Hugely readable;Reviews;Literacy;Books

19th June 1998 at 01:00
Huw Thomas finds size does matter as he gets between the covers of a selection of big books.

Shared reading isn't the same thing as story time. The opening slot in a literacy hour involves looking at various aspects of literacy through a shared text.

Schools seeking big books for use in the literacy hour should bear in mind the particular demands of shared reading. Of course, the usual qualities we look for in books, such as appropriate language, good illustrations and an appeal to young readers, are critical, but they are supplemented by other requirements. Big books also need clear text, printed and spaced in a way that makes it readable at a distance. Teachers will also be looking for texts that provide teaching material at word, sentence and text level.

Several of the Walker Big Books, although not written specifically for literacy hour, fulfil these criteria. As the children venture through Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury's We're Going on a Bear Hunt (pound;11.99) their "swishy swashy" journey through long grass, and muddy "squelch squerch" provides a fun way of looking at sounds in words.

Owl Babies (pound;11.99), Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson's beautiful story about the anxiety of being left alone, uses the full range of punctuation marks and provides an enjoyable context for exploring one of the drier aspects of literacy.

The varied text layout of This is the Bear and The Scary Night (pound;11.99), by Sarah Hayes and Helen Craig, and the clear storyline of Eileen Browne's Handa's Surprise (pound;11.99) make these worthwhile storybooks from which a range of teaching points can be drawn.

But there's a need for caution. Not all picture books adapt well to the big book format. Red Fox's All Join In (pound;11.99), by Quentin Blake, encourages sharing a clear interactive text, whereas the text in David McKee's Elmer (pound;11.99), a classic in its original format, is too densely chunked to work well as a big book.

Resources that are more clearly packaged and prepared for use in literacy hours are available. The Collins Pathways texts vary in quality across the key stages. The key stage 1 books combine clearly printed and readable text with varied text forms.

They include the letter format of Letters from Lucy (pound;15.99) and an enjoyable collection of urban rhymes, Slide Down the Rainbow (pound;15.99). A particular favourite with children is You Can't Park an Elephant in a Car Park (pound;17.85), which combines bizarre humour and scatty illustration.

Unlike standard-sized picture books, in which text can be set against the illustration to good effect, the text of a big book needs to stand out starkly enough to be read at a distance. Certain Pathways books, such as The Trap (pound;19.99), softly blend the text with the illustration. This may be aesthetically pleasing in the original format but it reduces the text's usefulness in the big book version.

Alternatively, the non-fiction text Snakes (pound;15.99) and the poetry anthology Penny Whistle Pete (pound;19.99) are examples of their genre that inform and entertain with clear, well illustrated text. Collins also publishes the Infoactive series of big books (pound;16.75 each), targeting specific genres with texts that introduce younger readers to a variety of formats and layouts.

Ginn All Aboard big books are tailor-made for literacy hour, covering a variety of genres including rhyming texts and traditional tales. All Aboard is supplemented by teacher resource materials clearly targeting the literacy hour to the point where they provide the lesson plan along with photocopiable materials and suggestions for extension activities.

Ginn has also addressed the issue of shared texts for key stage 2 with some interesting results including a big book novel. Mark Two (pound;23.50) by Jon Blake offers a 60-page big book novel that avoids tiring the eyes. The exciting plot and cartoon illustrations sustain particular pleasure in each page and will keep a class reading.

Anxieties that the literacy hour will displace the broad curriculum are countered by a look at the range of subjects available in big book format.

A amp; C Black's Stopwatch Science series (pound;15.99 each) includes fascinating diaries of life cycles with high quality photographic illustration.

Pelican Big Books from Longman include some excellent history resources. The World War II Anthology (pound;17.99) incorporates fiction, telegrams and poetry to provide a varied and moving insight into that era. What Babies used to Wear (pound;16.99) is also an interesting historical book, exploring fashions in children's clothes over the century.

The Pelican series includes supporting notes for sharing the text inside the back cover of each big book, which overcomes the age-old staffroom problem of somebody losing the teacher's guide.

Variety of format and layout is important, but with younger children there is also room for texts that adopt a clear and consistent format. The familiar characters in the Oxford Reading Tree big books give children pages they feel at home with. The skill of these books lies in the plotting of the stories and the humour in the illustrations, which keep the text from dull repetition. From this month, the Rhyme and Analogy big books will be available as single copies, including The TES award-winning My Home by Rod Hunt (pound;10 each).

Cambridge Reading has also produced a selection of texts in which consistency of style is an advantage. The clearly told stories in its Beginning to Read books (pound;6.95 each) provide a secure familiarity supported by bright and clear illustrations that tell simple stories in an engaging way. The Cambridge Big Book of Nursery Rhymes (pound;15.25, cassette. pound;9.50 + VAT) is a striking example of the quality of illustration in this series. The supporting rendition of the rhymes on tape provides a cheerful means of presenting known texts to children as a way into looking at rhyming sounds.

In big books such as this we find those crucial teaching points promoted by literacy hour coupled with enjoyable content - the essential ingredients of materials for shared reading.

* Huw Thomas is a teacher in Sheffield and author of 'Reading and Responding to Fiction: classroom strategies for developing literacy'published by Scholastic and reviewed in 'The TES' last week.



* Are the format and line spacing clear?

* Will the child at the back of the group be able to read it?

* Does the text tire the eyes?


* Is the large space used to full effect?

* Will the illustrations entertain and engage the readers?

Teaching potential

* Does the book provide material for teaching at: word level? sentence level? text level?


* Will children independently engage with the subject matter?

* Will the book sustain the interest of a class over a whole week?


Aamp;C Black. Tel: 0171 242 0946.

Addison Wesley Longman. Tel: 01734 794000.

Cambridge University Press. Tel: 01223 312393.

Ginn. Tel: 01296 394442.

HarperCollins. Tel: 0181 741 7070.

Oxford University Press. Tel: 01865 556767.

Red Fox. Tel: 0171 973 9700.

Walker Books. Tel: 0171 793 0909.

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