Huw Thomas discovers that it is possible to make phonics an exciting learning experience for early readers
Collins Big Cat Phonics
By Kay Hiatt
pound;125 plus VAT
Collins Big Cat Phonics Handbook
By Kay Hiatt
Big Cat decodable readers
pound;2.75 each; evaluation pack of eight titles pound;20
Collins Education www.collinseducation.com
For age four+
The world of synthetic phonics can seem like a jungle in which the resources schools need to help them meet directives are the inscrutable beasts.
It's a relief, then, that this Big Cat is a straightforward package that ticks the necessary boxes. It consists of a CD-Rom with accompanying handbook, along with 24 phonically decodable readers written by well-established children's authors including Martin Waddell, Michaela Morgan and Shoo Rayner.
The CD-Rom forms the backbone of the resource and contains 300 daily 10-minute sessions, ideal for use on an interactive whiteboard. These take children through the processes of saying, blending and segmenting phonics.
The lessons are delivered by Big Cat, the lion, who guides us on a well-structured path through the 42 main phonemes. It's gimmicky but not flashy, benefiting from simple graphics and a consistent format. The games and activities don't detract from the basic learning. The instructions to vocalise sounds and words are given clearly, and there is a good pace to the activities, combining visual and aural presentation of sounds in a way teachers can't achieve with pens and magnetic letters. The CD-Rom is accessible, navigable, and can be grasped by the teacher within 20 minutes or so.
The supporting range of readers includes both fiction and non-fiction and the easy-to-use guide directs teachers to the phonic content that can be drawn out. These well-written and well-illustrated texts would be a welcome addition in schools that already use a phonics scheme and can be used to complement other programmes effectively.
The books prompt the range of phonic strategies that children need, but are lively enough to avoid the drudgery of some texts in which the language is bound by the sounds that have to be covered. They provide a crucial strand of materials that are consistent with that piece of the Rose report we mustn't forget: the requirement to teach synthetic phonics "within a broad and rich language curriculum". I should also note the clear and interesting guided reading notes at the end of each book.
The great thing about Big Cat is its simplicity. The CD-Rom is easy to use, the teacher's book provides all you need but is brief, and there isn't an overwhelming tide of supporting books. Whether as a stand-alone scheme or a complement to others, this series provides a welcome support to schools as we implement the recommendations of the Rose review Huw Thomas is headteacher of Emmaus Primary, Sheffield