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It's that cat on the mat again

STAR TRACK READING AND SPELLING. Cosette Beadle and Joan Hampshire. Whurr Pounds 37.50.

PHONICS SKILLS BOOKS 1-6. Sue Palmer. Packs of 8 Pounds 9.99 each. Evaluation Pack Pounds 7.50 SCHOLASTIC. Spotlight on Blends Books 1 and 2. Gillian Aitken. Robinswood Press Pounds 14.95 each.

Star Track Reading and Spelling includes the sentence: "The cat sat on the mat"! This scheme's controlled vocabulary constrains the texts in unfortunate ways. The stories are very odd, if ingenious, and very unsure of their audience.

Star Track offers itself for remedial use with children "who have gained no skills from a random exposure to text" by providing systematic phonics exercises. It begins appropriately with a diagnostic test to establish the level at which the child should start.

The approach involves sounding out routines, married to a useful emphasis on phonic spelling. However, it shows no awareness of contemporary phonological insights. This scheme might have its uses, but only in conjunction with more motivating materials and within a more enlightened view of how children piece together their understanding of print.

By contrast, Sue Palmer's Phonics Skills Books are much more on the ball. While not as comprehensive in intent as Star Track, these workbooks aim to provide a structured route through early phonics teaching. They deal in rhyme and rhythm, onset and rime and approach phonics more immediately through spelling than sounding-out. Palmer has written her own engaging phonic rhymes as the focus for each of the six units in each book.

The activities, particularly the perming of letter, digraph and rime cards for word-building using different onsets and rimes, encourage alertness to spelling patterns. The constraints of phonics mean some similarities with Star Track (here it is Sam who sat on the mat!), but overall these Phonics Skills Books are much more fun and good-humoured - and are clearly aimed at young children. My only complaint is that they are printed in blue to discourage photocopying!

The Spotlight on Blends books focus on initial and final consonant blends.They are designed with remedial work and dyslexics in mind, with a target pupil age of seven and upwards. They are sophisticated, focused and thorough. The varied worksheets are clear, and brief but very useful teaching notes are provided.

Gillian Aitken recognises the significance of phonological awareness (or lack of it) in reading problems and recommends initial work on pronouncing and hearing the sounds as well as highlighting the different blends in colour to facilitate discrimination. The exercises not only focus children's attention but also engage their intelligence, for example, in discussing rules and distinguishing between real and nonsense words.

I myself learned some things about English spelling from these books, and I think they would be a valuable resource not only for specialist support, but also in the ordinary classroom.

Nicholas Bielby

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