Zoom in on the class strugglers
Zoom is a new series of graded reading material aimed at eight to 11-year-olds with reading ages of between four and seven years. The books are attractive and brightly illustrated, but the main character in each of the stories, with one exception, is male.
The authors lamely justify this bias on the ground that most children who have literacy difficulties in the lower junior age range are boys. But these books are unlikely to succeed in recruiting boys to literacy because, although they have limited affective content, they tend to be stereotypical (bullies, supergrans, pranks and pranksters). Boys need as much strong emotional content as girls. It is a myth that they do not respond to complex characterisation and the interplay of relationships.
The worksheets compound this tendency by being skills-oriented; the occasional activity suggests an imaginative interpretation of the story, but this is secondary to the overall emphasis on skills.
There are moments in the series when a fresh and interesting idea is translated into an enjoyable and good story. In set C, the reader is introduced to Ziggy, a boy from the future who lands by chance in the present. Ziggy moves around on wheels like Tim, a character whose wheels are attached to a wheelchair. Again, in the suggested follow-up activities no further reference is made to disability and the opportunity for using an enjoyable story which provides a context to explore and discuss a real social issue is lost.
There are some positive elements. The teacher's manual tries to adopt a whole language approach. Each story is accompanied by ideas for using the text, including keyword recognition and phonics. The materials build on these skills and range from interesting ideas to rather unimaginative and dull exercises. The activities are structured sothat the child can work on their own or with a parent, teacher, or helper and produce a folder or booklet which will provide a product of the child's work and leave the teacher with an opportunity for assessment.
The accompanying tapes as well as the suggested shared reading of the stories will enable children to return to their favourites. But caution and sensitivity are needed: worksheets can leave struggling readers to get on quietly, while all the activity of a busy, talking classroom where the richness of language is developing through planning, discovery and co-operation goes on around them.