child is progressing because they don’t always match their levels.  Where one scheme uses colour bands, another uses numbers or letters, and even the numbers don’t always match up.  Most have used colours. I tend to compare all books to the Oxford Reading Tree levels as that’s the main scheme we use.  It is demoralising for children to move up a level, then find the next book they bring home is back a level or 2.  So being able to compare and give them confidence that they’ve not gone down again does help.

In my investigations over the years N has been at primary school, I’ve found some handy key stage reading guides and comparison charts, although not all reading schemes are included in one complete version.  The expectation is that children cover 2 levels per key stage, but depending on the child they may skip a level, or continue working through the tens of books at that level.  For example, N skipped level 4 at the start of year 1, but then was on level 6 from Christmas until May (covering a huge range of books – it seems our school has a mammoth amount of books, they were never-ending).

I’ve collated the information from reading schemes and reading bands I’ve found into a reading scheme printable for download. Hopefully it’ll be useful as a guide to understand what the levels are and where book schemes fit.  If you notice any errors or changes, let me know and I’ll update.

In the printable you can see the approximate reading ages for each colour book band, the stage of the national curriculum, and the various book schemes compared. The main book band colours are predominantly based on the Oxford Reading Tree colours.

Key stage 1 reading levels and bands June2018

Hopefully this helps explain key stage 1 reading levels.

With reading, and everything else with children at school, remember that every child is different. As long as they’re improving, they’re enjoying their learning and the school are getting the best out of your child, then there’s nothing to worry about.

How does your school manage their reading schemes for the different years?

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  1. This is so useful – thank you! I always get confused by my daughters reading levels and targets, I’m not at all clued up no them as I once was when I taught in schools! Thank you for joining us at #sharingthebloglove

  2. This is really useful thanks Emma, It’s probably taken me all year to get my head around the reading scheme, but I think I finally get it. Alice loves to read and since Easter it has really started to click for her. I really want to keep the focus going over the summer, so I think I will have a look at getting some books that fit in with the school scheme and not just read the books we have at home. Thank you for joining us at #SharingtheBlogLove

    1. N just won’t read books at home so that’s the challenge for us. Last year we tried to join the library scheme but they wouldn’t let me join it for him, and not before the exact date which was when we were on holiday. Ridiculous. So hopefully we’ll manage it this year.

      I think as long as they enjoy it, it’s less of a chore. N has more moans than loves, mainly because the stories are just dull. He’s got Storyworld ones at the moment, and they look like they’re down 1-2 levels than he usually does so that’ demoralising too. Plus the pictures are so old fashioned in their political correctness, it’s just nuts!

  3. Jessica’s school mostly uses the Oxford Reading Tree. I’ve not yet got too fed up with Biff, Chip and Kipper but some of the non-fiction ones are really dull. I’m sure our parents were sick of the Village with Three Corners books long before we all got through them. I do vaguely remember some book bands in use when I was at school though. We seem to be just working through the levels at the moment rather than mixing them up. Jessica’s just moved up to the blue band and it’s lovely to see how she’s starting to really enjoy reading. I didn’t realise there were so many different reading schemes. #sharingthebloglove

    1. She’s doing well then. It’s driving me nuts now, because N’s coming home with all different levels – today we had a level 5 and level 6 book. But we’ve got past them in Jan for level 5 and a few weeks ago were on 7. So he’s reading books that are too easy and he gets bored. I just wish they’d have a couple of books in each series and then move them to the next one – they’re so dull and are just repeating the same words over and over again that he already knows.

  4. Oh I love the Oxford Reading Tree books! I remember reading them when I was learning to read and sometimes I see one that just brings the memories flooding back (The Magic Key and The Land Of The Dinosaurs). I did have to explain to my little one what a Floppy Disc was the other day, though and why Biff’s camera needed film in it! Haha #sharingthebloglove

  5. Great post – I loved seeing my
    Kids come home all excited to tell me they have “moved up a book band!” Then we changed primary schools and their new school isn’t big on reading books, My little girl stopped bringing books home in year 1 🙁 I love reading with my kids, luckily we have plenty of our own books to read at home!

    1. How on earth can they stop sending reading books home? That’s so strange. And not great for children where parents aren’t keen on reading. N’s a bit blase about it really – it’s a lot of effort although he loves books

      1. I know it’s really strange! We left the first school to go to a better school, this school is ofsted outstanding, I was shocked to find out that they stop reading at home after year 1. Luckily my little girl is very good at reading, that could be the reason why? I loved the biff books, they have them at our local library so I can always get some from there 🙂

        1. Very odd. We have a box set of 1-6 level Biff and Chip books that I got from The Book People when N was at pre-school. So I was sick of them before we got to school. I should really pass them on I suppose.

    1. Bizarrely though, this evening N has come home with a Storyworlds book (pretty old) which is a turquoise colour, but level 9 on that book’s level. He’s usually on level 7 ORT. So it’s a mystery. I think they must just be mixing all the books up now.

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