Putting you in the picture

18th September 1998 at 01:00
PASSPORTS TO LITERACY. Evaluation Pack 1 and 2. Press. Pounds 25 each. Passports to Literacy: Texts 1 Sentences 1. Words 1.Cambridge University Press Pounds 23.50 each.

Good books, pity about the activities. Nicholas Bielby on the latest from Cambridge Reading Passports to Literacy is an addition to Cambridge Reading, designed to support literacy hour teaching in key stage 2. It provides sets of Cambridge's new Independent Reading stories and poetry books, and three teacher's books focusing on text-level, sentence-level and word-level work respectively for each of the junior years. There are six copies of each text, making them suitable for ability group reading. Additionally, there are A1-size text extract posters for focusing whole-class or group textual study.

The books are of a high standard in terms of writing and illustration. As is usual, there is more emotional depth and breadth in the stories than the poems. in Pack 2, Helen Dunmore's story about a boy surviving his parents' separation made my eyes prickle, and Susan Price's fantasy about spell-making is more vivid and real than most realism. The stories overall offer a wide range of genres, with a wide range of geographical settings.

The teacher's books are clear and thorough, cross-referenced to assist planning, and provide copiable worksheets (and, in the case of sentence-level work, a useful introduction to grammar for the insecure teacher). The teaching suggestions cover whole-class sessions working with big text extracts, group activities (independent and taught) and plenary sessions. Words 1, however, provides neither suggestions about direct teaching nor references to the reading books: the materials are exclusively games related to spelling and meanings. Worthy but pedestrian. Where is there anything about the excitement of words that informs the poetry in the pack?

The sentence-level work is better. It discusses, for example, some unfamiliar Afro-Caribbean words as they occur in the story Carnival and the question of how the reader makes sense of them in context. But all that can be done, apparently, in looking at the interesting phrase from another story, "chased by a flock of killer sheep", is (yawn, yawn) to teach "a pride of lions", "a swarm of bees", etc.

At the text-level, the reading books come into their own as a focus. But even here, the approach sticks closely to National Literacy Strategy guidelines, sometimes at the expense of not dealing with the issues that the texts themselves raise. For example, it is surely important to reflect on how we gather that Chimba lives in a poor third-World country, because it is important to realise that children the world over have the same feelings. The work sheet providing a writing frame for reviewing a poem is too generalised and lame. For example, instead of just asking children to say what they enjoyed, they could be prompted into discussing the pictures the poem put into their heads, personal experiences the poem makes them think of, particular phrases they found exciting. Asking them how the poem might be improved, or what they learned from it, is a way of killing it dead.

Passports to Literacy is based on good reading materials, and a teacher will not go far wrong following its prescriptions. But an imaginative teacher will want to develop and enrich the activities suggested here.

Nicholas Bielby's book 'How to Teach Reading, a balanced approach' will be published by Scholastic

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