Book Bands

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What are Book Bands?

When children are in the early stages of learning to read, it is essential that they are given books to read that are appropriate to their reading level. The books need to be sufficiently challenging, but not too challenging. Then as the children make progress and develop their literacy skills further, they can be given more demanding (and more rewarding!) books to read.

The most popular system for levelling books that is used in the UK is Book Bands. Books (usually written and developed specifically to support book-banded guided reading) are graded into appropriate levels, or Bands, in order to provide children with appropriate books to read.

Originally there were eleven Book Bands, and each was denoted by a colour, as follows: Pink Band (the ‘lowest’), then Red, Yellow, Blue, Green, Orange, Turquoise, Purple, Gold, White and Lime (the highest band).

These bands have now been extended to include additional colours before Pink and after Lime (see below).

Who created the Book Band system?

Book Bands first emerged in 1998 with the publication of Book Bands for Guided Reading, by Shirley Bickler and Suzanne Baker. (That book is now in its fourth edition.)

Book Bands is now the dominant system for supporting guided reading in the UK and is used by the majority of UK schools. The centre of excellence for Book Bands and guided reading is the Institute of Education at University College London, in the UK.

What is ‘guided reading’?

Guided reading is a key element in working with book-banded texts. As children develop their reading skills, guided reading is a way in which children can apply their developing expertise in a structured situation.

In guided reading a teacher will identify a group of children who are at a similar level in their reading skills and will guide them to develop independent reading strategies on new and increasingly challenging texts.

Guided reading can be distinguished from independent reading (where children read on their own, without teacher guidance) and shared reading, which is much more of a whole-class activity, with the teacher taking the lead.

What criteria are used to determine which Band a book fits into?

It’s a simple question, but in fact deciding which Band a book fits into is a fairly complex issue, for two reasons. First, the whole ‘Book Bands for guided reading approach’ takes account of a wide range of factors in deciding the appropriate level of a book. The ‘difficulty’, or complexity, of the text itself (i.e. the words on the page) is only one of a number of factors. (Compare this with books to support synthetic phonics, where the decodability of the text is pretty much the sole consideration.)

In the authoritative publication Which Book and Why? (Institute of Education Press, 2014) the authors list five criteria that help determine which band a particular book should be put in to. These criteria are:

  1. Complexity of content and language structure
    e.g. it might be a simple story based on familiar experiences, with simple natural language, or it might be a fantasy story using more literary language. The use of sentence structures such as subordinate clauses or the use of the subjunctive and other devices is also critically important.

  2. Complexity of book structure
    e.g. the number of sentences per page, the number and type of variations in sentence structure(s), the occurrence of repeated events in the narrative.

  3. Complexity of use of alphabetic code
    i.e. the complexity of the words used, opportunities to use decoding skills, occurrence of more complex words.

  4. Complexity of format
    e.g. is it a simple storyline, or are there complex sequences of events? How is print placed on the page - font, font size, uses of captions, footnotes, diagrams, etc.

  5. Changing role of illustrations
    e.g. do the illustrations give high support for meaning (i.e. directly illustrating the text), or is there only minor support (illustrations as embellishments) - right through to text only, with no illustrations at all.

The second reason why levelling a book into a particular Band can be tricky is because, within the list of five criteria above, some of the judgements are very fine. The five criteria can also sometimes work against each other in a particular book (although this should not happen with a well-written book, properly designed for a particular Book Band).

It takes experience and skill to develop good, book-banded readers.

Can you describe the characteristics of a book at each Band?

This is not easy to do. The book Book Bands for Guided Reading (4th edition, IOE Press, 2007) lists fairly extensive criteria for each band, but even these descriptions are of limited value. (Incidentally that book was co-authored by Shirley Bickler, who was series consultant for the book-banded titles in Ransom Reading Stars.)

In very simple terms, books at each Band will have the following characteristics:

  • Pink
    Very short, highly predictable, simple texts. One simple sentence per page, highly repetitive sentence and vocabulary structure. Natural language. Simple text variation on the last page. Illustrations directly support the text. Large print, suitable font, good spacing.

  • Red
    Similar to Pink but with very limited variation(s) within the text.

  • Yellow
    More variation in sentence structures, introduction of some literary conventions. Storylines likely to include more episodes.

  • Blue
    Longer texts, up to 6-8 lines per page. Higher level of variation within text. Literary language mixed with natural language. Pictures support storyline – less support for precise meaning.

  • Green
    Longer, more varied sentences. Little repetition in text, but unfamiliar words repeated. Print may be in captions, fact boxes, etc. Events sustained over several pages.

