Rambo and the stuck record

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Read On, By Rita Ray, Level 1 Pounds 9. Level 2. Pounds 11.70, Level 1 and 2 Teacher's, Resource Book Pounds 40.88, Level 3 Pounds 11.70. Level 4 Pounds 13.50, Level 3 and 4 Teacher's, Resource Book Pounds 46.75, Level 5 Pounds 15. Level 6 Pounds 15, Level 5 and 6 Teacher's, Resource Book Pounds 46.75, Stanley Thornes, Age range 7 - 13

This "second chance" reading scheme comprises fiction and non-fiction books at six levels, with a graded build-up of vocabulary and controlled introduction of grammatical difficulty.

Alongside the books (six at each level) come teacher's resource files with hundreds of photocopiable worksheets on phonics, comprehension, prediction and vocabulary consolidation, with cassettes containing read-along versions of the stories. The teacher's pack has advice on assessment, recording and how to use the programme.

As an example of the reading scheme genre, these are quite acceptable books and materials. The stories are reasonably interesting, the back-up materials are sound and the advice given in the resource books is good. Especially good is the encouragement to miscue analysis in the section on assessment.

That being said, these are nevertheless the sort of materials which would make "real books" advocate Kenneth Goodman choke on his porridge. So typical are they of reading schemes that they raise again the tired dilemma of whether real books or schemes are better instruments for promoting literacy in children - and particularly children who have experienced difficulty in learning to read. The assumption behind this kind of material (an assumption increasingly supported by those in high places) is that structure is necessary when things have gone wrong and that it is essential to grade a child's learning carefully.

An alternative view is that failure in reading is caused in large part by a vicious circle of boredom and anxiety - which can be induced by the kind of material found in reading schemes. Boredom leads to failure and the experience of failure leads to helplessness and fear which leads to further failure. Children will only escape from that vicious circle by being relaxed, finding interest in the materials they are looking at and receiving appropriate guidance and support.

So do these books contribute to the vicious circle? Do they commit the sins of the past? You certainly won't find any "See the dog. See! See! See!" The stories are varied (even if the language isn't), the pictures are colourful and pains have clearly been taken to avoid the mistakes of older schemes. The scheme paints a picture of a multicultural world to which boys and girls of all races contribute equally.

However, the scheme will require sensitive handling if the problems of reading schemes are to be completely avoided. Colour coding betrays the progressive nature of the material and children who are slow to progress will therefore have clear reminders of the fact. The emphasis on graded introduction of vocabulary and sounds is bound to have had an impact on language variety and story impact.

While there is no "See See See" there is a "'Hallo Rambo,' said Tom. 'Hallo Rambo,' said Vicky. 'Hallo Rambo,' said Rambo." The use of a parrot (yes, Rambo) is an unfortunate icon for the necessity for repetition which controlled language imposes upon the author. One can almost hear the monotone in which these lines will be uttered by "reluctant" readers.

It has to be conceded, though, that part of the argument about structure concerns the fact that classrooms are not perfect places; children finish work at different times and need supportive materials when the teacher is busy. One of the blessings of this scheme is that it provides a wealth of supportive material in the shape of worksheets to aid the child's progress.(There are, for instance, about 150 photocopiable worksheets which accompany the 12 books at levels 5 and 6 of the programme.) It may therefore provide a useful resource if used sensitively and alongside other books and materials.

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