Two eight-year-olds sit astride classroom desks, pedalling like fury. In their hands, by way of handlebars, are copies of Pedal Power, a play about two larky penguins who ride their tandem to the top of a hill, with disastrous results. The children read in turn, acting out their parts with verse, until the time comes to jump, books in hand, from the tandem to the ground.
The play is one of a series of six, The Penguins, published this month by Ginn. Written and drawn by Jeremy Long, they are intended for use in primary classes with six to 10-year-olds.
"I was fascinated to see how you could teach reading in a different way, " explains Jeremy, a part-time teacher, freelance designer and cartoonist. "It seemed very obvious to me to write in dialogue."
The two "cyclists", captured on video while the material was being trialled, are testimony to the enjoyment the plays generate, with their simple plots, lively, humorous dialogue and cartoon-strip pictures.
They demonstrate, too, the way in which the plays can harness two readers of different abilities, in a partnership quite independent of the teacher. In early read-throughs of Pedal Power, the girl, a fluent reader, adopts a teacherly role, gently correcting her less able partner as they rehearse. "Let's start again so we can get all the full-stops and question marks, " she advises. by the time of the "performance", the boy, too, is reading with more fluency and beginning to get some real expression into his lines.
The plays help children to improve their reading accuracy, says Jeremy Long, in ways that story books do not. Although some paired reading is done in schools, there is insufficient material to make it work effectively. Typically, two children will sit down with a shared book and take it in turns to read. "The more able child completely dominates, and it is very easy for the other child simply to switch off," he says.
Reading a Penguins play, by contrast, requires keen attention. Each child has their own copy and sits facing the other. To keep the dialogue flowing and making sense, each child must be sure to get their words right, as well as follow the other part so that they know when to come in. The parts are graded for different abilities: the part of the blue penguin (who has blue shoes, and blue dots introducing his lines) is intended for an able reader, with a reading age of eight or over, while the yellow penguin (yellow shoes, yellow dots) is for a child with a reading age of over six but under eight, using simpler vocabulary and echoing words and phrases first used by the blue penguin.
The series is the fruit of Jeremy Long's years of experience teaching in mainstream and special schools, and drawing for educational publications.
After graduating in 1970 from the Camberwell School of Art in London, followed by post-graduate studies in visual communication at what was Birmingham Polytechnic, his first teaching job was in a special school for 11 to 16-year-old boys near Lewes, in East Sussex, where he still lives.
After a five-year stint, he left to work as a freelance designer, but found himself back in teaching, this time in a mainstream class at Wallands County Primary School, in Lewes, which his two children attended. Teaching reading did not pose too many problems for his class of 10-year-olds, he remembers, but he left shortly before the advent of the national curriculum, fearful that it would prove too restrictive.
He returned to Wallands seven years ago, taking a job-share in its junior speech and language unit, where he has been ever since. For the past six years, he has also drawn the "Breakdown" strip for The Times Educational Supplement, which he describes as "being on the side of children and teachers". "As a teacher, very often you think, other people are coping, so why can't I? I wanted to make teachers feel less isolated."
He was introduced to reading scheme books at the Wallands specialist unit, which takes pupils with severe speech and language difficulties from all over East Sussex, and found some books more helpful than others.
What these children really needed, he says, was help with syntax, with speaking, with the structures used for asking and answering questions. So he set about writing something himself, and came up with short plays, funny and full of "mishearing" jokes, without pictures and using a very restricted vocabulary.
Then he roughed out The Penguins, this time using pictures, and was "immediately convinced" by them. Whereas his first attempt had depended on a good deal of teacher involvement, with pictures the plays became much more self-supporting.
The relationship between words and pictures is crucial to Jeremy Long's approach. Children "read" pictures quickly, he says, scanning the page and picking up details like facial expression and gesture, which act as clues to what they are reading. But in too many story books, where the picture illustrates only one event from a page of text, children can become confused as they try to match this event to the words in front of them.
In The Penguins, however, the cartoon strip provides three or four pictures for each page of text, offering a broader context.
"I hate the word illustrator, and I won't use it," says Jeremy. "I'm interested in the way pictures communicate, rather than in making things look good. I don't enjoy prettying things up."
The support of the pictures also enables him to introduce the occasional difficult or unfamiliar word into his plays. The main vocabulary is drawn from a list of first 100 common words, and the plays are structured around the more difficult onsets (bl, st, str, ch, thr), involving more than one consonant. The penguins' frequent mishearings - "This shop here?" "When we stop!...st....st....stop! Stop, I said stop!" - enable children to practise these onsets in an enjoyable, jokey way.
Bob Daines, an educational psychologist for Brighton and Hove, is consultant for the series, and helped write the extensive teacher's pack which accompanies it. One of the strengths of the series, he believes, is that it "allows collaborative learning to take place quite naturally, because both children have separate objectives. Children like the plays, and they stay on task for longer. Teachers will find them an extremely good way of improving children's reading accuracy."
Pedal Power, Gone Fishing, Shipwrecked, Tunnel Trouble, Lost in Space, Get to Sleep. Ginn, Pounds 3.99 per pair. Teacher's resource book Pounds 18.99