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Don’t judge a book by its colour (band)

By: Julie King, Reading Support Teacher, UK

Having taught in primary schools for over 20 years, Julie King has seen her fair share of early reading approaches and an equal share of changes in assessment methods. Based on these experiences, Julie has become a strong advocate for leaving colour bands behind after the current purple or gold bands, when a child is a transitional reader who is able to blend sounds and word parts to read simple words.

In their place, she is successfully using a ZPD (zone of proximal development) technique that gives children access to a range of books and ultimately supports their natural progression in vocabulary and comprehension. Here she shares some practical primary tips on how to manage this approach, including ideas on how to create a positive reading culture.

Colour bands and reading schemes have been the mainstay of the primary classroom, but after our school made the transition to Renaissance Accelerated Reader, it became apparent that the race through the ‘colour pigeon-holes’ ceased as children had access to a range of books (and genres) which were within their own development range. This increased choice, along with ‘read a book, take the quiz’ created a much more positive reading culture and children look forward to starting quizzing on Accelerated Reader.

The beauty of moving to Accelerated Reader was that we could confidently use ‘real books’ alongside our reading scheme, but still use all the reading scheme books we’d bought over the years. Instead of using the colour bands, we labelled the books using the Accelerated Reader book levels (and were surprised by the differences between the two). Unlike the colour band method, which uses the complexity of sample text to determine the reading level, Accelerated Reader examines both vocabulary and sentence complexity of the whole book – making it a much more effective way of supporting reading comprehension and progression. However, having access to the Accelerated Reader programme is only one part of the story. Our success was greatly underpinned by rethinking the way we managed books in the school.


As part of the implementation, we made the decision to change from books being stored by year group and colour labels. Instead, we pooled the majority of our book resources into a centralised ‘library’ where children of all ages are welcome to choose from the books (providing they are within their ZPD). In doing so, we realised we could give the children far greater choice of reading material without having to find additional budget. The content of some books, are pooled in Year 6, ensuring renewed interest in new titles not seen previously.

I appreciate that every school is different and faces varying challenges. To share some pertinent points from our experience, here are some ideas for schools who want to encourage reading for pleasure.

  • Use your book stock wisely – try not to pigeon hole books according to ‘reading age’. Make books freely available where age appropriate throughout the school.
  • The power of the picture book – with Accelerated Reader, picture books are not the reserve of ‘free readers’, instead they can form part of core reading progression and development (literally hundreds of picture books have quizzes available).
  • A combined approach – provide access to schematic books as well as alternative reading material. As well as increased choice, this approach provides the structure that is important for early readers.
  • Reading is not just sounding out words – using Accelerated Reader allows you to track children’s comprehension and vocabulary understanding. More importantly, the programme facilitates greater choice and flexibility which ultimately leads to children enjoying reading more.