Virginia Hunt urges teachers to avoid bland early readers and seek out some entertaining and inventive stories for shared reading
Well Loved Tales series
Illustrated by Elisabeth Moseng
By Paul Harrison and Belinda Worsley
By Kay Woodward and Stefania Colnaghi
Evans, hardback pound;7.99; paperback pound;3.99 each
The Cat in the Coat
By Vivian French
Illustrated by Alison Bartlett
I Wish I was an Alien
By Vivian French
Illustrated by Lisa Williams
Croc by the Rock
By Hilary Robinson
Illustrated by Mike Gordon
Evans, hardbacks pound;7.99; paperbacks pound;3.99 each
Tongue Twisters to Tangle your Tongue
Illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
Marion Boyars pound;5.99
Eggbert's Adventures at the ZooFairSeaside
By Paul Gustafson
Illustrated by Ray Mutimer
Eggsact Books pound;4.99 each
The teaching of reading skills has always been a political hot potato, with much pressure on teachers to make an early start in teaching initial sounds, key words and spelling patterns. But in delivering these messages, what compromises do you make on the quality of the stories in books designed to support early readers?
Children must build a good relationship with books, engaging with the text and pictures, and playing with the language. Also, teachers and parents have to be stimulated by the texts enough to foster enthusiasm. Lively and imaginative books for shared reading are vital, which means looking beyond the bland offerings of many reading schemes.
Many teachers will have cut their teeth on Ladybird early readers and the format has changed little over the years, except for the occasional update of illustrations. The books are graded, with levels 1 and 2 offering a simple format, which is clear and accessible to young readers. They make good use of the repetitive nature of traditional stories, with familiar phrases to build confidence and fluency. Chicken Licken, for example, offers simple sentences that can be easily memorised. The illustrations mirror the story so children with a range of abilities can enjoy the book.
The higher-level texts for more able readers are rather flat, with little evidence of the "richness of language" promised. There are many better versions of traditional stories available to challenge developing readers.
The Twisters series offers strong storylines in very short texts (up to 50 words) and great illustrations. Yummy Scrummy, with a simple structure, but a great twist, proved a particular favourite with my four-year-old critics, who quickly learned and repeated the short phrases with gusto. The humour of the storyline is caught brilliantly in the vibrant pictures.
Young readers get an early taste of onomatopoeia in Squelch - a good starter for generating a word bank of sound effects - while learning about a curious girl, who gets mucky while exploring. Again, the pictures tell the true story, for example you note the glass of milk poised to topple.
The same publisher's Zigzag series of 150-word stories appeals to children who haven't yet mastered text, as well as those more confident with the written word. Simple sentences, rhyme and rhythm tell stories with a clear beginning, middle and end. The colourful illustrations are well matched to the text. The Cat in the Coat introduces simple phonetic patterns in an entertaining tale of a naughty cat, without compromising the story structure. Non-readers can work out what happens by studying the pictures.
In the same series, I Wish I was an Alien uses rhyme effectively in offering two perspectives, that of the child who wants to "zoom around the stars" and the alien who would love to do all the things a child does, because "a human's life is cool".
Vivian French is not afraid to extend the vocabulary beyond those 100 words that new readers have to grasp, taking children beyond the everyday world.
This can only enrich their language and get them asking questions. Hilary Robinson's Croc by the Rock uses rhythm and rhyme to deliver a pacey, funny story of a young boy fishing, which leaves the reader wondering where it might go.
All these books lend themselves to further literacy activities: promoting spelling patterns; using the themes to develop stories or make up simple rhymes. They prove a wonderful prompt to young imaginations, in contrast to the bland offerings of many reading schemes.
Children delight in wordplay and Tongue Twisters to Tackle your Tongue will challenge mental and verbal skills. This is a good way to introduce alliteration and to link reading with the spoken word. There are old favourites such as Betty Botter and "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?" Once pupils get the hang of these you could get them to invent their own.
Children like the safety of familiar characters, hence the popularity of Bob the Builder and Tellytubbies. Now Paul Gustafson has introduced us to a world of talking eggs - Eggbert and his friends and family. The character of Eggbert is reminiscent of Noddy and there are also baddies, Bad Egg Bill and his cronies, who try to thwart Eggbert and his mate Shelley. Written in rhyming couplets, and with detailed illustrations, each book outlines an eventful day in the life of Eggbert, who somehow remains unscathed and ends each book safely tucked up in bed. Although the stories are too predictable for my taste, I can see Eggbert becoming a firm favourite with children and their parents. The website's downloadable activities might be useful for homework and competitions.
Virginia Hunt teaches early years and key stage 1 in south London and has been an ethnic minority achievement manager in the London borough of Lewisham