These boots were made for flying
Games, rhymes and CD-Roms are brought together under one reading scheme, writes Nicholas Bielby.
Ted Wragg's Flying Boot is a remarkable one-man effort. The two elements central to any reading scheme are first, the underpinning concept of how children learn to read, and second, the quality of the stories. Wragg has more notion than most about modern research into reading (Lynette Bradley was a consultant), and this shows in the approach taken to phonics.
It starts with pre-alphabetic sight recognition of words (for example, exploiting environmental print), and then moves on to alphabetic approaches. Ted Wragg lays great store by developing phonological awareness and relating spellings to sounds.
The phonics workbooks operate largely in terms of onsets and rimes. He is as concerned with key phonological units as with key words. Thus his approach in general accords with the national curriculum.
While the theory of Flying Boot is very different from that of Oxford Reading Tree, there are similarities at an imaginative level. The stories are all by one author, the illustrations by one artist. The characters are a group of ordinary children who experience a variety of adventures through quasi-magical means in this case, the Flying Boot itself and its extraterrestrial cuddly captain, Max.
The consistency throughout the stories ensures familiarity with both the characters and the vocabulary. And indeed, in some cases the stories link together in sequences. However, consistency leads to a kind of sameness: the stories are not imaginatively rich. A bully is dealt with by Max putting on his red boots and growing so big he cows the villain who instantly becomes a good guy. If Biff amp; Co remind you of Scoobydoo, Max amp; Co are reminiscent of certain comic strips Gobbler is Gnasher without attitude. However, by Stage 8, some of the stories are richer and more like folktales.
Each set of books consists of 12 stories, two non-fiction books and a story exploiting environmental print. The teacher's books, phonics workbooks and copymaster books are really supportive. However, while the systematic phonics approach has much to commend it, the level of comprehension work is pretty basic. What the scheme now needs is enriching by more non-fiction and some realism, poetry and fairy tales.
A novel feature of Flying Boot is the CD-Roms. Each chapter includes a mini-adventure with interactive graphics (such as a visit to the past with One-tooth trying to smuggle a baby dinosaur home), followed by click-and-drag games involving matching, sorting, sequencing and, at a lowly level, comprehension. The games are comp red by leading characters (Magpie has an unexpectedly plummy voice), and feedback during the games consists largely of appalling rhymes ("W it is. You've lots of fizz!"). Altogether, I'm sure it will grip the one or two children at a time who can use it and it will drive you mad if your children latch on to the rhymes!
But what is its teaching value? Limited, I'd say. There are some rough edges for one game, syllables are explained as "the sounds the word makes when it is spoken". The games ideas are often good (though I don't see the point of colour-matching) but there is not enough practice. For example, matching letters in different fonts and in different logos is an excellent idea, but why not match the problem letters like a and g, or capitals and lower case?
Finally, the package is bugged so teachers can get a print-out of a child's performance if they think it will be useful. Overall, while I recognise the motivating power of computer games, I am more struck by the versatility and accessibility of print on paper.
The assessment pack for stages 1-8 is a copymaster book of formative assessment tasks. It is a pity the materials are so closely linked in with the scheme, because their conception is so good, materials like these should be in every school. They range from simple miscue analysis through a whole array of skills. However, for the teacher who is not familiar with this approach (and the national curriculum), there is no guidance about how to interpret the results.
Nevertheless, Flying Boot is the only scheme that has really taken the new phonics on board.
Nicholas Bielby is a lecturer in the School of Education, Leeds University. Reviews of earlier stages of Flying Boot appeared in The TES on July 1, 1994 and March 10, 1995