Trigger for learning

RAT-A-TAT-TAT Channel 4 Mondays 11.30-11.45; repeated Wednesday 11.30-11. 45 Activity book Pounds 4.95, music activity book Pounds 4.95, audio cassette of music Pounds 6.95.

Those children who wonder if learning to read is worth the effort should be made to watch television. Not any old programme, of course, but the new series of Rat-a-tat-tat - an object lesson in how high production values (and, presumably, a big budget) can make all the difference in educational broadcasting. The makers have used every trick of the trade to convince four to six-year-olds that being able to read books opens up a world of new experiences, excitement, adventure and fun.

Each of the 10 programmes concentrates on one or two popular titles. The range reflects the breadth of writing available for new readers: everything from Jessica Souhami's evocative African folk tale, The Leopard's Drum, to Colin McNaughton's comedy-thriller, Here Come the Aliens. Before pressing the Play button, teachers are strongly advised to have the featured books ready in the reading corner, as there is certain to be a mad rush for them as soon as the final credits roll.

It's a cliche, but the programmes really do succeed in bringing the books to life. In most cases, the illustrations used in the books have been brilliantly animated. Occasionally, the pictures remain in their original form, but some deft work with the rostrum camera imitates the action of the eye, as it makes broad sweeps or homes in on an intriguing detail.

But there is far more to the series than the attractive presentation of individual titles.

Each of the 15-minute programmes is set in a different location. These include the circus, a farm, a fancy-dress shop and - an inspired choice - a rescue home for cats. This provides the presenter, Aidan Cook, with the opportunity to chat with children and to share a song, a poem, a game or a few jokes. There are always plenty of surprises; for example, a marvellous percussion band, a pantomime horse, and some distant relations of Wallace and Gromit who are on hand to help with the singing.

There is enough variety to ensure that young viewers will not get bored but will be sufficiently enthused to want to find out more about the week's theme. When Aidan opens his Rat-a-tat-tat bag and brandishes three or four relevant titles, the message couldn't be clearer: if there is something you enjoy, books will help you to enjoy it even more.

The actual business of learning to read is indeed a challenge, and the programmes offer beginners some practical help. For instance, during the animation sequences, one of the sentences repeated in the story is flashed up on the screen every time it is heard. Each programme has a sequence which focuses on the "letter of the week" and a range of games and listening activities designed to increase the children's phonic knowledge. It's not a comprehensive reading scheme, of course, but, at this stage, every little bit helps.

As well as the detailed teachers' notes, there is an activity book of photocopiable worksheets based on characters in the stories; another includes a collection of classroom exercises based on the songs featured in the programmes. The songs are also available on audio cassette.

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