A magnet for young readers
Cambridge Reading is bound to become a leading contender in a highly contested field. It is an attractive, well-thought-out package built on a range of pupil books that includes fiction, non-fiction and poetry. There are small books and big books, picture books and audio tapes, coupled with enough support material by way of teacher's manuals, photocopiable sheets, workbooks, games and disks, to bring sighs of relief to the weary.
Above all else, the books look good. When I laid the scheme out in the school hall they became the centre of small scrummages of passing children and were shamelessly enjoyed by juniors as well as infants. The phonic games and the big books were a particular success with a class of Year 1 children.
Considerable credit for this magnetic quality must go to the illustrators who have done a fine job on the whole, style and content are finely matched, for example.
Each illustrator has combined with an author to produce linked groups of books. My personal preferences are not for the cartoon styles, which Cambridge uses frequently in the books for the youngest readers, but for the unusual perspectives of Jackie Morris (Going Fishing) and the rich and romantic pictures of Stephen Lambert (The Moonlit Owl).
But judging a new reading scheme cannot be done on looks alone and close examination of the first stage of the scheme it is here after all that a scheme has to prove its worth - does reveal some weaknesses, but the overall coherence of Cambridge Reading is not in doubt.
So far there are three phases; phase one for year R (Beginning to Read); phase two for Y1 (Becoming a Reader); and phase three for Y2 (Towards Independence). From phase two onwards, these can be further subdivided into six categories; contemporary, fantasy, traditional, stories of childhood, poetry and rhyme and information books. Although each phase represents a step up in difficulty, more than three steps between R and Y2 are required, so the phases are further divided into stages of difficulty A, B, and C. So there you have it, not quite as simple as book 1, book 2, book 3 etc, but simple enough.
As you can guess from the categories, Cambridge have made every effort to produce real books that are worth reading in their own right and here, I think, they have succeeded. This means that the books do not need to be read as part of a series - a particular strength when children have moved beyond the very first steps as readers - but it also means that, as it stands, the scheme will not be sufficient for teachers of reception classes who have to bring children to that first step.
Herein lies the scheme's biggest weakness, an insufficient use of repeated vocabulary in the Beginning to Read stage.
One advantage of less fashionable soap-opera type schemes with their recurring characters and familiar settings, is that the repetition of names and words allows the confidence of a young child to develop.
Links of character or place are almost entirely absent from Cambridge Reading and in this respect it differs from Oxford Reading Tree, Flying Boot and even All Aboard, perhaps having more in common with a scheme such as Pathways.
Opening at random five of the easiest books at the second level B (each with no more than six words on a page) I took one tricky word from each and collected: squirrel; didn't; balloon; brown; and dancing - quite significant steps from book to book at such an early level.
The excellent spiral-bound teacher's books do suggest sensible initial strategies such as introducing the books by reading them aloud to the children and there are further ideas on how to share the books.
Also, the scheme uses rhyme extensively and tries to build on natural speech patterns and there is a structured phonics programme, but it does seem to be weak in building up that essential basic sight vocabulary.
Reading schemes no longer consist entirely, or even mostly, of books for children to read, so if you buy, buy carefully because a great deal of money can be spent on peripherals which you may not want. The phonic games pack looked poor value at Pounds 44.95 plus VAT and the flip-over book was Pounds 65 for 28 pages. The teacher's books which Cambridge consider to be essential at each phase, are undoubtedly good, but because they include photocopiable sheets are inevitably pricey (Book 2 costs Pounds 39.95).
In spite of some reservations I will stick with my gut reaction that the scheme will be a winner, although I was worried by the splendid Big Book of Nursery Rhymes. I found a rhyme about "Jane, Jane" that I had never heard of.
Too embarrassed to admit my ignorance I tested it out on a few children, then on a number of adults. I failed to find anyone who knew it.
One colleague mischievously suggested that it was made up. Is it a regional variation like Look North or Cornish pasties? Opie only knows.