New supplementary early reader programme

Reading Gems is a supplementary early reading programme from QED Publishing with four levels, focusing on exciting stories, decodable text and discussion points to support comprehension. We asked teachers to tell us what they thought of the series.

Reading Gems is a supplementary early reading programme from publisher QED with four levels, focusing on exciting stories, decodable text and discussion points to support comprehension. We asked teachers to tell us what they thought of the series.

The four levels in the scheme include first steps in reading to developing readers and readers growing in confidence.

We asked teachers Lucy Newton, Nikki Stiles, Lizi Backhouse, Lauren Maidman and Lynnette Voisey to tell us what they thought of the new series of early readers and how their children had responded to the texts.

Q: What were your initial impressions of the early readers?

A: The early titles in series including Watch Out, Ned!, The Helpful Dragon and The Star and the Zoo and teachers' feedback and first impressions were positive. The books offer "bright colours, a range of characters including some children's favourites such as monsters and dinosaurs, and they are perfectly sized for little hands" said Nikki Stiles, a KS1 teacher.

The stories explore themes of families and familiar settings or scenarios that children have experience with, as well as some interest-specific stories like Moon Dog - "a firm favourite with our space mad year 1s".

While children can benefit from revisiting the same characters in each book in a series, Stiles said the children enjoyed the diverse story plots that the series offers. "Although we are aware of the benefits of key characters in helping build children's confidence in reading and accessing the text, it is refreshing for the children to experience new and exciting stories that they actually enjoy reading." She added that the length of the books - more than the usual half dozen pages per book of that level - meant that the children feel (whatever their ability) "that they're reading a book just like their peers".

Looking at the text in more detail, Reception teacher Lizi Backhouse felt the stories are interesting and well executed. "They don't suffer from sentences that appear un-natural in order to fit into a phonics phase." Proper punctuation with capital letters and fullstops ("Not all schemes for early readers have this") and speech bubbles, with proper 'blurbs', add to their appeal for the classroom.

Their design, with limited text on each page earlier on in the series, clear vocabulary and a list of sight words at the back of each book, help to make the books less intimidating, said Backhouse.

Q: The publisher has also introduced the Little Gems Phonics books to the series. How useful are these?

A: The Reading Gems Phonics books include Mr Whimple's Potion, and Pem's Little Brother. Each book features a specific sound, and their first page shows which sounds are a focus in that book. Each sound is given as an example in a word with a picture, too, which our teacher reviewers found very helpful.

What stood out for Nikki Stiles was the stories themselves. "They were actually enjoyable and funny! The phoneme specific sentences have skillfully been strung together to create a text you can actually get your teeth into and more importantly, discuss and delve deeper into for comprehension practise.

"I have often found whilst listening to children read these types of phonics books I am stuck in silence and unable to engage with the children in their reading. There is not enough complexity in the text for me to be able to form valuable questions to discuss and participate in with the children."

Newton also pointed to the useful extra activities at the back: "They are great to recap key skills - reading key words again, practising sounding out key sounds, introducing basic comprehension within the story, asking their opinion on the story.

There is also a focus on spelling, Newton added. "Children have to select the correct grapheme to complete the words. This is brilliant as the greater the focus on spelling right from the start, the greater their confidence with writing."

This stand-alone scheme of books could also be used to help and support struggling or low ability readers, said teacher Lauren Maidman. "I think having focused sounds and books containing that sound can be hugely beneficial at this stage."

The books would also be useful for reading at home with parents, said Newton. “There is a phonics glossary to build their understanding of related words as well as some helpful tips for reading with their children. This is excellent as many parents want to read with their children but don’t know how to question effectively, how to help them to build their fluency, and what some of the phonic related words mean.”

Q: What do you think about the levelling they give and how would you fit these books in to your own levelling scheme?

A: Newton said the levels are similar to the colour progression system used at their school and could be adjusted to match different school systems. For example, the Level 1 books correlate to the end of EYFS standard; Level 2 to the end of Year 1 expected standard; Level 3 to developing readers in Year 2; and Level 4 to the end of Year 2 standard.

