Liz Waterland looks at recent publishing for beginning readers
Once upon a time there were two sorts of books. One sort was used almost exclusively in schools and was called a ‘reader’ or a scheme book. It had a particular place within a set of books, all with the same pattern on the cover, all numbered, all in a specific order and level of ‘difficulty’. These books, from educational publishers, were quite unambiguous … their purpose was to teach children to read.
The second sort of book was the ‘story’ book. Produced by mainstream publishers of children’s books, it was used both in school and at home. It was for an adult to read aloud to a child or class of children; much later, it might be for children to read for themselves after they had successfully completed the reading scheme, and were judged to be able to read.
Life was simpler then. We knew where we were. No-one could possibly have confused the two sorts of books and their purposes. No-one wanted to.
Or that was how it seemed, until the questions started coming – not least from teachers trying to help children become readers. And one of the most challenging which refused to be ignored was: ‘How do so many children come to see reading as so boring or intimidating that they never even want to read the second sort of book?’ What are we telling children about reading by the way we teach it and the resources we use that makes this happen?
It was questions like these that led to a reappraisal of the place of books in the learning of literacy. And it was here that life became less simple. The ‘Real books for Real readers’ movement suggested, forcibly, and demonstrated, practically, that children did not need the first category of book. The ‘reader’, the scheme, was quite unnecessary … just as a scheme to teach babies to walk or talk would be. The ‘real’ book (picture book/story book) could do the job itself … and far more successfully too, because it both showed children what a pleasure reading was and motivated them to want to do it.
Now that in itself does not sound very complex. It is a simple message …there is no need for special books to teach reading; any good children’s literature will do that and much more beside. The complexity was created by two problems.
Firstly, many teachers (and parents) simply do not know enough about books to choose what is a good children’s book. When it was a question of Book 5 comes after Book 4 it was easy, no questions asked. But faced with a pile of books, uncoded, un-numbered, which to choose and why?
Secondly, publishers reacted. Educational publishers began to get worried. The reading scheme market is very valuable; if it was to be denigrated and its effectiveness questioned, a great deal of money and probably some jobs might be at stake. Mainstream publishers saw a bright new market – a lot of teachers keen to try a different approach but anxious about ‘levels’.
As a result two new sorts of book have begun to appear. Both are in the nature of compromise since they are not wholly reading schemes and yet are not wholly individual story books either.
The first sort of book might be described as a reading scheme in real books clothing; the second is a story book looking rather like part of a scheme. There are plenty of examples of both on the market at the moment; the first is very recent, the second has a rather longer history but has never been quite as prolific as at present.
Examples of the first sort include such recent ventures as Oxford’s Reading Tree, Nelson’s Open Door, Arnold’s Story Chest and, of course, Longman’s Reading World. All these schemes (for such they certainly are) carry the genes of their parents: they have a firm hierarchy of books in ascending order of density of text (which, of course, is not the same thing as difficulty), numbered or coded and supported by flash cards, phonic sheets, puzzles and vocabulary practice. They are, however, also children of the ‘new’ age in that they have different covers on each book, quote psycho-linguistic theory and, above all, use phrases such as ‘natural language’, ‘real stories’ and ‘whole language approach’ to indicate that these are no longer the reading schemes we once knew.
Looking at one of these new breed more closely can we say that the effort has been worthwhile? Cliff Moon described these schemes as ‘looking in every direction at once’ and this seems to be true of the much publicised Longman’s Reading World.
What are the grounds on which it should be judged’? The publishers claim all the virtues of the old style scheme . . . ‘a valuable framework to use in the organisation of the children’s reading’, ‘skills development’, ‘structure’, ‘vocabulary usage and rate of introduction were then checked’, ‘the phonic strand of the scheme’. This is certainly the language of the old-fashioned reading scheme. Does Reading World work on the basis of these criteria? Well, frankly, no it doesn’t. If you want a good reading scheme, stick to Beacon Readers or One, Two, Three and Away. We have sunk pretty low in our estimation of children’s ability to utilise the English language and its literature if these vapid, crudely ‘humorous’ and undemanding ‘stories’ are the best we can offer. Beacon Readers used the whole range and depth of folk tale, legend and poetry, with all its sweep of language and emotion (you remember The Hobyahs, Tom-Tit-Tot and Rapunzel I’m sure); these poverty stricken little pamphlets are just nowhere.
To take an example from Level 3 of Reading World (which is the highest Infant level …for the most able seven-year-olds), what sort of demands on the child’s emotions and intellect are made by this section from Book I?
‘She vacuumed the carpet. Up and down and all around.
