Using elf : A Guide for Teachers

The elf scheme works by stage not age. Each beginning reader starts at the RED level and progresses through the seven rainbow colours to fluent literacy. At each level there are five story books and these can be read in any order, making the sharing of a limited number of books within a class or group more economical. There are no extra tests or assessments as, at each level, any single book which the learner has not yet seen comprises a comprehensive test of mastery of that level and all preceding levels. The “test” therefore need not be presented as such, as it consists in simply reading aloud from a book. This can be arranged discreetly as a prerequisite for progress to the next colour level.

Unlike many schemes, elf does not require learners to master all the combinations of phonemes and graphemes before proceeding to real story books at the RED level. Nor is it necessary to insist that learners are familiar with both upper and lower case letters before starting to read. Some teachers prefer to begin with upper case letters as the mirror reversals involved with b/d (and with p/q in some fonts) need not trouble learners of upper case letters; also capitals are much easier for inexperienced hands to form with a pencil or construct with blocks or cut paper. Others prefer to start with lower case letters as these are now more ubiquitous on street signs and advertising hoardings. The books in levels RED, ORANGE and YELLOW are printed back to back so that, held one way, they are entirely printed in capitals with black and white illustrations suitable for photocopying for colouring in. Turn the book over and start the other way and it is entirely in lower case print with full colour illustrations. At the YELLOW level the idea of lower and upper case fonts is made explicit within the stories, and from the GREEN level forward both cases are used as in normal adult text.

Books at the RED level include long as well as short words but are based entirely on vocabulary which can be decoded with only the following basic reading readiness knowledge:

  • recognition of only 22 letters in either upper or lower case ( excluding q,x,y and z)
  • sounding out these letters only as short vowels and hard consonants
  • starting at the left side of each word and sounding each letter, blending sounds smoothly to pronounce the whole word.

From the ORANGE level forward combinations and positional variations are introduced stage by stage within the stories. Each new sound ( eg, “oo “, “ing” “th” ) appears in red print within its word. Small words, sometimes called “seed words” which keep their sound and spelling within larger words ( eg “and” ) appear in green print in the longer words, this technique becomes most useful at the higher levels with words like “age”, “old” etc which are not accessible at the RED level. At the ORANGE level crucial short irregular words ( eg “the”, “you”, “a” ) are brought in. At the YELLOW level the missing letters (Q,X,Y,Z) appear, and from the GREEN level forward the print size becomes smaller, capital and lower case fonts are used together ( so the books are no longer back to back) , the stories are longer and, though all the illustrations are now coloured, the ratio of text to pictures is greatly increased. The principles behind the staging of the vocabulary and the format of the books is summarised in the MATRIX, and the words available at each level are defined in the Level Vocabularies, but it is not necessary for teachers or other reading helpers to consult this material as the structure of the levels and the coloured print within them is self evident within the story books themselves. Optional supporting materials, a forum for teacher discussion and a validation scheme for authors and publishers wishing to add to the story library will be downloadable from the English Literacy Foundation website from July 2009.

Learning readers should be allowed to progress through the stages at their own pace. Having read four books at any level - and demonstrated mastery of principles to that level by reading aloud from a fifth book - the learner should be provided with a first title at the next level. Full literacy will generally be achieved within a period of two months to two years.

red orange yellow green blue indigo violet

© copyright Julienne Ford for ELF 2007