The inhabitants of Church Farm all talk in vowel sounds.
The cows say "moo", the scarecrows yell "oi!" and the farmer says "arrr".
Church Farm is the setting for Church Farm Sounds, a phonics scheme developed and run exclusively at Kingshott prep school in Hitchin, Hertfordshire.
The aim is for children to learn to associate particular sounds with particular characters. For example, the scarecrow shouts "oi!" at marauding crows in early books. While children may have trouble sounding out "boil"
or "soil" in more advanced books, they will immediately associate the "oi"
sound with the scarecrow.
Penny Tye, reception teacher, came up with the scheme because, as a private school, Kingshott attracts pupils from a broad range of nurseries. "We have a wide catchment area, so children come to us with very different reading experiences," she said. "They've all been taught in different ways. This brings them together. They're all learning in the same way, at the same stage."
In a collection of more than 40 stories, each character on the fictional Church Farm introduces a different sound. This sound is then repeated each time the character appears. For example, Mrs Brown, the first-aider, looks after the children who fall over when visiting the farm. Invalids invariably respond to her ministrations with an "ow!".
Sheila Wearmouth, head of pre-prep at Kingshott, said: "We're building up links between pictures and sounds. Phonics can be taught the wrong way round: sounds first, and then association with words. It can be hard to remember a sound. But if children have a picture in their mind, that picture will remind them of a sound. You only have to draw a little sketch, and they have a clue what the sound is."
Later, key words are introduced into the stories as well. And as children move on to different books, teachers will refer back to Church Farm characters.
"We live the scheme," said Mrs Tye. "We're looking for sounds in whatever work we're doing. It permeates across the curriculum."
Mrs Tye has not ruled out publishing the scheme: "I might need a nest-egg to retire on." But both she and Mrs Wearmouth believe that other schools would benefit from devising their own schemes.
"The phonics fashion wheel is always turning," said Mrs Wearmouth. "But we don't jump on bandwagons. We stand back and see what works. Teaching children through stories is one of the most effective teaching tools you can have. They're using their imaginations. It's important to go with what works for you."
Five-year-old Daniel Camp agrees. "Church Farm makes reading easier," he said. "If I know my sounds, then I can use them to read other books. But a real farm wouldn't be like the books. The animals would make different noises."