Less than the very best

7th July 1995 at 01:00
Carol Fox assesses a new scheme for struggling teenage readers

The new Impact series aims to provide texts that are pitched at both the reading levels and chronological ages of struggling readers at key stages 2 and 3. The genres expected to attract such readers are fairly stereotypical: teen-life, humour, horror, and non-fiction.

The stories, by established children's authors, tend to be written in a chatty vernacular, often using first-person narration. One senses the intended audience working-class kids (boys mainly) in multi-ethnic urban schools. If this is where struggling readers are to be found, I'm not sure that these books will give fair competition to the stories of everyday life, at home, on the street, in school, or, indeed, in the soaps. I imagine that the teen-life stories might interest 11-year-olds, but could be rather tame for inner-city 14-year-olds. Any parent knows how difficult it is to keep ahead of teenage lingo; lines like "I bet this'll ruin my street cred . . . ", from one of Mary Hooper's Hall End High School stories, seem dated, even patronizing. One thinks back to the Grange Hill books, which managed to be both harder and deeper than these.

The non-fiction titles focus on sport. Frank Bruno, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sally Gunnell are the subjects of simple, informative biographies, illustrated with photographs. Martial Arts manages to include a lot of information, technical terminology and history in a format which mixes fact and fiction and is likely to be accessible and interesting to young readers.

There are two Teachers' Resource books accompanying the series, aimed at upper primary and lower secondary teachers. Much of their content, quite rightly, overlaps. Brigid Smith and Isobel Urquhart give a sound introduction to the processes involved in reading, stressing, meaning-making, and drawing on psycholinguistic theory. This section is intended to be an introduction to reading theory for non-specialist teachers. I would have liked to see an additional section on the power of good, well-written literature to give children inspiring and lasting reading lessons.

The bulk of each resource book contains photocopy masters of activities and exercises to extend children's reading. They are variable in quality, some imaginative and open-ended, others giving practice in punctuation and spelling. A chart maps out how the photocopy masters match a set of 19 skills related to reading. One can't help thinking that while successful readers explore more and more reading matter, unsuccessful readers get exercises on A4 sheets. However, used selectively, some of the activities could be stimulating and entertaining.

The teen-life books lack the depth of authors like Betsy Byars or Robert Swindells. Is Betsy Byars too difficult for this type of reader? And doesn't Raymond Briggs's Unlucky Wally deal with teenage boys' angst in a way that is not only readable, funny and sad but which also, through its pictures, is far more powerful than anything on offer here?

And dare I suggest some abridged, or even good graphic versions, of classic texts? I have seen such texts absorb slow readers in comprehensive schools in London, and in the townships of South Africa. Non-fiction could extend beyond rather obvious sporting heroes. Young people today face real and pressing problems in their everyday lives the environment and the future of the planet, AIDS and health issues, homelessness, and so on. While the new Ginn series goes some way towards cultural diversity and the recognition that slow readers need interesting books, on the whole it is rather anodyne, lacking the depth and originality that these readers above all need. If struggling readers get less than the very best, how will they ever see what the point of reading might be?

Carol Fox is a senior lecturer in education at the University of Reading IMPACT READING age 6-9 Interest age 10-14: Set A Reading age 6-7 (8 books). Pounds 21.10. 602 26588 6. Set B Reading age 7-8 (10 books). Pounds 31. 25. 602 26590 8. Set C Reading age 8-9 (7 books) Pounds 19.85. 602 26592 4. Teachers' Resource Book 602 26628 9.

IMPACT READING age 6-10 Interest age 11-14: Set A reading age 6-7 (9 books)Pounds ? 602 26589 4. Set B reading age 7-8 (13 books) Pounds 3975. 602 26591 6. Set C reading age 8-9 (9 books). Pounds 25.55. 602 26593 2. Set D reading age 9-10 (6 books). Pounds 17. 602 26594 0. Teachers' Resource Book Pounds 24.99. 602 26629 7. Published by Ginn.

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