Bernard Ashley looks at Pathways, the latest of the new reading schemes.
The first impression on opening the carton of Evaluation Packs for Collins Pathways is how contained learning to read appears - three glossy coloured boxes covering the infant years. Start here and you come out there - hey presto!
The selling point of a reading scheme is this sense of confidence, everyone feeling that progress is possible up the ladder of skills. Barrie Wade, Hilary Minns and Chris Lutrario have set up three stages matched in turn to NurseryReception, Year One and Year Two (junior stages to follow) with 12 "diagnostic" Signpost books running through all three levels - which are sets of Yellow books, Red books and Green books, accompanied by workbooks, Big Books and audio cassettes. Full teachers' notes, photocopiable resource masters and a CD-Rom (to come late next year) are available in support. A nod to the world of "real" children's books comes from the Landmark set, similar in reading demand and in subject relevance to each of the three scheme stages - books like Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins ("where children have to use context and picture cues to anticipate the outcome of every page").
The teacher notes at each stage are collections of good practice - from the initial "selling" of reading to parents through to later assessments. The notes detail useful information on parental involvement and they tie in with the national curriculum requirements, providing teaching points and cross-curricular links.
The diagnostic Signpost books focus on various aspects of being a reader, from matching sounds with written symbols to recognising and reading recurring words, Teachers' notes tell the plot line of each book, together with its assessment focus and some hints on how to work with it. They highlight specific teaching points to extend child strategies and they give action plans according to the child's success with the text.
The Signpost books lead into the main body of Pathways. Again, teachers' notes describe what each book offers, with teaching points on Speaking and Listening, Reading and Writing - all in all, strategies linked with the books for those who are unsure of where to go and what to do with children and their texts. A very useful toolbox, of particular value to the less experienced teacher.
So, what about the books? What will the children gain from the content within the framework - what skills, what interest, what joy in reading? There are many bonuses to the scheme, but the books must be the bones of it. They're a lot of fun, with some good laughs and varied illustration styles, which still manage to retain the purpose of the text. Some of the books are deliberately (if pitifully) short: nevertheless, in those few pages the society represented is multi-ethnic and very much of the 90s, a far cry from some schemes of old.
There are books without words - both traditional and new - books with a lot of word play, and, throughout, plenty of opportunity for children to find themselves and others in text and picture. In this scheme, at the seaside it actually rains. And the same ingredients run through to Stage Three - rhyme, rhythm, humour and colour, with variations on the way story gets told: although further up the scheme the books do start to look and feel rather thin, and many middle and top infants will be hungry for more extended stories. But the content continues in a rich vein. In the non-fiction photographic book Then and Now, a contents page and an index are introduced, and Soil adds a glossary. There are anthologies of poems, play texts, modern, funny stories and traditional tales retold from various cultures. Miss Blossom, illustrated by Valerie Petrone, has the teacher depicted with a deaf child's microphonetransmitter round her neck - without comment in the text; and Letters from Lucy by Moira Andrew is a particularly touching exchange between a girl and her grandfather in hospital.
These are bones with meat on them. But a re-think is needed over the samey, schemy covers, which don't grab in the way book covers should. This is a pity, because having just surveyed the children's stock in my local branch of W H Smith's (to which teachers and parents in a multi-ethnic area might turn for their excitingly jacketed "real" books), I found that out of 1,500 children's books on display, only seven titles reflected our multi-ethnic society. This is an appalling state of affairs. Of course, we must distinguish between publishers and quick turn-over booksellers, but a scheme like Pathways will at least be getting books into schools which recognise every child's need to be represented in fiction.