Reading Stars for Older Reluctant and Struggling Readers


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PHONICS
BOOK-BANDED READERS

Are “high-low” books enough to improve struggling readers' literacy?

Most high interest age, low reading age books for older, struggling readers are designed to re-engage the readers with books and with reading. The books are designed with high interest age appeal and a low reading age. The texts are usually short and punchy, with short, simple sentence constructions and lots of illustrations & pictures to hold their interest.

These kinds of books are excellent for getting strugglers reading, but they do not as a rule help develop the strugglers' literacy skills. More specifically, the books do not teach them – or help them learn – how to read.

To get older reluctant and struggling readers really reading, they need more than just accessible reading books. They need a structured programme that teaches them how to read.


What does a structured reading programme teach? What do struggling readers need to learn in order to read properly?

Being a real reader – rather than somebody who can struggle through a short sentence on a page – means knowing how to do the following. To start with, it means:

  • knowing the phonemes (the letter sounds) in English
  • knowing the graphemes (the written letters)
  • knowing the correspondences between the graphemes and the phonemes (e.g. knowing that the /a/ sound in ‘apple’ is represented by the letter ‘a’)
  • knowing the more complex graphemes (e.g. the digraphs ‘ai’, ‘sh’, etc.)
  • learning how to build simple CVC and CCVCC words from these letters and sounds
  • learning how to blend letters and sounds (to read and sound out more complex words such as ‘shrink’)
  • becoming familiar with different ways of representing graphemes and phonemes (e.g. the sound /ay/ as in ‘maid’, ‘made’, ‘hay’, etc.)

All of the above is usually taught using a structured synthetic phonics reading programme, backed up by carefully levelled, fully decodable phonics-based reading books.

You can find out more about synthetic phonics elsewhere on this site.


Becoming real readers

This is a very good foundation for reading. but in itself it is not enough. Real readers need to develop, learn and practice reading strategies that go beyond the simple words on the page. This includes:

  • learning how to “read” a book – covers, blurbs, illustrations
  • becoming familiar with the ways in which text works in a book
  • learning the relationships between text and illustrations, and how they support each other
  • learning to use contents pages, glossaries, indexes, captions and footnotes
  • bringing their knowledge of the real world to reading, to help them understand a text
  • comprehension – building mental pictures, understanding context, using inference, etc.
  • moving from simple, natural language texts to more literary forms of language, including more complex sentence structures
  • developing strategies for dealing with unfamiliar words that they have not met before.

This is usually taught by introducing readers to simple, low-level books and then, by mean of guided reading (in small groups), slowly building their reading skills using books that are very carefully levelled. These books are not levelled purely in terms of the difficulty of the words, but also in terms of:

  • controlled introduction of high frequency words and new vocabularly
  • repetition of language and sentence structures
  • building sight vocabulary
  • introduction of more complex text forms (contents, index, biblio, diagrams, captions, pullouts)
  • more sophisticated texts, with more character development, different perspectives, scenes spreading across many pages
  • increasing but controlled use of unfamiliar words
  • etc.

The most popular – and most successful – method of teaching these broader aspects of reading is using Book Bands for Guided Reading.

You can find out more about Book Bands for Guided Reading elsewhere on this site.


Why Reading Stars Plus? Why Neutron Stars?

Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars are two structured reading programmes that are designed to teach older reluctant and struggling readers to read.

They are the only reading schemes available that are designed for older readers and that combine structured synthetic phonics with Book Bands for guided reading to help struggling older readers become real readers.


What interest age is Reading Stars Plus for?

Reading Stars Plus is designed for reluctant and struggling readers with an interest age of 9 - 13 years (i.e. for children who have slipped behind or who are just late starters). The books have an older interest appeal – but they are carefully written and levelled to support strugglers, using both phonics-based and book-banded approaches.


What interest age is Neutron Stars for?

Neutron Stars is designed for reluctant and struggling readers with an interest age of 13 years through to adult. The books have an older interest appeal, with content more appropriate to teenagers/young adults/adults. But again they are carefully written and levelled to support strugglers, both using phonics-based and book-banded approaches.


PHONICS

How do Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars support phonics-based reading?

Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars each offer books at four levels of synthetic phonics, following the UK Government’s ‘Letters & Sounds’ programme (Phases 2 - 5). The Letters and Sounds programme has the advantage of being free to download (most other programmes must be purchased, and some are quite expensive). It is also well designed, and the approach taken in Letters and Sounds means that it can easily be adapted to work alongside other synthetic phonics programmes.

