Meet Aled Apple. He is one of seven colourful characters helping infants learn to read and write through a new cross-curricular programme called Treehouse Tales.
One day, a cheerful poster depicting Aled's sitting-room was pinned up on the reception classroom wall at Two Waters Primary School in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. And on Aled's wall the children could observe a framed portrait of this engaging fruit as a baby - an apple blossom. This is one of the ways this multi-sensory resource links science and other national curriculum subjects with literacy.
Soft toys of the characters, such as Anna Banana, Matilda Tomato and Luigi Lemon, help to increase children's motivation, explains Treehouse Tales'
creator Delyth Owen, a former teacher based in Wales. And each one has science and personal development links.
She felt compelled to create the programme, which teaches through stories, by a firm belief in worksheet-free, child-centred learning, and she worked on it for six years. It's being supported by the Welsh Development Agency and, in her classes over six years, all the children reached level 2 in English at the end of Year 2, and about half attained level 3.
Colours are used to signal punctuation in an unambiguous way: green for the beginning of a sentence, yellow for a comma, and red for a full stop. Sally Spelling Snail crawls across the whiteboard as children follow the stories.
This concrete, three-dimensional approach, combined with vibrant pictures, engaging stories and distinctive characters "anchors children's learning", says Nanette Paine, former head of Two Waters, who introduced Treehouse Tales there, and now trains other heads and teachers in England in using the programme. "This is how you get to children," she says. "It's amazing how much they pick up looking at those vibrant pictures." Delyth Owen does training in Wales.
At Two Waters, teachers also find that Treehouse Tales works well with Edward de Bono thinking hats, where each coloured hat indicates a different type of thought. So, in Year 1, the children donned their imaginary white hats to highlight facts in an Aled poster on the wall: what's in it? A wheelbarrow with leaves; lots of trees; a rabbit; a robin and two gloves.
They put on their red hats to discuss feelings. "He could be excited because he's got a balloon," said a boy. Another child thought he might be planning a garden party. Then it was time for green hats: creative thinking. "Why do you think he's wearing his big, big boots?" asked teacher Sarah Lambert.
"Anything could happen," said one child.
"Because it might be muddy," said a more down-to-earth volunteer.
Later in the lesson, the introduction of Matilda Tomato led to a discussion on greenhouses and eventually to the children writing a story about Aled and Matilda.
A few of the girls were so enthusiastic that they also wrote stories and drew pictures about Aled at home also. However, the evidence is that boys do at least as well as girls.
Although the programme seems to spark children's enthusiasm and catch their love of stories, it is also structured, and assessment is built-in. The stories, says the Treehouse Tales website, "are seasonal - commencing in September through to May.
They negate the need to use worksheets or language exercises. The programme raises the profile of science as a core subject, as well as technology, art, history and geography, which are particularly important for boys."
It is intended to stretch the more able, but to suit children with special needs as well. Stories are also multi-cultural; for instance, Anna Banana is from the Caribbean.
Home-school links are provided. Parents can buy Treehouse Tales books, and a booklet on helping children's learning. A children's link enables them to download pictures of the characters. "Give your child ideas by questioning, for example, 'Where do you want the character to be?' 'Is heshe in the zoo or in the fair?' Does your child remember a particularly enjoyable day out?" the website suggests.
Materials are available for reception and Year 1, and Welsh second language medium-term plans have been developed for the final terms of Years 2, 3 and 4. The Year 2 package of illustrations, books, soft toys and science investigations will be ready in May, but the website gives examples of the writing of children who have already used them.
"One summer morning Aled Apple's teddy tickled his feet to wake him up,"
one boy wrote.
'Who tickled my feet?,' asked Aled Apple.
'It was me,' said teddy quietly..."
* The scheme costs pound;800 over two years, including training Email: firstname.lastname@example.org