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Brought to book by a well-read hippo;Reviews;General

Gerald Haigh visits two schools that are building new foundations for reading

It may still be in "special measures" following an OFSTED inspection in autumn 1996, but there is a new mood of optimism at St Oswald's RC primary in Accrington, Lancashire. By this summer it hopes to come off the special measures list, and if that happens,it will be thanks in part to a new reading scheme.

Headteacher Felicity Watson and deputy head Monica Rushton were looking for a complete break with the past. "The children had no expectation of enjoyment," says Mrs Rushton. "They expected they would have to struggle through an obstacle course. We had to have a fresh start." Colleagues needed little convincing, says Mrs Watson. "They were hungry for something new."

After research, the teachers settled on Folens' Foundations for Reading. The central concept here is guided reading through a wide range of enjoyable and carefully graded books and activities. The aim is that the teacher can always find something at the child's level and an insight into what he or she needs next. The key word, to which both teachers frequently return, is "control". "The whole approach," says Felicity Watson, "allows teachers to be back in control and to focus on reading behaviour."

This may seem dull, especially to anyone who grew up suspicious of graded reading schemes, but a visit to the KS1 classes at St Oswald's during their reading hour allays such fears. You cannot find a single child who is not engrossed. They are evidently enjoying the work, whether it be listening to the teacher, doing pencil and paper tasks, or reading the scheme's many short story books.

One focus for enjoyment is the way lively characters such as the Mr Bumbleticker and Mother Hippopotamus are used in a sparing way that always guarantees them a warm welcome when they reappear at various levels. Year 1 teacher Sister Jacinta has seen numerous approaches to the teaching of reading in her time. She says: "This one gives them enthusiasm. The graded reading is good and the 'big books' in particular broaden their experience."

That Foundations for Reading works across a range of contexts is borne out by the experience of another Lancashire school, St James's C of E primary in a pleasant suburb of Leyland. "The texts don't talk down to the children," says head Jen Farrington. "They enjoy the short books because they are continually succeeding with them."

The teachers at St James's also like the support provided by the teacher handbooks. Nikki James, a newly-qualified teacher, feels it is "good to have clear guidelines and ideas", and Patricia Frodsham, an experienced colleague, believes the handbooks can help any teacher. "In some schemes you feel the handbooks tell you nothing you did not know already. This scheme is coming up with new ideas for everyone."

Plus points:

* Use of short books (but see the reservation from St James's below) * Variety and range of lively reading books, with over 200 titles in all * Lots of other material, includ- ing writing books, posters, big books with small versions, photocopiable homework, reinforcement activities and word books * Good teacher guidance and provision for record-keeping lFine and accurate grading with 17 levels across three bands: emergent, early and experienced * Cross referencing of topics across levels * Strong links from reading to writing. Mrs Frodsham's pupils "are starting to use words from the books in their own writing" * A teacher working with three groups in class can focus on one group at a time, letting the others work more independently * Even over one term, attitudes to reading and performance show improvement Minus points:

* Although the scheme is no more expensive than others, both schools feel it has to be bought in with a "big bang" across key stage 1 rather than introduced gradually. Phasing in would be difficult because there will be a need to make ability groups which cross year grouping. The schools believe you can't skimp materials. At St James's the initital cost was over pound;3,000.

* St James's teachers, with some very able readers taking books home, felt they, and the parents, wanted some longer collections of stories or short novels.

* Sylvia Lee, reception teacher at St James's, wants "more material to support pre-read ers, such as books which have the pictures without words".

Evaluation Packs: The best introduction to the scheme is to buy the appropriate evaluation pack of sample materials: Letters and Sounds Evaluation Pack pound;129; Emergent Band Evaluation PackEarly Band Evaluation Pack pound;199 each; Experienced Band Evaluation Pack ,pound;149. Each represents a saving of up to pound;100 on the same materials bought separately. Folens, Albert House, Apex Business Centre, Boscombe Road, DunstableLU5 4RL. Tel: 01582 472788

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