Tom Deveson reports on a new series that can make first books a joy.
"The children positively want to read these books to me."
"They almost clash over who can have the book next."
"I didn't have to wait to explain it to them - they talked about the cover and started turning the pages at once."
"They recognised the author's name and were excited that they could take home a book by the person who wrote The Gruffalo."
Teachers at Victory School - just a short step from the Old Kent Road and the Elephant and Castle in south London - could hardly be more emphatic in their praise. Their enthusiasm is directed towards Big Cat, a new series from Collins edited by children's literacy expert, Cliff Moon.
Cliff's aim is to offer schools either a complete reading programme or a selection of titles to complement existing resources. The choice is wide, with 40 books for reception, 28 for Year 1 and 32 for Year 2, divided equally between fiction and non-fiction. And with names like Michael Morpurgo, Julia Donaldson and Tony Mitton on the front, expectation is high.
Louise Newman, Year 2 teacher and literacy co-ordinator, ordered an evaluation pack, and was reassured when she picked up the first book, by Martin Waddell, author of the Little Bear series. "Nothing is more off-putting or more sterile than books that are obviously about learning to read," she says. "This is a book you read with pleasure, and you know the children will too."
And it isn't only the text she's pleased with. "The pictures are bright and bold, and the books themselves are sturdy. So far, they've all survived being taken home and read again."
Brenda Stephens's reception class have had all kinds of fun with Pirates (Red 2B). "We used it for guided reading. It's accessible at different levels across the ability range. Some children used the picture cues, some got involved with the phonics, and everyone loved the comedy."
Children enter the class on two occasions during the year, so differentiation is a vital part of Brenda's planning. The map at the end of the book allowed the entire class to retrace what they could remember and what they had learned, whether adventurous episodes or new words. They found one of the fact books - Shapes on the Seashore (Red 2A) - equally memorable and enjoyable.
"There are only a few words on a page, but they always make a complete sentence and so it feels to the children that it counts as a real book."
The way the illustrations combine clear colour photography and humorous drawings in the same image gives turning the pages a special quality, allowing a constant imaginative transition between the real world and the one we create in our minds.
Many new paths into literacy lead on from the first read-through. Claire Stokes's Year 1 children happily took on the challenge of Bert's Band (Blue 4). "The second time we read it, they sounded out the onomatopoeic words - you could call this using phonics within a real-book text - and then sang along to them to make the sound of the band."
After reading Funny Fish (Blue 4), they discussed the shape of the story, and then wrote their own versions, keeping the structure intact but introducing new animal characters. As Claire says in warm commendation:
"The text is crazy enough to be interesting and simple enough to be readable."
Each book has two extra features at the end. One is a double-page spread for children recalling items or incidents in an unpredictably stimulating manner - a picture index, a storyboard, a flow chart or a game. The children at Victory are in no doubt about the value of these. Mikki used the story map in The Woman Who Fooled the Fairies (Gold 9) as a starting point: "We wrote our own invitation to the old woman herself. We used the ideas we remembered in the book to persuade her to come." Teachers can use these responses as a powerful and practical tool for formative assessment.
The final two pages provide ideas for guided reading. These include suggestions for approaching new or difficult words, strategies for scanning the text, topics for discussion and good places to pause for speculation, together with links to other parts of the curriculum. Hard-pressed teachers will find these very useful if their own creativity temporarily dries up after several years of servitude to the National Literacy Strategy.
"There's always a clue to the way through the book," says Louise Newman.
"They engage the children's interest more than anything else I've seen."
She adds: "They are books for reading and for learning to read - you don't have to separate the two."
Teachers already half-persuaded by this endorsement will probably be entirely convinced by the simple words of Bailey from Louise's class:
"They're new, I like reading them and they make me happy."
* Collins Big Cat series consists of 100 book-banded fiction and non-fiction readers, a Teacher's Guide for each year, an interactive CD-Rom for each year, aJresource and assessment manager CD-Rom for the whole of KS1 P1-3 and big booksJfor Reception and Year 1. It is fully matched to Scottish 5-14 Guidelines.
* Big Cat Hotline, tel: 0870 4607665