The Magic Belt series is the latest offering from the Phonicbooks stable. It is promoted as being a ‘catch-up’ series of twelve books for 8-14-year-olds ‘who would benefit from starting a phonics course from the beginning’.It covers the structures at word level from CVC, through CVCC and CCVC to CCVCC, as well as the consonant digraph spellings sh, ch, th, ck, ng, wh and le.
The series begins with Zak, a young boy whose grandpa, with whom he lives, is very ill. Zak sets off to find help. In so doing he encounters ‘The Man in the Mist’, the title of the first book, and thus begins a sequence of quests culminating in a battle with an evil wizard.
This is the classic triumph of good versus evil through the heroic exploits of a young protagonist. In every story a challenge is posed and overcome and what is so cleverly executed is that the exciting tales are told within the confines of the basic one-to-one sound to spelling correspondences and some consonant digraphs.
The series also makes a deliberate effort to introduce less frequently encountered vocabulary – I love the expression ‘smelt rank’ for ‘smelt horrid’ and words like ‘lush’, ‘talons’ and ‘pluck’, though there are many more. And, all of these words are glossed at the beginnings of the books for the teacher to mediate.
In addition, the author and editors of the series are clearly making a conscious effort to introduce a number of bound morphemes, such as -ed, and -ing endings. This development should provide teachers with an excellent opportunity to talk about sound/spelling correspondences and meaning simultaneously. I hope we see more of these in future series.
All of these books conform exactly to what the Tickell Report (2011) strongly advocated: they provide readers with practice at reading entirely decodable texts ‘so that they experience success and learn to rely on phonemic strategies’.Phonicbooks are managing to do what was previously thought impossible: combining decodable text with storylines likely to appeal to the reader.