Worlds of see-saws and springboards;Children's Books and Reading;Books

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Storyworlds, Stages 1 - 6 Evaluation Pack, Heinemann pound;220

If you think that reading schemes (and phonics for that matter) are making a comeback, you are wrong. They never went away.

In 1991, HMI reported in The Teaching and Learning of Reading in Primary Schools that nearly 95 per cent of the schools surveyed were using a published reading scheme and that almost all were teaching phonics. So it is not surprising that over the past couple of years a number of new reading schemes have been published.

Structure appears to be the buzzword with all of them, but then if a reading scheme lacked structure it would not be a scheme, would it? Heinemann attempts to stand out from the crowd by focusing on approaches that involve adults and children reading together. The story "worlds" are structured to facilitate the acquisition of a basic sight vocabulary through a range of stories, "different styles of writing, different contexts and repetitive patterning of text".

Whether the story styles or "worlds" (Our World; Animal World; Fantasy World; and Once-upon-a-Time World) are quite as varied and exciting as claimed remains a moot point, but then most products struggle to live up to their advertising. Additionally there will be Rhyme World and Fact World, but these will not be published until next spring with the Year 2 books. First impressions are based on the materials for Reception and Year 1.

Stage 1 stories have a page for an adult to read (smaller type, more dense text) alongside a page for the child, which contains a short refrain. "'You are too little,' he said. 'You cannot help me.' But the little mouse squeaked . . .'(At this point the child takes over.) 'I can help you.'" These refrains provide repetition of a controlled vocabulary of 20 words at stage 1. Moving back and forth from child to adult is called the See-Saw approach and the stage 2 material, which extends the idea of condensing all the adult text into the first page to launch the story, is called the Springboard Approach - energetic names for gentle procedures. Heinemann's "unique" feature is a good one and I can imagine that these books would be particularly handy for children to read with an adult at home.

Additional support for the teacher is provided by a Readaloud Book and Big Books, which are large format repeats of some of the stories published in standard form. A Word Skills Pack is also available which contains picture-cued nouns on cards for matching games such as word snap. Black-and-white A4 format workbooks for the children to fill in ("colour the picture", "join the dots") and a spiral-bound Teaching Guide which is a painful 128 pages of blue print decorated with yellow highlights, complete the package.

This is a competitively priced scheme with few frills - no tapes, CD-Rom or the like - but it is consistent in approach, well-focused and straightforward to use.

Cliff Moon's comparative chart of reading schemes is included in the evaluation pack to help you to crossmatch Storyworlds with books from different schemes and to obtain a "level" for each book. For example Storyworlds stage 2 is individualised reading level 3 and national curriculum working towards level 1. The first six stages of Storyworlds can actually be matched to an individualised reading level by simply adding 1 to each stage number. Structure means living with levels.

Everything about the scheme is orderly and neat, perhaps even a little prim. I was reminded of the kind of restraint that the old Ladybird Reading Books used to exhibit, although I am not entirely sure why Storyworlds should sometimes feel so dated. There is originality as well as obvious merit in the approach Heinemann uses. Partly it must be the illustrations and the rather lacklustre quality of the books themselves. Titles like Frisky Plays a Trick and The Naughty Hamster don't help and the "join the dots, colour the pictures" activities are pre-Lascaux. Even the combination of Wes Magee and Val Biro on the Nesta and Ned stories produces no more than workmanlike results. Perhaps there is just not enough inspiration to go round.

Nesta blew fire on the snowball.

She blew and blew and blew.

Ned blew fire on the snowball.

He blew and blew and blew.

The Mr Marvel stories have some humour in them, but unfortunately, the artwork never really exploits this, whereas the Pirate Pete books, which were my favourites and perhaps the best of the bunch, succeed largely because the author Susan Akass, is blessed with an artist, Ben Cort, who manages to breathe some vitality into the page. But putting aside matters of taste, I am sure that schools will welcome Storyworlds.

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