2nd June 2006 at 01:00
LETTERLAND. By Lyn Wendon, Gudrun Freese and others.

Teaching reading, it has been said, is rocket science. Rocket scientists, however, have at least reached a consensus on how to achieve lift-off.

Educators have not. Even the recent Rose report, with its advocacy of a synthetic phonics approach, hasn't ended the debate, because just as people of a certain age have their favourite Beatle, so teachers have their favourite phonics programme.

First published 25 years ago, Letterland (a global brand) lost market share in the 1990s. Some found it long-winded and there were stories (possibly apocryphal) of children reading the word "dog" as "dippy duck, oscar orange, golden girl". Now revamped and republished, Letterland is fighting back.

Its main claim - to turn plain black letter shapes into child-friendly characters - is still integral. So Harry Hat Man, Annie Apple and friends remain in all their bright and distinctive glory (Robber Red and Wicked Water Witch, though, have been ousted by Red Robot and Walter Walrus).

The resources are vast in range, impressive in coverage and matched to the literacy strategy. Among them are a detailed Early Years Handbook, a Teacher's Guide, software, CDs, stories and many other slick resources (including fantastic stickers, which children will adore). Perhaps responding to the "long winded" charge, there is a new "phonemic awareness fast track". It enables the sounds and shapes of all the letters to be introduced in three weeks.

I liked the CD-Rom material. It is simple to use, stimulating and fun.

Children enjoy finding all the letter characters on screen and, with a click of the mouse, listening to their story and song (based on well-known nursery tunes and easy to learn). On the minus side the handwriting material in the review copy did not provide for cursive script and some of the reading books were a little dull.

Although not specifically pitched at the special needs market, teachers I spoke to suggested that children who have failed to learn sounds are motivated by the songs and stories of Letterland. One Senco said that learners found the images memorable and dynamic. They also liked the way the characters are used. For example, Harry Hat Man has a Clever Cat, and whenever she is next to him he sneezes - "ch"! That hits the visual, aural and kinaesthetic, in one fell swoop.

One contributor to an online message board for reading teachers told how a dyspraxicdyslexic child suddenly "clicked" when introduced to Letterland and asserts "whatever works with your children, stick with it". That sort of pragmatic approach is probably what got rockets off the ground in the first place.

Kevin Harcombe. Headteacher, Redlands primary school, Fareham

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