While other publishers made a frantic dash for the literacy market, with rapidly devised and poorly designed textbooks and workbooks, Oxford University Press bided its time and developed The Literacy Web, a vast interlocking set of resources ready to grow into the next century.
The millennium-minded nomenclature, however, with its connotations of the Internet, is misleading. The strands knit together to form a fairly tweedy yarn based on that trusty fibre, PCM, the photocopiable worksheet. Designed to stand alone or fit alongside the Reading Tree (schools do not need to have Reading Tree materials to make use of the Web), the five strands have been closely matched to the National Literacy Strategy. But, and this is both welcome and far-sighted, there has been no attempt to map out the materials according to the current breakdown of the literacy hour.
There are references to "shared" and "guided" reading, and different activities are designated for whole class, group or individual work, but there is no strict allocation to precise blocks of time. In other words, the Web is not a web until it is woven together, and it is left to individual schools to choose their own pattern.
The five strands, each including teacher's guides, are Letters, Sounds and Rhymes; Fiction; Non-Fiction; Poetry; and Launch into Literacy, a structured language programme for Years 2-6. The last stands alone from the other strands, since the remaining materials published so far are mainly for key stage 1.
The first Launch into Literacy teacher's guide (only Year 2 and Year 3 are currently available) is a sloppy affair. There are typos, and a confusing error on page 41 when a bullet entry from the poetry section has been wrongly copy-pasted into a section about reading a prose extract. These mistakes are compounded by muddled definitions of sentences and parts of speech.
The other parts of the Web are of much higher quality. The Fiction strand is essentially a new Reading Tree, introducing high-frequency words in a staged way, in the context of a soap opera. The Duck Green School features an entertaining staff: Mrs Best with her funny earrings; Mr Jelly the computer buff; Miss Ross the PE teacher scared of spiders; and a headmaster, Mr Dixon, introduced by name at stage 4. The supplementary titles provide both consolidation and extension at each stage.
The most promising strand is Letters, Sounds and Rhymes. This contains two marvellous big books, The Big ABC Book by the poet Richard Edwards and a Big Book of Nursery Rhymes chosen by the strand's series editor, Clare Kirtley, whose own teacher's guides are a model of clarity and good sense. "Most teachers know that children find phonemes difficult to hear." How pleasing to see an acknowledgement of teachers' own practical knowledge.
John Foster has done some sterling work as an anthologist for Oxford. In contributing a strand to the Web, his skills as a compiler have been rather heavy-handedly wedded to a pedagogical programme inimical to poetry itself. Too regimented an introduction to poetic techniques from a very early age will exhaust children's enjoyment.
David Wray has selected some terrific titles for the non-fiction strand and the quality of design and production throughout the Web materials is very high. Schools will need time to look through the evaluation packs - although bursars may turn pale when they see the price list.
michael thorn Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex.