Ups and downs of an inconsistent start
Early Start is described as "a complete beginners' resource" which has a very gradual introduction to frequently repeated vocabulary for our youngest, most inexperienced readers.
There are 52 books, divided between strands. First, the Tom stories, which tell of everyday activities in the life of Tom, the dog and the family. Second, the Giant stories about the adventures of a giant who befriends a small girl. Third the Scratch and Sniff hedgehog stories aimed at fun, and finally traditional stories and rhymes.
The pack also includes two cassettes with interactive listening activities, photocopiable sheets containing extended versions of each story designed for both classroom and home use, photocopy masters containing a range of language activities, a set of flash-cards containing the core vocabulary in the books and class and individual record sheets.
Like many colleagues working with very inexperienced readers, I include scheme books in my programme, provided they hold a child's interest (and my own) through lively illustrations and vocabulary and a story which is important to children's lives.
If vocabulary is to be highly controlled, children and their parents must see steady and comparatively rapid progress.
Although the guide presents a wealth of exercises, stories to accompany books without words, charts with word counts and so on, nowhere could I find an introduction explaining the aims and approach of the scheme. After reading the 52 books and the guide, I was left with a number of questions.
Can a scheme containing only 39 words (18 "core" or "service" words) and 21 nouns (often proper nouns) really be a complete beginners' resource as suggested? It is true that we do not necessarily need a lot of words for children to become hooked on reading. Sylvia Ashton-Warner's imaginative work in Teacher (1963) shows the power of individual "key" words which become "one-sight" reading words if they appeal to children's emotions.
Yet the choice of words in Early Start seems strange; we have "he" but not "she"; "help" and "helps" but not "are"; "up" and "down" but not "at". By Level 9, the text is still at the stage of "Sniff went up, up, up", "Scratch went down, down, down" and so on.
Second, how do books without words contribute to showing children the relationship between spoken and written language if they are accompanied by a complicated text read aloud by the teacher which the children cannot see?
And how can children reconcile discrepancies between the illustration and the text (the word "mum" is sometimes written under the picture of Tom and vice versa), within the text itself (titles sometimes have capitals, sometimes not) and within illustrations (the giant sometimes walks through a normal door and so on). Above all, how does a teacher explain these inconsistencies to children?
Teachers need to use flash-cards sensibly, but how can they do this when essential words are missing? The Early Start scheme highlights the difficulties in achieving authenticity when the number of words is so limited that even essentials are excluded. Individual non-scheme books (such as Rosie's Walk) show us just how much better at the teaching job they can be.
The most effective part of the scheme is the strand focusing on traditional tales and rhymes. The authors might well have extended this section using songs and rhymes which could be practised at home. This might mean a less constrained vocabulary, it is true, But children do not count the words as they learn to read. They are too interested in what is meaningful.
Eve Gregory is a senior lecturer in education at Goldsmiths' College.