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Sentries roll back the years

LOOK AND READ: The Legend of the Lost Keys. BBC2 Mondays 11-11.20am. Rpt Friday 10.30-10.50am. Shown with subtitles on Ceefax page 888Age range: 7-9+.

With the same cosy familiarity and longevity as Coronation Street, Look and Read may well gain similar cult status before long. Season after season, the programme reflects the drama of everyday life in literacy. Policy and scriptwriters may change, but fashions have an odd way of coming round again and ratings are climbing.

Sometimes perceived as pre-packaged lessons for remedial readers, Look and Read is gaining appeal as an activity for all children.

Bygone series evoked dusty halls where children who lacked literary inspiration sat mesmerised in front of the television. Well-versed in failure, they absorbed absurd story-lines and mysterious phonic drills. In secret corners of the timetable, they and their castaway teachers were often totally cut off from real life in the classroom.

Much has changed. Special needs teaching is becoming the lodestone of the profession, attracting talent and research that is making it state-of-the-art learning. Didactic teaching and larger group approaches to learning involve discussion and a questioning that would do credit to a forensic scientist. This is very much the currency of the National Literacy Project.

The Legend of the Lost Keys, in turn, represents a state-of-the-art, multimedia teaching resource. As well as the television programmes, we have a poem and songbook, copymasters, a storybook for pupils, the book of the series, audio cassette and software.

Teachers and children can really enjoy this series, teasing out the content while getting a grounding in the basic structure of written language. A good yarn is permeated with an exploration of our Roman heritage.

The storyline is an exhilarating fantasy about the evil rulers of Heritron, hell-bent on opening a time-warp doorway sealed since Roman times. All the drama, fear and excitement that used to be the staple diet of mainstream children's television are included. Needless to say, good triumphs over evil in the end. Would that it were always so in the classroom.

The 10 programmes are written, performed and produced to a high standard. The Legend of the Lost Keys delivers a brisk narrative offering plenty of scope for teachers to differentiate their teaching for a wide range of abilities. The novel version enthralled my 11-year-old, despite his lofty critique of its appeal for younger readers. The audio cassette provides a soothing rendition of the story by actor Andrew Sachs. On side two, there are lush arrangements of the songs which turn literacy into libretto for each programme.

Look and Read lyrics remind me of pantomime. There are some very contrived lines and I am not convinced that children really understand them. But we all sang the chorus anyway.

Wrapped up in each episode, the key characters spend some time analysing the quest. The not-so-hidden agenda is to explore pupils' understanding. It is very effective.

The teaching notes reflect the focus on teaching and learning styles as the heart of the professional matter. Guidance on assessment assists teachers in developing basic strategies and extending skills for reading.

Three copymaster activities for each programme provide a profitable chunk of work for different abilities, each with suggested extension activities. The software provides related activities and puzzles.

Dust off your early Look and Read back-numbers, they could become collectors' items.

Video pack Pounds 39.99; storybook pack of 5 Pounds 6.99; cassette Pounds 6.50; copymasters Pounds 7.99; novel Pounds 2.99; CD-Rom (Acorn, PC and Mac formats) Pounds 31.75 all available from BBC Education, Freepost LS2811, Wetherby, West Yorkshire LS23 6YY

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