  • Orange
    Stories up to 250-300 words, with more space for print than illustrations. More complex sentence structures, more literary language. Broader range of texts (plays, poetry, etc.).

  • Turquoise
    More extended descriptions, more use of literary phrasing. Non-fiction texts use more challenging vocabulary. Lower dependence on illustrations.

  • Purple
    Longer, more complex sentence structures. Some books with short chapters. Wider variety of genres. Characters becoming more rounded and distinctive. Non-fiction texts cover an increasing curriculum range. May include glossaries, indexes, etc.

  • Gold
    More challenging again. Storylines may reflect the feelings of the writer. Widening vocabulary, but still a controlled proportion of unknown words.

  • White
    Another step up. More subordinate phrases or clauses. More than one point of view may be expressed in the text and action might be implied rather than spelled out.

  • Lime
    The highest level in the original bands.

Are all books in a Band at the same level of ‘difficulty’?

No. A good reading scheme will offer books that start at the bottom of a band, with progression through that band up to the ‘hardest’ books in that band. Once children are secure with those books, they can then move on to the lowest books in the next band.

Thus children are always being challenged, but are never faced with anything that is too difficult for them.

Can you use word count to decide which Band a book belongs in?

For book-banded readers for guided reading, it is usual to state the number of words used in a text at the end of the book. This is very useful to help teachers who are working with children.

But can you use the word count to decide which Band a book belongs in? In other words, is a book of (say) 50 words a Pink Band, but a book of say 400 words a White Band?

The answer is most definitely ‘no’: you cannot use the word count to band a book. For example, some texts may be relatively short, but more difficult vocabulary and more complex sentence structures might place the book in a higher band. Similarly, some texts (especially fiction texts with a lot of repetition) might have a high word count but have simple, repetitive texts, putting it into a lower band.

The amount to be read is a very poor indicator of how difficult a read it is.

What is Lilac Band?

The lowest band in the original schema was Pink Band. As a result of demand from schools, some publishers now produce books for Lilac Band, which is a Band below Pink.

Lilac Band books are usually books without words. The books tell a story only through pictures. The books are designed to develop the child’s understanding about how stories work, without any reading of text getting in the way.

Are there Book Bands higher than Lime?

Many schools use the Book Bands system to ensure that each child is reading books at the appropriate level for him or her. The highest Band in the original schema was Lime Band. Some schools found that some of their students had reached the top of Lime Band, but still needed to be offered levelled texts, rather than having free range in the library to choose anything they wanted to read (sometimes called ‘free readers’).

So there was a demand for Book Bands higher than Lime – and publishers responded. Unfortunately the response was not uniform across all publishers, and two sets of colour bands have emerged.

Many publishers use the following bands after Lime: Brown, Grey, Dark Blue and Dark Red. These colour bands are used (for example) by Pearson Bug Club, Oxford Reading Tree, Rigby Navigator and Ransom.

Other publishers have adopted different colours above Lime. Collins Big Cat, for example, uses Copper, Topaz, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire, Diamond and Pearl.

Do Book Bands work with books for reluctant and struggling readers?

The Book Bands system is a powerful and largely successful way of teaching children to read and developing their literacy skills. Because it teaches the range of skills we use in ‘reading’ a book (the five criteria listed above), it is also valuable in teaching older, struggling and/or reluctant readers.

However there are a number of caveats to bear in mind.

  1. Reluctant readers are reluctant to read and struggling readers struggle. Therefore books with lots of text in them are, in themselves, possibly enough to turn readers off. For younger children, provided that the texts are at the right level, being faced with a lot of text is rarely in itself an issue.

  2. Reluctant and struggling readers usually have a higher interest age and a lower reading age. A twelve-year-old with a reading age of seven will not be best served by reading a book designed for a seven-year-old. Finding age-appropriate, properly levelled book-banded readers for older readers may therefore be a problem. (Ransom produces two series designed for this very need: Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars.)

  3. At the lower Bands (e.g. Pink and Red) the focus is very much on simple texts that use natural language and relate to the child’s immediate experiences. For a five-year-old child this works very well. The illustrations at this level usually directly illustrate the text as well, giving the reader vital help and giving them confidence.

    This approach risks running into problems with older readers, who are no longer five and are a bit more worldly wise. They may feel patronised by simple, highly repetitive natural language texts, especially when accompanied by simple illustrations. Teenagers are generally visually much more literate than five-year-olds, for example, no matter what their literacy skills.

    Care must be taken therefore in using book-banded readers with older children, teenagers or adults. The system can work very well, but selecting inappropriate books can have an adverse effect!