Set the imagination on fire

9th January 2004 at 00:00
Kevin Harcombe takes a look at some reading schemes that seek to excite, stimulate and educate.



Badger publishing

Single copy, pound;3.99; six pack, pound;21.50; teacher book, pound;14.

All 18 titles plus all three teacher books, pound;95 Oxford Reading Tree - Fireflies and Treetops

Oxford University Press

Evaluation Pack - 60 books plus notes and cards, pound;125. Other options available


Horwitz Gardner Six pack pound;12.99, teacher's book pound;19.99

Brainwaves is billed as "non-fiction to grab the grey matter" and it does exactly what it says on the tin. Brash, bold and with boy appeal, these books will fly off the shelves.

First to grab are the titles - who could resist opening "Plants that bite back!"? Next, the cover illustrations, "Monsters" will be appreciatively passed round the class, while "The Alien Files" successfully tempts prospective readers with a cover showing a cow in the traction beam of a UFO.

The promise of cover and title are fulfilled in the punchy texts. "Real World Robots" asserts that "one day a humanoid robot might be serving you in a shop and you won't even know it's a robot." Who would dare go shopping with a child who had just read that? "Hoaxes, fibs and fakes" urges the reader to enter its competition - "see page 64 for details". Naturally, there is no page 64 - children love such pranks and so do I.

This series has clearly learned a lot from Horrible Histories and the content is often humorous, with discerning use of comical word balloons and such fantastic revelations as "the sea squirt eats its own brain". Subject matter takes in the entire zeitgeist from nanotechnology (that's grey goo to you, HRH) to surfing.

Pitched at reading ages of seven to nine, but with an interest level of eight to 14, their particular appeal for boys will benefit both primary and secondary schools. Design is vibrant and illustrations are full colour and mainly photographic. Concise but comprehensive teaching guides are crossreferenced to the National Literary Strategy and come complete with worksheets, cross-curricular links and very detailed guidance on using the texts as starters for non-fiction writing.

Oxford Reading Tree - Fireflies and True Stories are still good reads, but more refined and perhaps more restrained than the archetypal antipodean Brainwaves.

The ORT series has the undeniable advantage of being familiar - apparently 75 per cent of schools use them. The traditional ORT virtues of careful levelling, "pick up and go" teaching notes and clear links to the broader UK curriculum are all here. They don't have the irreverence or in-your-face attitude of Brainwaves, but they are attractively packaged and written and are closely linked to QCA schemes of work and are banded for ease of use.

The range of subjects will appeal across a broad spectrum, and include such titles as "Magic Tricks", "Shipwrecks" and "The King of Football". To aid home school links, ORT has a "Take Home" card for each title for parents to work with their child, as well as a guided reading card for teachers and assistants which "takes all the pain out of planning". Ah, if onlyI There are suggested writing activities so that children are learning that reading can and should enrich their writing. Advice such as "try to give exciting answers", however, is just fatuous.

Broad assessment is provided by a simple checklist of target achievements and detailed running records can be downloaded from www.OxfordReadingTree.comFor end of KS1 the True Stories books include slightly worthy biographies, the most interesting of which is the "Titanic Survivor" story told in the first person. For older readers, there are Tree Tops True Stories. "Race Against Time", the riveting story of Apollo XIII gets a littled bogged down in technical detail at the expense of page-turning appeal, while the biography of Mel B is a good story and offers a strong, female, mixed-race role model. But who among the target audience will remember the Spice Girls?

Reassuring, friendly, and more sedately paced for its very young readers (book bands one to eight), Alphaworld has the advantage of being ready book-banded and is superbly illustrated with colour photos. Each book comes with detailed checklists giving total word count, high-frequency vocabulary etc, giving teachers the detail they need quickly to match book to reader.

Infant children enjoy the look of the books and the layout is clear and uncluttered, complementing the text well.

The teacher versions of each book offer what is virtually a script for a lesson, which less-experienced teachers and assistants will find most useful.

Different children will benefit from different schemes at different stages of their reading development and each of these schemes has a part to play.

They are all attractively illustrated, well-written and have their own distinctive voices as different as, say, the Independent and the Sun. If you are lucky enough to have any money to spend this year, you pays it and takes your choice.

Kevin Harcombe is headteacher of Redlands Primary School

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