How the customers got their tales
Paul Noble gives the thumbs up to the Cambridge approach to enthusing new readers
When Sam was admitted to the school, my faith in the adage "the customer is always right" great-ly diminished. Not more than five minutes after entering the classroom for the first time, the five-year-old announced vehemently, "I hate you and I hate this house." Since then I have drawn comfort from the thought that I should not equate, so closely, "pupil" with "customer" and in any case he hasn't got a vote and it was a Monday.
I mention this by way of introduction because when the latest addition to Cambridge Reading, Towards Independence, arrived on my desk for review, I decided to listen to what the customers in Class 3 (Year 2 children) had to say about it. What they said has been used by way of illustration, not proof.
As the name clearly indicates, this phase of the scheme is aimed at those who are ready to move on to become free readers, yet have a level of skill which still demands a controlled vocabulary and a structure to bolster their developing confidence. From top infants right through to middle juniors and beyond in some cases, there is a need for this sort of material. Towards Independence is design-ed to meet this need and, if the experience of Class 3 is anything to go by, does so admirably.
Following the pattern of the previously published phases, Beg-inning to Read and Be-coming a Reader, this phase is sub-divided into stages of difficulty (in this case three - A, B and C) through which run genre strands offering a variety of writing styles to whet the appetite and to take children into other non-narrative reading worlds. Hence there is a poetry strand and an information book strand as well as contemporary stories, stories of childhood and traditional tales. You can also photocopy worksheets to your heart's content (there are two worksheets for each book); develop spelling patterns and phonic knowledge (worksheets again); let children listen to audio cassettes of poetry and traditional tales; share Big Books; or use IT (SEMERC My World 2). The last two components mentioned and the information books were not available to review.
It is not hard to praise the scheme; it looks like a labour of love as well as of intellect and the books exude quality. The least successful were those in the stories-of-childhood strand, in which are recounted simple incidents from the authors' childhoods with the link made explicit at the end. A fine idea but executed with such timidity that it falls flat. Instead of tucking a little note and photograph on the inside back cover, the connection should have been made an integral part of the story. An idea worth persisting with, though.
I have a small gripe about the pricing of the teacher's book. For just under Pounds 40 you get just over 200 pages entirely in black and white. Some of the information it contains about the structure of Cambridge Reading can be obtained free in the catalogue, and the photocopiable letter to parents, home reading records sheets and the like are not critical to the success of the scheme.
What purports to make it worth Pounds 40 are not the few pages of really useful notes nor the educational padding, but the photocopiable worksheets. Although these take account of recent research and include strategies that have been developed to help children make sense of a variety of texts, the price is still high. The rationale for this, and it is one supported by most publishers in this country, is that because material will be photocopied, fewer packs will be sold and this must be reflected in the price. It is not a policy followed in the United States and I remain unconvinced. Perhaps an English publisher can be persuaded to break from this mode of thinking soon? Unfortunately, teachers seem to be prepared to pay any price for a book provided it contains photocopiable sheets.
Meanwhile, back in Class 3, Megan had a lovely time. Always a keen reader, it was not a surprise that she had to be prised away from these books ("I don't want reading time to end"). She was not the only involved reader. Freddy was amused to think that when animals sniff each other they are really looking for their own tails (How the Animals got their Tails); Oliver was frustrated when one of the Mr Mulch stories (his favourite books) failed to be resolved to his satisfaction; and Kyle said that his book, A Cat for Keeps, gave him a nice feeling inside. Of course Cambridge Reading did have the advantage of bringing to Class 3 the thrill of the new, but as the books became accepted as a normal part of class life, a few generalisations became possible.
In spite of the range of genres on offer, narrative, particularly the traditional tales, was the most popular. And if the books were attractive to adults they clearly were to children too. The aboriginal-type illustrations in How the Animals got their Tails and the comic pictures in The Lord Mount Dragon were among the children's favourites. One of the strengths of the scheme continues to be the range of illustrative styles as well as of texts on offer. The charming and delicate pictures in A Corner of Magic (part of the poetry strand) are worlds away from the flat but striking scissors-and-paste constructions used in Dancing to the River.
But most importantly, from the publishing point of view, my experience using the books endorses the belief that there is a real demand for reading material of this sort, especially at the borders between key stage 1 and key stage 2, where the demand from increasingly avid readers can outstrip supply.
Last words from the word processor of the inimitable Freddy. Writing about The Big Shrink by Rosemary Hayes, he said: "It's about two children who touch a pen and they shrink. . . . It's a gripping story not to be spoilt by me telling you. READ IT YOURSELF!" Who needs reviewers?
The Starter Pack, available from mid-April, includes Teacher's Book 3, Story Books (45), Information Books (9), Information Books Teacher's Guide 2, Big Books (2), Poetry Anthologies Cassette Set, Traditional Tales Cassette Set, and Phonics for Reading. The Beginning to Read phase of Cambridge Reading was reviewed on May 24, 1996