Nicholas Bielby welcomes a refreshing approach to phonological awareness.Oxford Reading Tree does a complete backflip - successfully. In 1986, its "whole-language" teaching approach was "meaning to sentences to wordsletters", but now, with its Rhyme and Analogy materials, it is promoting the previously despised "letterwords to sentences to meaning" paradigm.
Not, however, the traditional phonics paradigm. The new materials have been developed with Usha Goswami to exploit her findings about phonological awareness and learning by analogy. So is this the breakthrough we have been waiting for, an authoritative, fully developed "new phonics" approach to the teaching of reading?
The Rhyme and Analogy materials constitute a complete and independent programme. Its central strategy is taught through the clue game. A clue word is displayed which shares a rime or an onset with a family of familiar words, eg, net, which rhymes with wet and pet; cap, which alliterates with cot and car.
Reading and spelling are taught by explicitly drawing attention to the function of the common spelling patterns in the word families. The aim is that children should learn a general strategy of using spelling patterns they know as clues for working out words they don't know.
This strategy is reinforced by oral work on rhymes and by the Story Rhymes, each of which highlights four spelling families. Thus "Supersonic engine juice" features the tub, net, zip and fan families but, as the title shows, the language is not restricted to simple phonics patterns. Analogy is taught within a wider whole-language framework.
The Story Rhymes in the big book format can be shared at Oxford Reading Tree Stage 1 and read independently at Stage 5.
All the stories are by Roderick Hunt and are attractively illustrated by a variety of artists.
The stories themselves are varied and engaging, at their best playing sound-games with language. Unfortunately, just occasionally the rhythms aren't fluent, though careful reading can redeem them - as the tapes illustrate.
But many of the books would deserve a place in any class library - My Home is real poetry, magically illustrated by Cliff Wright: "This is my home," said the town Fox, but she made no sound.
"I live on old land where the wild weeds have sprung.
And when night begins I sniff for the smell and the whiff of the bins where old food is flung."
The Teacher's Guide explains thoroughly and helpfully how the books and materials should be used, and even explains the theory for those who want to go more deeply into it.
The materials include alphabet displays (including ch, sh, th and wh), photocopiable worksheets, games materials and tapes which tell each story rhyme twice over, the second time leaving gaps for the children to supply the missing rhymes. All the activities start with oral work on onsets and rimes before moving on to written representations and analogy. The goal is that children use analogy strategically to tackle, eg, a word like "fingertip" by recognising the -ing, -er and -ip rime chunks.
ORT's Rhyme and Analogy represents an important and clearly structured development in the pedagogy of reading, and one that helps to make ORT a better balanced scheme. It constitutes the best development so far towards a thorough-going "new phonics" approach.
New Way is a scheme committed to traditional phonics as a key element. The new materials available are a Big Book introducing the animal characters, Teacher's Guides 1 and 2, and Copymasters 1 and 2.
Teacher's Guide 1 shows some unfamiliarity with terminology and research: the terms "phoneme" and "grapheme" are used confusedly, and vowel sounds are explained (to avoid problems of regional accents) as the sounds within words ("u" makes the sound in "bun") at a point when children are unlikely to be able to segment vowels.
The main function of the Guides, however, is to introduce the scheme books through the various levels, indicating objectives and extension activities. There is nothing about how to teach phonics.
Copymaster 1 includes mask designs, picture sequences, games and reading worksheets (What tender sensibility makes them suggest "Moles like eating carrots" rather than worms?). Copymaster 2 adds spelling games, comprehension and activity tasks. If you already have New Way, these publications will be useful, but there is nothing here to encourage anyone to take on this scheme for the first time.