She vacuumed the windows. Up and down and all around.
She vacuumed Gran’s bed. Over and under and all around.’
And that is three pages read! Good Lord, by seven on Through the Rainbow children were being offered those Gold and Silver books. They were uniform in appearance and unglossy . . . but they did at least demand something of the child; and they offered something more than the basic language of the shopping list.
What about the Skills Teaching? Surely here Longmans can offer something better than the old schemes could? Well, if your taste is for controlled vocabulary, then you need not look for it here unless you define a controlled vocabulary as meaning that each page has the same thing on it throughout the book –
I’m not.’ etc., etc., etc.
is typical of the first level (the most important for setting the child’s expectations of reading).
Equally, the phonic input is uncertain and ambiguous, the product of a split personality over this formal teaching. Many teachers seem to want it, but the scheme is not sure where, when or why to include it; so it hedges its bets and makes it as unobtrusive as possible.
Perhaps the books stand up as being, as claimed, real, relevant, multicultural stories? According to the ‘real’ books theory the skills will follow naturally if the stories are right.
If by relevant we mean that everybody yells or sticks their tongues out or says ‘O.K.’ a lot, then these are indeed of their time. The authors have chosen the sort of humour seen in Tom and Jerry as the major vehicle of interest and this, combined, especially in the lower levels, with some illustrations of quite outstanding crudity, gives the scheme its air of being base’ on the lowest common denominator of children’s experience. Of course children like broad humour, but they are also, very early, able to appreciate thoughtfulness, sadness, poetry an’ tension. There is none of that here.
As for the multicultural aspect. Yes, several of the stories have Afro-caribbean or Asian children in them: living European lives in European surroundings. BUT, did nobody tell Longman’s about Pigs? For any publisher to offer to schools a series of books in which the major character of the first two levels is a pig shows the most amazing insensitivity to the position of Muslim children in our schools.
Lastly, are these books the sort of literature that even a four-year-old deserves to have as his or her introduction to literacy? Are they ‘real’ stories? Remember what Robert Penn Warren said were the reasons why we read fiction …
‘We like it.
There is conflict in it an’ conflict is the centre of life.
It allows us to vent our emotions with tears, laughter, love an’ hate.
We hope its story will give us a clue to our own life story.
It releases us from life’s pressures by allowing us to escape into other people’s lives.’
The authors of these stories, however, have a much simpler definition of a real story – ‘stories that have a structure’. That is all. If a story has a beginning, a middle and an end, then that’s enough; and that explains everything that is wrong with these stories. Because that is just not enough to define the strange, mysterious and wholly individual thing that is a real story and a child’s response to it. These are just not good enough to be real stories. No poetry of expression, no depth of feeling, no layers of meaning. What you see is what you get. Finished. The End
If what we offer the children, however simple it may be, does not allow them to find those things out then we are failing them and must not be surprised if they then fail us by turning away from books.
What about our second category of books … the story books which are published in sets and levels? Here the thinking seems to be rather different. These sets of books have a rather longer history than the re-vamped scheme. I Can Read books, Gazelles and Antelopes and the Dr Seuss books have been used in school for many years, mainly as a quick and well-organised way of moving children on to story books from the reading scheme. Now, however, there seem to be new series of books appearing every week: books that are plainly not a reading scheme, lacking all the organisational paraphernalia of a scheme, but graded in such a way as to help the teacher who has no idea what books might suit which child.
Do such sets really provide a guarantee of ‘good books with good labels’? The major problem in assessing this is the very wide range of purposes and ideas behind these series. Virtually all of them are described by the publisher’s as being for ‘beginning’ or ‘early’ readers thus implying that they have been chosen and are suitable for reception or middle infants or, perhaps, slow readers who are a little older. But the range of ability needed to cope with them is vast. Even within one set the stories can range from the very, very simple to the downright incomprehensible. (Compare Three up a Tree and The Dog Food Caper in Black’s heavily American orientate’ Buttons series.)
Pippins from Beehive books are even more erratic; they are what I call ‘supermarket books’. They look like books for small children but require a sophistication of language that few young readers can manage. As is often the case with such books, these have been translate’, in this case from the French. The result is unreadable for most infants.
‘How he missed his young pupils!
They had been his life, his joy.
He often wondered what had become of them.
“If only children could become part of my life again” he sighed. His minddd turned to the children playing.’
In my classroom children who could read the words could make no sense of these books.
Some of these books are also handicapped by very explicit instructions as to how they are to be use’ (even, in the case of Paired Reading Storybooks from Methuen, how often they are to be read!). This, combined with the erratic grading and eccentricity of purpose of many series, means that they are, on the whole, failing to live up to their suppose’ advantage – that of tidying up the organisation of story books. In the end, the teacher has just got to assess their relationship with each child individually . . . just as one has to with the ‘disorganised’ real book.