At first glance, Stiles wondered if the texts would be a little too hard in comparison to the colour band schemes her school used. "This perception soon changed when we started listening to readers engage with the texts," she said. "You can tell that the author has skilfully pulled back the text for a younger reader." After testing out the books from level 1 to level 4, Stiles felt that they married up well with the Oxford Tree colour band scheme levelling although she added, "The Reading Gems scheme tends to focus more on the complexity of the sight words children are being exposed to reading rather than specific phoneme practise."

This was disappointing for Backhouse, whose school focuses on phonically regular texts when children are first learning to read. She said, "The Level One books aren't fully decodable to phase 3 sounds - there are some 'ay' words and split digraphs for example. We try to only use phonically regular texts that are fully decodable to within the phonics phase that the children are working at."

However, she added, "From Level 2 upwards this changes - the sentences become longer but keep the repetition that help fledgling readers become confident ones. At that level, a few more phase 5 sounds aren't as critical - we teach them as exceptions or as a discussion point for introducing more graphemes." She added, "I like that the amount of text increases with the level, but the stories are still interesting even for the lower levels."

Early Years specialist Lynnette Voisey felt that the books were best suited to children who have already begun their reading journey; so for the end of Reception and into Year 1 onward - and to reluctant readers.

Q: Are there particular abilities or age range you feel the books would work especially well for?

A: These books, especially as the levels develop, are good for technically sufficient readers who need to work on comprehension skills, said Backhouse. "The sentences are well constructed without being tedious - by which I mean they flow naturally and aren't in unnatural speech rhythms or using shortened words to make it decodable." She added, "I also think these books are a great starting point for children who love stories and who are starting to learn to read as they're interesting and engaging."

Voisey would choose to share the books with her higher level children who need to develop their comprehension skills.

Q: What do you think about the activities and questions at the end of the book - would children enjoy them, what skills do they help develop?

A: The back of the book includes pages of different comprehension activities, story words, and retelling prompts, which Stiles felt are "a great stimulus for conversation and help adults both in class and at home to build confidence and ideas in questioning the children about the text".

The activities include retelling the story using sequenced pictures, which Newton felt would be brilliant practise for children to understand what the they have read, and for using details from the story to explain what has happened. Another activity, matching simple sentences to the correct picture, is a great for early readers and could be developed into a game, she added, and including questions about the book was a brilliant lead into talking about the book, especially for parents who may not be confident with questioning children about what they have read and may be unsure of the kind of questions to ask.

The 'let's talk about the book' double page spread of questions worked well when tested out with the children, agreed Stiles. "The higher ability children were able to access these questions on their own and you could hear them confidently answering the questions to themselves out loud, enjoying the challenge they brought. For the lower ability readers these would be read to by an adult and the children enjoyed giving their answers to a good mix of questions, some open ended, that prompted the children to share their own experiences or ideas."

Backhouse felt these activities would be particularly valuable for parents who want to read with children at home, or for schools to send home as home-readers. "The stories aren't run of the mill 'early readers' they're mostly more meaty than that, and I think children would enjoy discussing the story in more details," she said, adding, "These are great for adults who aren't confident in developing reading skills in children, or perhaps parents who need more guidance as to how to engage their child with the text further."

Q: Would you recommend these books to other teachers and to families?

A: The books would be useful for guided reading sessions, says Newton, with prompts such as the sight words lists at the back of the book while the activities could be used as a focus for the group.

Backhouse felt the books would be particularly useful for reading at home, with decodable words and easy-to-follow, engaging stories. However it is the inclusion of activities and help for adults that makes them a perfect tool for building on reading skills that are taught at school, at home, she said. "I would recommend them to families; they're great as both a book to read to children, and for children to read to you."

For Stiles, the books would be a great addition to any library at home and at school since the series gives the adult so many points for conversation and helpful activities for those who want to further challenge their children. She added, "They have given our children a new enthusiasm for reading and the adults liked them too!"

New supplementary early reader programme
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