Growing points

7th July 1995 at 01:00
Mary Cruickshank on Oxford Reading Tree's first national conference

You might not expect the creators of a reading scheme to achieve star status, but the cameras flashed as author Rod Hunt and illustrator Alex Brychta took the stage at the first national conference of the Oxford Reading Tree in Nottingham last month. Six hundred teachers attended the event which also reflected the close links between the scheme and its users and the way literacy research continues to influence its growth.

David Wray, senior lecturer in primary education at Exeter Unversity, described the work of the Nuffield-funded Exeter Extending Literacy Project in helping six to 11-year-olds use non-fiction texts more effectively. Strategies known as "writing frames" overcome the common problem of children simply copying chunks of text out of information books without understanding or restructuring the material for their own purposes.

The frames replace unmanageable tasks such as "Find out everything you can", with specific questions about what children already know and what they want to find out. Establishing prior knowledge is particularly important in revealing misconceptions and putting children in the position of revising opinions through their own research. Writing frames provide the "scaffolding" for note-taking, report writing, structuring an argument and so on and have been developed for use in different subjects, such as history, and for children with special needs.

Morag MacLean, a developmental psychologist at Oxford Brookes University who worked with Peter Bryant and Lynette Bradley on the relationship between nursery rhymes, phonic skills and early reading success, and Rhona Stainthorp, a psychologist in teacher education from the University of Reading, stressed the importance of varied and imaginative activities to develop listening skills and an awareness of the sound structure of words.The card games in Oxford Reading Tree's Rhyme and Analogy materials, (reviewed in The TES on March 31) were described by Rhona Stainthorp as "the best thing since sliced bread".

The Reading Tree now has around 13,000 users and is trialled in 146 schools. At the heart of the scheme are the stories of Biff, Chip, Kipper and friends, brought to life in Alex Brychta's cheerful illustrations. "If children are motivated by story, you've won half the battle," said Rod Hunt. "The stories are more than material to practise decoding. They encourage children to read creatively and critically." A new strand of Treetops, story books for seven to 11-year-olds, is planned, providing a wider range of experience and characters and designed to help less confident children bridge the gap between structured schemes and more independent reading.

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