There are four levels of phonics readers in Reading Stars Plus and in Neutron Stars, (called Phonics 1 to Phonics 4). These cover the four phases of Letters and Sounds – Phases 2 to 5. These are the core phonics phases that children would ordinarily cover in Year One. (Teaching in primary schools using a structured synthetic phonics programme is now obligatory in all schools in England and Wales.)

You can download a copy of Letters and Sounds here. (NB it is a 214-page A4 document.)

Note that Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars are not in themselves phonics teaching programmes. Rather, they are structured, carefully levelled reading books to support the teaching of phonics.


‘Letters and Sounds’

Phonics Level 1 (Letters and Sounds Phase 2)

The Phonics 1 books in Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars cover all letters, sounds and high frequency (HF) words met in Phase 2 of Letters and Sounds.

The main focus at this level is on learning the first 19 letters/sounds, a few high frequency words (see below) and introducing consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) and vowel-consonant (VC) words.


Phonics Level 2 (Letters and Sounds Phase 3)

The Phonics 2 books in Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars cover all letters, sounds and high frequency words met in Phase 3 of Letters and Sounds.

The main focus at this level is on learning another 25 graphemes (many of them two-letter graphemes, such as ‘ch’ and ‘ar’) and developing children's blending skills. Further HF words are also taught.


Phonics Level 3 (Letters and Sounds Phase 4)

The Phonics 3 books in Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars cover all letters, sounds and high frequency words met in Phase 4 of Letters and Sounds.

The main focus at this level is on blending, focusing on words containing adjacent consonants and polysyllabic words. Further HF words are also taught.


Phonics Level 4 (Letters and Sounds Phase 5)

The Phonics 4 books in Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars cover all letters, sounds and high frequency words met in Phase 5 of Letters and Sounds.

New graphemes and alternative pronunciations for graphemes are introduced at this level.


Are there any tricky words in the Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars phonics reading books?

In some reading programmes, phonics texts are provided that include words that are ‘out of level’; these are words that are not decodable at the phonics level of the text and are not within the list of applicable high frequency words either. This is usually done in order to create stronger, more readable stories/texts.

Of course students will have difficulty reading these words, since they will feature letters/sounds that they have not yet (by definition) met. These out of level words are usually introduced first, at the beginning of the book, before the child begins reading.

The Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars phonics readers do not introduce any out of level words. All words met in a Reading Stars Plus/Neutron Stars phonics reader for a particular level are either fully decodable at that level, or are from the list of high frequency words to be learned at that level.

In other words, readers will meet no unfamiliar words. This is the perfect way to develop reading confidence.


In which order should I read the Reading Stars Plus phonics titles?

You can see a complete list of Reading Stars Plus phonics titles currently available, by phonics level, on this page.

The lowest title at each level is shown first, with the titles listed in increasing order of difficulty, moving gradually up to the highest title at that level.


In which order should I read the Neutron Stars phonics titles?

You can see a complete list of Neutron Stars phonics titles currently available, by phonics level, on this page.

The lowest title at each level is shown first, with the titles listed in increasing order of difficulty, moving gradually up to the highest title at that level.


Do Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars cover all Phases in Letters and Sounds?

The Letters and Sounds programme includes six levels, or ‘Phases’. The first phase, Phase One, focuses on oral and aural skills (e.g. listening walks, etc.) and does not require children to engage with written texts.

Phases Two to Five, as described above, cover the core learning in synthetic phonics. These phases are all covered by Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars. The Reading Stars levels match to the Letters and Sounds phases as follows:

Letters and Sounds
Phase
Reading Stars
Phonics Level
   
Phase 1 -
Phase 2 Level 1
Phase 3 Level 2
Phase 4 Level 3
Phase 5 Level 4
Phase 6 -

Phase 6 of Letters and Sounds is at quite a high level, and focuses very much on developing children’s broader reading skills. There is less structure at this level and the need for phonics readers to support Phase 6 is not so great. By this stage it is expected that children will have moved on to a broader Book-banded programme.


We don’t use Letters and Sounds. Can we still use the Reading Stars Plus/Neutron Stars phonics books?

Yes, absolutely.

There is a range of structured phonics programmes available on the market. Most need to be purchased (although Letters and Sounds, as well as having the benefit of having been developed by the UK government, is free to download).

From the point of view of learning outcomes (i.e. what the children learn, rather than how they learn it), there are only relatively minor differences between the various programmes – usually in the order in which various letters and sounds are taught. As long as the students/children have met and learned the letters/sounds at a particular level, they will be able to read the Reading Stars Plus/Neutron Stars books.


