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Branching out again

OXFORD READING TREE: RHYME AND ANALOGY Age group: 57Alphabet frieze Pounds 9.50, Tabletop alphabet pack Pounds 6, Card games Pounds 34, plus VAT

An alphabet frieze and card games have now been grafted on to the Reading Tree. John Bald reviews their effectiveness

It may seem unusual for a leading reading scheme to introduce something as basic as an alphabet frieze 10 years after its launch, but the Reading Tree has always taken an eclectic view which enables the publishers to insert new strands of development as the need arises.

These materials are edited by Dr Usha Goswami, who won the Spearman Medal of the British Psychological Society last year for her work on children's awareness of patterns in sound, and her central argument, that learning to read can be seen in terms of a developing ability to draw analogies, is the basis of this new branch.

It is hard to see anything remarkable in the frieze and tabletop pack. The frieze has brightly-drawn pictures of the Reading Tree characters, presenting the most common sound for each letter and four simple two-letter combinations (ch, sh, wh and th), and the tabletop pack contains the same information on four laminated place-mats, which are perhaps a touch less sturdy than the publishers claim.

The letters are presented in capitals and lower case, mostly with exit strokes to aid joining, and my only objection is to the letter f, which is extended below the line in the style of Marion Richardson. This extension enhances the writing of children who are naturally neat, but causes needless trouble to the clumsy, and persists in the system largely through force of habit and because most primary teachers themselves have neat handwriting.

The card games are more ambitious. The research basis is quickly and clearly explained, and then two sets of 120 cards are used to introduce initial letter sounds, teach pupils to discriminate between them and match letters to the sounds. The first pack contains four different pictures illustrating each sound; the second, four of each letter and of the combinations from the frieze.

The early games focus on a limited range of sounds using simple structures such as snap, rummy, odd one out and donkey (in which players collect sets of words by passing cards on). They are attractively presented, have useful twists, such as time limits, and can be made more difficult, focusing, for example, on the differences between sounds such as b, p and d, where the letters are visually similar.

Combining the sound and letter cards with similar structures, as in "Sound and Letter Pelmanism", which requires letter and picture to be matched, helps establish or reinforce the connection between sounds and letters. The two remaining packs offer similar activities using the ends of words. Again, the examples are simple - pin, fin, bin, tin - and there are four words in each set, presented first in pictures and then in letters. The handbook lists 18 formats, but mixing and matching could easily generate a lot more games.

Published games must always compete with what can be achieved by a little ingenuity, a pack of blank playing cards and a set of plastic letters, perhaps reinforced with some ideas from the Reading Recovery handbook. This set, however, has the advantages of clear purpose and structure, professional presentation and good, workable formats.

Most of the games require children to work in groups of two to four, and it might be difficult for those who need this work most to use them independently. A short training session should, however, enable a teaching assistant or volunteer to make effective use of the games. Given this level of support, they could easily establish themselves as a valuable part of a reading programme.

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