'Gruffalo' author branches out into reading tree

Her 60-book phonics scheme could bridge gap to `real' books, reports Helen Ward

A reading scheme created by the author of The Gruffalo could help bridge the gap between learning phonics and reading `real' books.

Julia Donaldson, author of more than 140 books, is writing a series of 60 phonics books, the Songbirds series, which is being published by Oxford University Press as part of its Oxford Reading Tree scheme.

The books follow a strict brief. For example, the first book, Top Cat, only uses three vowels and six consonants.

Mrs Donaldson's decision will give a boost to supporters of the controversial teaching technique.

She said even in the simplest books she was keen to include a storyline which could lead to class discussions. One story is about Sue Kangaroo who takes glue from school. It not only practices -ue-oo, but also discusses first day nerves.

How children are taught to read has been a highly contentious issue. Sir Jim Rose, a former primary chief inspector, was asked to review early reading in 2005.

His report led to all primaries teaching synthetic phonics, a method which focuses on how letters and sounds are linked and blend together to make words.

Many experts have argued that phonics should be the only way that children are taught to read, arguing that the previous strategy of using a mix of methods can confuse learners if introduced too early.

But many others say that while phonic knowledge is essential, some children benefit from being able to use other methods. Michael Rosen, the children's laureate, has been outspoken against teaching reading only through phonics, describing it as "an outrageous fib".

Mrs Donaldson said when she was approached about writing for the Oxford Reading Tree three years ago, she was delighted. She is determined that writing educational stories should not be seen as a "ghetto".

"When they said they wanted to create a new phonic scheme my ears pricked up," she said. "I like things which are systematic and structured. I like that discipline. They asked if I would contribute, but I said no, I wanted to do the whole thing. They gulped.

"I wrote the first 36 books in the first half of the year, but the illustrations also had to be checked. The pictures would say `High Street' but the children hadn't done -igh yet, so we would change it."

She said the idea took root 20 years ago, when she helped out in her children's school and wrote short plays for pupils to read and then perform to their class.

At the time Mrs Donaldson was a songwriter, but the plays remained in her drawer and as her writing career took off, she got those plays back out and rewrote them as a resource for reading groups.

She said: "I never thought of writing for educational publishers as a ghetto area. Some people can turn up their noses a bit, thinking it doesn't count as proper writing, whereas I think it really does. I aim to write just as well."

Mrs Donaldson was on the stage at the Edinburgh books festival this summer, with a drama which included six of the phonics stories. The show is to be shown again at the Cheltenham book festival in October.

She said: "What I think is annoying is the way one thing is out and another in. From my own experience in teaching I am very aware that every child is different. Some learn one way and some another.

"I think it is really important to introduce children to real books and read stories to them. I do agree with phonics, but the danger is the books could be very stilted and unliterary and just put children off reading."

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