Some of the phonics texts look to be too simple

If some of the lower level phonics readers are too simple, then of course it’s fine to start at a higher level. But do ensure that students are secure with all graphemes, phonemes and high frequency words covered at each level before moving on.

Remember that the phonics books are not designed to teach phonics – rather, they are designed to give students the opportunity to use their phonics knowledge in the real-world setting of reading a fully-decodable book.


Are there shortcomings to teaching reading using a phonics-based programme?

Synthetic phonics is very useful for getting readers off the starting blocks and giving them a solid foundation to work from in developing their reading, but phonics does have limitations. In particular:

  • phonics in itself does little to promote or develop the reader’s comprehension skills; the emphasis is on reading the words accurately (sometimes pejoratively called ‘barking at text’)
  • phonics reading books often lack informal, natural language texts (especially using common/high frequency words beyond the limited number of high frequency words taught within the synthetic phonics programmes)
  • phonics does not address any of the wider reading issues described above.

BOOK-BANDED READERS

How do Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars teach the broader aspects of reading?

Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars both use the most popular – and most successful – method of teaching real reading: using Book Bands for Guided Reading.


What are Book Bands?

The Book Bands system ensures that children learning to read are provided with suitable readers to develop their literacy skills. But Book Bands is much more than just a way of levelling books – it covers an entire reading pedagogy. It is a powerful method for teaching children to read.

You can find out more about Book Bands for Guided Reading elsewhere on this site.


Reading Stars Plus, Neutron Stars and Book Bands

Book-banded titles form the core of the Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars reading programmes. Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars both begin with four levels of synthetic phonics-based readers (based around the UK Government’s ‘Letters and Sounds' programme), followed by books in six Book Bands, Pink through to Orange. These are the levels where we have found that, for older struggling readers, the need is greatest.

At the time of writing, 18 book-banded Reading Stars Plus books and a further 18 book-banded Neutron Stars books are available in these six bands; three titles are available in each Band for each programme.

Further titles for these Bands and for other Bands (i.e. Lilac, Turquoise to Dark Red) are currently in development.


Which books are available at each band in Reading Stars Plus? Which order should we read the books in?

For Reading Stars Plus, three reading books are currently available at each Book Band (Bands Pink through to Orange).

You can see a complete list of book-banded titles currently available, by Book Band, on this page. The lowest title in each Band is shown first, with the titles listed in increasing order of difficulty, moving gradually up to the highest title in that Band.


Which books are available at each band in Neutron Stars? Which order should we read the books in?

For Neutron Stars, three reading books are currently available at each Book Band (Bands Pink through to Orange).

You can see a complete list of book-banded titles currently available, by Book Band, on this page. The lowest title in each Band is shown first, with the titles listed in increasing order of difficulty, moving gradually up to the highest title in that Band.


Will more books be available at each band?

Yes. For both Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars we are developing further titles for the Bands Pink to Orange, as well as for other Bands where titles are not currently available (i.e. Lilac Band and the higher Bands Turquoise through to Dark Red).


We are currently using a different reading programme. Can we use Reading Stars Plus and/or Neutron Stars books as well?

Yes, absolutely. The Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars programmes can be used as a core set of readers to support guided reading, but they can also sit alongside other reading programmes, being used to freshen up existing books and add a little extra interest.


How do I use the book-banded titles with the Reading Stars Plus/Neutron Stars phonics books?

Currently it is a requirement that all primary schools in English and Wales teach children phonics using a structured, synthetic phonics programme. You can find out more about synthetic phonics elsewhere on this site.

Synthetic phonics-based teaching is invaluable as it gives most children a secure footing in understanding how many of the words in English are built up. This can help enormously with developing their literacy skills.

However, in itself, synthetic phonics will not turn children into real readers. Reading properly requires developing a range of skills that go beyond the simple decoding of written texts. It is Book Bands for guided reading that really give children the opportunity to develop this broader range of reading skills.


Our approach

The approach we have taken in Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars is to offer four levels of readers based around sythentic phonics. These are levels P1 (covering Letters and Sounds Phase 2) up to P4 (covering Letters and Sounds Phase 5). These four levels are dedicated phonics readers, where all words are fully decodable within Letters and Sounds and the primary focus is on decoding the text. Separately, there are 18 reading books in each programme which have all been book-banded for guided reading. These books support the Book Bands Pink to Orange.

