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On the trail of word codes

Book Box: Freddie and Zapper, Age range 7 to 11, Channel 4 Mondays, 9. 45am. Repeated Wednesdays 9.45am. Teacher's guide, Pounds 3.95, Educational Television Company: 01926 433333

Like the computer game that it features, this new four-part drama by Brian Nixon will take its classroom audience on a series of exciting language-learning journeys.

Two children, Freddie and Zapper, are drawn into the world's most powerful computer, where they take part in a mysterious game. They must move through different levels of the game in their quest to find the "One" who can stop the world from poisoning itself with its own pollution.

To progress through the computer game the children must solve a variety of language puzzles, including an acrostic, riddles, codes, mirror writing and a treasure map.

After they find themselves marooned in the very impressive computer-generated terrain in episode one, each of the subsequent programmes draws on a familiar text from literature to tell a story within a story.

They encounter Aladdin in a cave, Sherlock Holmes in Baker Street and Michael Foreman's story "One World" somewhere out in the galaxy.

These programmes can be used in two ways. Children could simply be asked to watch a good adventure yarn with excellent graphics, play some word games and become familiar with a small range of children's literature.

Alternatively, with a great deal of teacher preparation, Freddie and Zapper could be used at a more complex level to increase children's knowledge about language.

With its emphasis on codes, the first episode invites class discussion about English being a system of letters governed by grammatical rules, essential for people to communicate clearly.

It raises the issue of reading being a matter of decoding words and sentences.

The following episode also develops this idea. While Aladdin tells the children his version of his life, the genie simultaneously uses computerised shadow puppets to tell an altogether less flattering version.

Pupils' attention can be drawn to the fact that as well as decoding, reading involves interpreting stories in the light of the knowledge the reader brings to the text and that familiar stories exist in several versions in different cultures, transformed as they are passed down the generations.

The children's encounter with Sherlock Holmes explores the crime and detection genre, not only in printed texts but also in pictures, showing how children can read visual clues, interpret them and make deductions.

When Freddie and Zapper need to know the story of King Charles I in order to understand a riddle, it underlines the idea that the meaning made from a particular text is influenced by the reader's knowledge of other texts.

Holmes's keen powers of observation highlight the importance of close reading of a text in order to make inferences and deductions.

"Nothing means what it says," moans Zapper in episode four while they listen to Michael Foreman's moving metaphorical story about two children creating a new world in a jar by the seaside and, topically, removing oil from a clear rock pool.

This invites discussion about how writers use devices in stories to imply but not explicitly state comparisons with people's lives.

There are some tacit messages about books to be uncovered with the pupils.

Like Freddie's and Zapper's adventure, books can be exciting, challenging, scary and keep you on the edge of your seat, eager to know what happens next.

You sometimes have to struggle with books to make meaning, using a variety of strategies in the same way that Freddie and Zapper have to struggle to solve puzzles.

The teacher's role is to make explicit what is implicit, to address the many questions about issues of language, particularly reading, raised by Freddie and Zapper.

Freddie and Zapper has a complex, fragmented narrative and pupils will be confused without explanation from the teacher.

While the excellent worksheets in the teacher's guide give pupils a sense of involvement and interaction with the Freddie and Zapper on the screen, the teacher's notes do not go far enough or provide adequate support for follow-up work. A book based on the series will be published later this year.

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