Numerous studies have shown that teaching phonics skills to young learners is the single most important predictor of successful reading achievement. However, there is no evidence that focusing on sound-level, letter-level, or word-level instruction will make older struggling and reluctant readers read more. In fact, if reading instruction for ‘catch-up’ pupils means more word recognition and letter-sound relationship drills, they may become even less inclined to read on their own – particularly if they are not reading for a real purpose.
What does seem to help pupils with weak or missing phonic knowledge to improve is plenty of opportunities to read texts that are engaging and make sense to them. They need time with texts they can read and want to read. The problem is, structured texts for upper KS2 readers and beyond that start at CVC/CVCC level aren’t exactly flooding the market.
However, there is a collection of age-appropriate books available that introduces a step-by-step phonic progression for ‘catch up’ readers – the action-packed, quest-based Magic Belt series from Phonic Books.
The 12 books cover VCC, CVCC, CCVC, CCVCC words and consonant digraphs including ‘ch’, ‘sh’, ‘th’, ‘ck’, ‘qu’, ‘ng’, ‘wh’ ‘le’ and suffixes –ed and –ing. The storyline centres on a 10-year-old boy called Zak who goes to find help after his grandfather is taken ill. He meets a wizard who says he can help if Zak can find 10 magic rocks. Zak’s friend, Finn, helps along the way and together they embark on a quest to find the gems and save Grandpa.
Each book contains four short chapters, a practice page and a vocabulary page – although a lot of help will be needed to access the latter if these are for struggling readers. Some multi-syllable words are also split up at the bottom of the page, making them easier to digest. Illustrations are excellent, add real atmosphere to each page of the adventure and have been drawn especially to appeal to older learners.
The workbook that accompanies this series is well worth the additional investment because it contains heaps of ideas (and photocopiables) on how to use the books, including discussion questions, word-building, reading and spelling, captions, comprehension exercises, writing frames, vocabulary, punctuation exercises and games. These really immerse readers in each book, bringing them closer to the text. It would have been even better if these had been available on a CD-ROM so that the activities could be edited. The inclusion of an assessment feature, which is currently lacking, would also have added more value to the resource.
Preceding the actual series of books is a workbook with six introductory levels aimed at pupils aged 8+ who are absolute beginners, or those with a shaky knowledge of the sounds and letters of the alphabet. The idea behind the workbook is to prepare pupils for the series and develop blending, segmenting and phoneme manipulation at CVC word level. Each chapter includes word-building, spelling, reading accuracy, reading captions, writing captions, a game and decodable text. These activities have been carefully and thoughtfully written, with brief teaching guidelines along the way. Buying into the whole package might not be necessary, but if you have bilingual learners to cater for it is a sensible choice.
Pupils who have not been taught phonics for one reason or another, or have found phonics tough when part of a mixed strategy approach, usually depend on memorising whole words or guessing strategies. However, these strategies fail as more complex texts are introduced. With the Magic Belt series, pupils get a chance to access texts at an age appropriate level without having to lose face by reading texts designed for KS1 and early KS2. My gut instinct is that the quest based theme will appeal to boys more than girls, but its aims and objectives are sound and, overall, this series supports a readership otherwise poorly served in the marketplace.