Makeover for Biff and Chip

16th January 2004 at 00:00
Kevin Harcombe welcomes the reinvigorated Oxford Reading Tree

Remember a time before reality TV, when Becks was just a drink and lessons did not come in pre-packed, shrink-wrapped "hours"? Then you may remember when Oxford Reading Tree was the new hip kid on the reading scheme block.

Written by Roderick Hunt and illustrated by Alex Brychta, the scheme quickly became one of the most popular ever. But, nearly 13 years on, age and the literacy strategy have taken their toll, so Oxford University Press has brought out the Botox to reinvigorate Kipper, Biff, Chip and co.

Linda Gray of OUP says Brychta's illustrations (a major part of the scheme's appeal) were originally done in Magic Marker and gouache: "They literally wore out with each successive run so technical necessity as well as changes in schools have given Alex the opportunity to do them again in his current style."

Fear not, magic key fans: there are no radical changes or catchpenny updating - no Biff in an Eminem hoody - and the overall effect is subtle rather than dramatic. Characters are fractionally less cartoon-like but the scenes depicted are virtually identical to the original. The colours are warmer, a television set and one dress are brought up to date, Kipper's hair looks a little more Toni and Guy rather than penny for the guy, but the familiar characters are all instantly recognisable.

The plain black title font is replaced by colourful block lettering, while removal of the margin bar allows the illustration to fill the whole front cover. Lines are softened and the logo is modernised. The overall effect looks more like a "real" book and less like a scheme. On the back cover, a blurb is included for the first time and cleverly pitched at the same level as the book. All good post-National Literacy Strategy children look for this before choosing. It also lists the vocabulary practised in the book and has an unobtrusive tab (or easily missed tab, depending on whether your glass is half full or half empty) telling you which colour book band it is.

The text has been reset so that sentences run over the line to encourage readers to make use of sentence markers. But the stories are unaltered - and they still work a treat. Children love these books, not just for the vitality of Brychta's illustrations, but because the stories mirror their own lives. "They are centred on children's own experiences and arose in part from Rod teaching his own children to read," says Linda Gray.

"The twists at the end add humour and ensure they come back for more." Most importantly, he never talks down to his readers, no matter how limited their expertise.

Teachers like ORT because, whatever theme or subject they might have to teach, it's usually a safe bet that there is a book here to support it. The "pick up and go" cross-curricular teaching notes, the NLS references and the new teacher's handbook are all designed to save work. The guided reading card for each title is another welcome timesaver - the originals date from an era when teachers heard children read rather than guiding them in a group.

The launch of non-fiction Fireflies matched to the same book bands adds further breadth to the scheme. Similarly, helpful "Take Home" cards support adults reading with children at home. (Though expecting stressed and tired parents and children to undertake "further activities" is probably the triumph of hope over experience.) So, welcome the new, fresh, organic and 100 per cent GM-free Kipper - a boy for all seasons. Here's to the next 15 years.

Kevin Harcombe is headteacher at Redlands Primary School, Fareham, Hampshire

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