The phonics readers and the Book-Banded readers are best regarded as discrete components in the overall reading programme.

The lower level phonics readers (especially the lowest two levels, supporting Letters and Sounds Phases 2 and 3) are very simple, low level texts, sometimes using convoluted sentence structures (to meet the requirement of full decodability). These offer children good practice in decoding a ‘real’ book.

But the higher level phonics texts often use quite complex language (as long as it is fully decodable, of course). This can have odd results, as some words that are very commonly used in English cannot be used, as they are not decodable, but more unusual words which are decodable can be used.

For example, at one phonics level the sentence “They need to keep their wits about them” can’t be said, but “They need to maintain sharp wits” is decodable and therefore acceptable. The latter is verbose and awkward, but since it’s decodable, it can be said. This can result in quite unnatural-sounding phonics texts at the higher levels, too.

To contrast, book-banded readers in the lower Bands (especially Pink and Red Bands) focus on natural language that students will easily relate to (e.g. “I will score lots of goals.”).

The recommendation is that once children have been taught the structured phonics they need to learn, they are introduced to low level book-banded readers, in a guided reading context, where they can begin to develop the broader skills they will need to become real readers (e.g. understanding context, using visual cues, comprehension, etc.).


Some of the book-banded titles look to be too simple.

If some of the lower Banded titles are too simple, of course it’s fine to start at a higher level. But it is always worth making sure that the students are secure with the vocabulary and sentence structures used at the lower levels, and that other useful lessons (e.g. predicting texts, the use of repetition, comprehension, relationships between image and text, etc.) have been absorbed before moving directly to higher bands.


Will books be available for Lilac band?

Yes. We are currently developing a range of titles for Lilac Band. Contact us with your details and we will let you know as soon as they are available.


Will books be available at higher bands? Which band colours will Ransom be using?

At the moment Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars titles are only available up to Orange Band. This is still a relatively new reading programme, and at the moment we are busy developing titles for bands above Orange.

Forthcoming titles higher than Lime will be banded according to the following Bands: Brown, Grey, Dark Blue and Dark Red. (Incidentally these colour bands are also used by Pearson Bug Club, Oxford Reading Tree and Rigby Navigator.)


I don’t know the Brown to Dark Red bands. We use different colours. Can you help?

Unfortunately the Book Bands for Guided Reading documentation only provides for bands up to and including Lime. In producing books above Lime Band, different publishers have taken different approaches. Many publishers use Brown to Dark Red, but some have adopted different colours/banding.


How do Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars support older struggling readers?

Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars are design to appeal to older readers. This is achieved by:

  • the choices of fonts used. Both Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars use very simple Sassoon fonts to begin with, then moves on to more age-appropriate fonts. For the lowest level books all words are double spaced, giving good separation between words. Font sizes reduce as readers become more confident and move up through the levels/bands.
  • Illustrations and photographs used are more appropriate to appeal to the older interest ages. They also include more detail and content, reflecting the increased visual literacy of older students.
  • The books are on topics that will appeal to older readers.
  • Topics that might also appeal to younger readers are dealt with in a different way in Reading Stars Plus and Neutron Stars, ensuring that the appeal is to older readers.

There aren’t enough “reluctant reader-style” simple reads in Reading Stars Plus or Neutron Stars.

It is true that as students move up through the bands, they will meet longer texts with more complex, more literary sentence structures. If they have only been looking at low level reluctant reading books, students may not be familiar with these kinds of texts.

However, learning how to read such texts is an essential part of becoming a more rounded, real reader. We have moved beyond “just getting them reading” to helping them become real readers.


Is there any inappropriate content in Reading Stars Plus or Neutron Stars?

We have been very careful to ensure that the content of the Reading Stars Plus books is appropriate (in our view) for a 9 to 13-year-old reader.

The Neutron Stars titles have no upper limit on the interest age, and these titles do occasionally feature some more adult content, but we consider that all titles are perfectly acceptable for ages 13 and above.


Can we use Reading Stars Plus/NeutronStars alongside other high-low reading books?

Yes, of course. Two things to say here. First, reading is reading is reading, and that is a good thing. It is hard to think of any reading that in itself is a “bad thing”. But also, don’t forget the longer-term goal. ‘Just reading’ is fine, but developing real literacy skills won’t happen overnight, and it takes as much effort on the part of the teacher as the student.


There are only three books at each phonics level/in each Book Band. Are more books coming?

Yes, we are currently developing more titles at each Band, as well as developing further titles for Lilac Band and Brown to Dark Red.