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Hale and Pace come clean?;Television

RAT-A-TAT-TAT: Orange Unit. Channel 4 Schools. Video pound;9.99. Teacher's guide pound;3.95. CD-Rom pound;29.99. Photocopiable Activity Book pound;4.95. Phonic and letter formation book pound;4.95.

Never. It's the return of 'Rat-a-tat-tat', a seriesthat puts fun into literacy, says Gerald Haigh

A man in cowboy clothes, wearing an unfeasibly large stetson sits backwards on a horse which is wearing "L" plates. He sings,"I'm learning to be a cowboy, singing my cowboy song. My book says for that, what I need is a hat - Oh no! I think I got it wrong. Yippeeky aye! Yippeekye yee! A proper wild west cowboy is what I aim to be." For a moment, you think you have stumbled on an unusually sanitary episode of Hale and Pace.

The best thing about the well established Rat-a-tat-tat is the way it understands that what its audience of four to six-year-olds want and need, above all, is unadulterated fun. It has moments of sublime ludicrousness that will have Reception children clutching each other with delight.

There is, of course, a serious purpose - this is the land of the literacy hour after all - and this series works by basing each programme on a children's book. The presenter, Aidan Cook, introduces the book near the start, holds it up for us to see, and the story is then told in animated form.

Follow-up sequences include what the support material calls a "grapho-phonic animation" - a series of words with related sounds, such as "lip, hill, pig" appear, come to life on the screen. There are also songs and poems, and a second book is often featured.

There are seven books in this term's five programmes, all of them new. The cowboy episode uses Sing, Sophie! by Dayle Ann Dodds and Roseanne Litzinger. Others include Mrs Armitage and the Big Wave by Quentin Blake and Beans on Toast by Paul Dowling.

Rightly, some programmes are more quietly paced than, say Mrs Armitage, which is the craziest surfing story ever. Owl Babies, based on the book by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson, is a gentle, reassuring tale about three baby owls who become anxious when their mother goes away for a while. She returns to relieved cuddles all round. This programme also features sequences shot in an owl sanctuary.

The last programme, No Dinner! The Story of the Old Woman and the Pumpkin, is different in that it takes a book which is still being prepared for publication. The presenter introduces author and illustrator Jessica Souhami, and the story is set against her explanation of how she creates the book.

Aidan Cook, is just right for this series - a mature man of reassuring manner, capable of both talking quietly about owls and singing a mad song while riding a surfboard.

There is a CD-Rom which, though not directly related to the programmes, uses a matching graphic style. It picks up on many of the phonic activities in the series, using the medium's ability to allow the child to choose and change the ideas which are on offer.

There are 17 letter and word games, at various levels of ability. Importantly, it permits the child to record his or her own sounds. It is extremely easy to load, and to navigate around, and, provided that the classroom computer has a microphone, it will provide valuable reinforcement and added interest.

The notes and additional teaching material for both the CD and the programmes are extensive, and include, for example, the words and music of all the songs. The programme teacher's guide, particularly, is carefully written with an eye to the structure of the literacy hour.

Channel 4 Schools, PO Box 100,Warwick CV34 6TZ. Tel: 01926 436444

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