First-class letters

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Gwynneth Bailey chooses alphabet books that deliver the goods.

Children - and adults - never tire of alphabet books. Authors and illustrators continue to create innovative versions and the best of them help pupils learn far more than their ABC.

A Child's First ABC Alphabet by Alison Jay (Templar pound;9.99) has splendid illustrations. Numerous objects begin with the set letter on each spread while a hidden picture clue leads to the following letter. Once the child has spotted the first clues, searching for them becomes part of the pleasure of page-turning. This encourages early learning of the alphabet, so the seeker can predict the next letter.

Quentin Blake's ABC is a must-have classic alphabet book, available in paperback (Red Fox pound;5.99). Its simple, rhyming text (M is for mud that we get on our knees, N is for nose - and he's going to sneeze!) and characteristic illustrations bounce along, ensuring children return to it again and again, chant each page then stop and gaze. Try dividing a key stage 1 class in two, each group learning half of each rhyming pair of letters, then perform the whole alphabet to an audience.

The New Alphabet of Animals, by award-winning artist and wood-engraver Christopher Wormell, is simply magnificent (Running Press pound;12.99).

Each left-hand page carries the single upper and lower case letter, with animal name, while opposite lies an impressive lino-block illustration in bold colours. A very satisfying strength lies throughout this book. The endpapers illustrate all 26 creatures (armadillo to zorilla) with notes on less familiar animals. The book would inspire animal research as well as experiments with linocuts and printing.

The format of Dr Seuss's ABC (in a new paperback edition, HarperCollins pound;4.99) demonstrates the use of upper and lower case: "BIG RI Rosy's going riding little rI on her red rhinoceros." The interaction of text with pictures makes this book more suitable for pupils with reading independence. Using this format to create an individual or class alphabet of creatures would be a challenge, but try dividing the workload between partnered writers and illustrators.

The Flyaway Alphabet by Mary Murphy (Egmont pound;4.99) is enormous fun.

The Alphabet Keeper's letters escape from their cage. The lower case letters, each with its own seeing eye and grin, fly about the pages, causing no end of chaos. With the cross Keeper chasing the letters, the words, and story, change with fascinating speed. It will appeal when children have an understanding of how letters interact, and can see what happens when STOP changes to POTS, DECK to DUCK, BUS to BUSH. After reading the story through several times to Years 2 to 4, challenge pairs of children to make their own letterword shifts. Start with a simple word-chain, changing one letter at a time: "cat, rat, rot, rut, but etc".

Able pupils could play about more adventurously ("cat, cot, rot, rotten, plot, plait, plain, rain"), then use these chains to weave their own Flyaway Alphabet story or create a whole-class chain, writing a tale together.

Valerie Fisher has created an alliterative alphabet with fascinating illustrations in Ellsworth's Extraordinary Electric Ears (were endlessly entertaining). Holly is hugely happy in her handbag home and Mario's mechanical moustache machine made many mistakes. Pupils in Year 2 and above would enjoy studying the pictures, then creating their alliterative sentences in this style (Simon amp; Schuster pound;9.99).

For graphic inspiration for older pupils, search out The Artful Alphabet by Martina Jirankova-Limbrick (Walker Books pound;12.99). This book is truly full of magic. There is sophistication, originality and ingenuity on every page, as a small girl, a tiny dog and a magic hat adventure their way from Aa to Zz. My favourite page is Hh. The grassy hills are composed of a multitude of Hs and hs, and are covered in hidden h words. I was happy to find hedgehog, hope and horticulture. Never mind using it in school , just buy it for yourself.

The Children's Book of Alphabets, introduced by Wendy Cooling, is now in a paperback edition (The Chicken House pound;5.99), but the pound;12.99 hardback is also excellent value. It's a historical collection including an alphabet by Edward Lear (1871), the Shaker Abecedarius (1882), A was an Archer (c1701) and two contemporary alphabets: Lynne Chapman's nursery-rhyme alphabet and Mary Claire Smith's Christmas Alphabet (see picture, left). Wendy Cooling tells us how her selected alphabets "celebrate the importance of language and art in the education of children illustrating a wish to make learning fun for the very young".

Gwynneth Bailey teaches at Aldborough Primary School, Norwich

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