If these books have to be assessed as if they were just collections of literature, do they reward the effort? Are they good children’s literature’? Here again, the problem is one of consistency. Some are very good and have just the right sound and feel, others are positively insulting. Some are as good as any established classics, some are slovenly and pointless. And this applies, not from series to series, but from book to book within one series. There is just no way that a collection of books can be put together in which every one is of equal quality. Some collections are more often successful than others (Blackie Bears and Cartwheels from Hamish Hamilton have more than their fair share of high quality stories) but in the end, as with the reading levels, it comes down to individual selection of the books that you feel are worth buying. To put in an order for ‘Collins’ Reading is Fun, please’ would be a disaster; the books just have to be chosen for their individual quality.
Which rather calls into question the whole point of such series of books at all, particularly when they are not just an imprint describing a type of book but purport to actually organise a philosophy of education for you.
Well, it isn’t a cheerful picture. Nothing that is being produced at present seems to be fish, flesh, fowl or good red herring. If you want a reading scheme the newest ones are glossy but feeble. If you want story books the latest sets are patchy and unpredictable. What can the poor publisher do? Three have actually written to ask me that. The only possible reply is to say that the job of a children’s publisher is to publish good writers for children; to find the next generation of Maurice Sendak and Pat Hutchins andJenny Wagner and Michael Rosen. Publish them at prices that schools and parents can afford. Take them into schools and supermarkets with the same enthusiasm and drive as is shown for the schemes and series. Then publishers will no longer have to worry about the decline in book sales among the adult population and teachers and parents can have a genuine choice of the sort of quality and content of literature that they offer to children.
Our children deserve the best we can offer them . they do not deserve to be offered the weak, the patronising, the simplified or the shrink-wrapped instead of their heritage of literature. Who, when they ask for bread, will give them stones?
Liz Waterland teaches infants and is deputy head of a school in Peterborough. Several years ago she gave up using -a reading scheme and moved to using ‘real books’. She has described this process and her current practice in Read with Me, Signal, 0 903355 17 5, £2.35. Available from The Thimble Press, Lockwood, Station Road, South Woodchester, Stroud. Gloucestershire GL5 5EQ.
Best of the Bunches
For this feature Liz Waterland considered and used in school books from seven publishers:
Longman’s Reading World at School; Arnold-Wheaton’s Tiddlywinks; A & C Black’s Buttons series (four titles); Blackie Bears (eight titles); Collins’ Reading is Fun series (six titles); Beehive/Macdonald Pippins (six titles, published March 1987); Hamish Hamilton’s Cartwheels (four new titles, published May 1987)
The most uniformly successful series was Blackie Bears. Inside bright yellow covers, each with a full-colour illustration, are 40 pages of well-spaced text (2,000 words approx.) with plenty of black and white line drawings in support.
Best-liked titles were:
The Friday Parcel
Ann Pilling, ill. Robert Bartelt, 0 216 91892 8, £2.95
Matt, staying with Gran-in-the-country, misses his Mum. But each day there is a parcel to look for and the Friday parcel is the best and most surprising of all.
Many children could share Matt’s experience of a stand-in Mum and they liked the idea of this neatly-shaped story.
James and the TV Star
Michael Hardcastle, ill. Pat MacCarthy, 0 216 91895 2, £2.95
This was most enjoyed by sophisticated, TV-literate middle infants who are aware of TV series and the idea of the TV presenter. The character of James who finds his way into his favourite presenter’s nature programme is very sympathetic.
Ginger’s Nine Lives
Pamela Oldfield, ill. Linda Birch, 0 216 91891 X, £2.95
A slightly shorter text for this one and some no-text double page spread illustrations. The story is told from the point of view of Ginger – a little kitten petrified that he is going to run out of his nine lives. Children understood the fears and enjoyed the gently comic adventures of this likeable character.
Chris Powling, ill. Robert Bartelt, 0 216 92111 4, £2.95
This story of a bewitched little boy tied to his dad and floating like a balloon provided plenty to talk about. Children found the writer’s inventive exploration of the situation genuinely funny. This comic fantasy, only a whisker removed from everyday believable reality, has much more to offer developing readers than the easy cartoony slapstick of the reading scheme.
From other series:
Ernest and the Fat Orange Cat
Philip and Amy Rowe, Collins Reading is Fun, 0 00 170056 l, £3.95 hbk; 0 00 170057 X, £1.95 pbk
Middle infants found this puzzlingly funny. It took them a while to get the joke but they were so pleased when they did they wanted to read it again … and again. Lots of room for growing here.
