Every picture tells a word

13th February 1998 at 00:00
Sue Palmer meets the author of a book that gives a colourful explanation of phonics

Some children enjoy playing with words and sounds, even thgouh reading is a struggle. So Sarah Hayes decided to write a book which "would use the enjoyment to lessen the struggle". For the past six years, the author of popular children's books such as This is the Bear!, The Grumpalump and Eat Up, Gemma, has been working on a book which many would consider distinctly "unreal" - a picture book about phonics.

Sarah Hayes's experience of struggling readers is two-fold - she saw them in the schools she visited as a children's author, and she saw them at home, where two of her own three children were very late in learning to read. Their problems convinced her that some sort of phonics teaching would help: "I don't think children need to know a great deal about how language works," she says, "but everyone needs a few clues, and some need more than others."

Her idea was to use humour, rhyme, word-play and nonsense to draw attention to sounds and word-shape. This led her to explore comic-book techniques which had delighted her as a child - speech bubbles, jokey labels and "Cornflake packet print" - the words in the background of an illustration, which you read simply because they're there. She's adamant that Sound City isn't a teaching book: "It's about enjoying language, playing with sounds and savouring them. But I hope children reading it will acquire skills accidentally."

She is full of praise for the way Walker Books, helped develop the project. While Sarah devised a series of picture stories to feature the sounds, it was Walker's designer who thought of bringing the ideas together in Sound City - and including a detailed map at the front of the book. Walker also found the artist, Margaret Chamberlain, whose cartoony, almost anarchic illustrations bring the characters to life. And Sarah's editors suggested she should write a nonsense rhyme for each picture, drawing more attention to the sound in question.

The result is a joyful linguistic romp which appeals across a wide age-range. Pre-readers love poring over the pictures and listening to the silly rhymes - and while they're having a good time, they're tuning in to the sounds they must recognise in order to learn to read. Older children notice more sophisticated jokes, which draw their attention to the range of spellings available for various sounds. There are puzzles and games on every page, from simple visual riddles, through "Where's Wally" activities to questions that require basic reading skills.

With the National Literacy Project's framework being sent to schools soon, Sound City couldn't be more timely. It will provide lots of fun for parents and children at home, and a breath of fresh air for older struggling readers and their special needs teachers. Unfortunately, in its present form it's too small to be used for shared reading with a class, but if Walker Books could be persuaded to bring out each page as a poster, it would make a wonderful resource for the key stage 1 literacy hour.

Sound City is published by Walker Books, Pounds 10.99

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