Diane Wilmer. ill. Margaret Chamberlain, Collins Reading is Fun, 0 00 171467 8, £3.95 hbk; 0 00 171468 6, £ 1.75 pbk
A highly realistic and recognisable school with dialogue that really sounds like children talking – this got straight through to reception children.
I’m Lost, Duggy Dog
Brian Ball, ill. Lesley Smith, Hamish Hamilton Cartwheels, 0 241 11990 1, £2.95
Middle/top infants building up stamina enjoyed several of the Cartwheels series. Though short (1,000 words spread over 26 pages) the stories are quite complex and the generous full-colour illustrations help to keep the reader going.
I’m Lost, Duggy Dog is the second of these doggy stories. There’s a proper story-shape to this account of Duggy Dog coping with Tina, a boisterous, lost puppy.
Sheila Lavelle, ill. Jo Davies, Hamish Hamilton Cartwheels, 0 241 11989 8, £2.95
A sequel to Harry’s Aunt, this is another story about Harry’s Aunt Winnie who is a rather unreliable witch. Funny but not oversimplified and with something to think about.
Mrs Simkin and the Magic Wheelbarrow
Linda Allen, ill. Margaret Chamberlain. Hamish Hamilton Cartwheels, 0 241 11992 8, £2.95
A follow-up to the very popular Mrs Simkin and the Very Big Mushroom. Children enjoyed the familiarity of the everyday setting of gardens and neighbours; and were pleased with the inventive twists provided by the magic.
Short Cuts to the Right Books
If you want to move away from reading schemes and graded readers, do you have to read every book that’s published to find the best ones to offer children instead? Knowing about books is important but there are short cuts to finding books that will get you off to a good start.
Some publishers and book suppliers offer pre-selected collections of books. These usually come boxed for display and include tried and tested titles which will allow you to get a feeling for the kind of books that will do the job, and also to note authors and artists to look out for.
Scholastic have two packs for infants:
Picture Books for Early Readers (0 590 70190 8, £34.1) and Fiction for Five to Seven Year Olds (0 590 70191 6, £34.00). Both collections have been chosen from a wide range of publishers’ lists by Jill Bennett and Liz Waterland. There are 36 paperbacks in each pack, and the books average out at under £1.00 each.
Details from Scholastic Publications Ltd, Westfield Road, Southam, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire CV33 OJH. (Discount of 10% on orders over £20.00.)
Books for Students have seven sets selected by Cliff Moon and based on his Individualised Reading Stages. The Yellow set, the Red set and the Blue set together illustrate a good range of mainly picture books for infants. Each set contains 50 titles all fitted with plastic jackets, and prices range between £82.00 and £87.60 per set. It’s a pity that the boxes, designed for face-out display of books, should also be so clearly labelled with colour and ‘stages’. We may feel insecure without ‘graded books’ to mark a reader’s progress but do we have to make it visible for the children?
There’s also a very good Nursery/Reception Box (50 titles, £84.03) chosen by Judith Elkin.
Puffin Story Corner have four infant collections (Puffin only, of course):
First Picture Books (24 titles, 0 14 09.7328 1, £44.10)
Learning to Read with Picture Books (25 titles, 014 09.7330 3, £42.75)
I Can Read – the series (12 titles, 0 14 09.7327 3, £22.60)
Happy Families – the Ahlberg series (12 titles, 0 14 09.7329 X, £21.00
All in face-out display boxes. The Puffin leaflet lists the books in each pack but warns the contents may change. Average price per book is between £1.75 and £1.85.
Jill Bennett’s Learning to Read with Picture Books (Signal, 0 903355 18 3, £2.40) was the first and still provides a helpful reliable guide.
Real Books for Introducing Reading is a new publication arising from research by teachers in six schools in Newcastle. 67 titles are briefly annotated and 13 chosen as the most popular. Available from Jay Mawdsley, Teacher Adviser for English, Pendower Hall Education Development Centre, West Road, Newcastle upon TyneNE15 6PP. Price £l.00 (cheques/postal orders payable to Newcastle Education Committee). Enclose A4 self-addressed envelope.
Flashes on Book Covers
Paperback publishers want parents and teachers to find their way to the right books, and some have experimented with signals on the covers of their ‘story books’.
Puffin have their sometimes oddly assigned Read Aloud, Read Alone and Storybook categories. Problematic because Read Alouds inevitably turn into Read Alones.
Fontana Young Lions carry an ‘I am Reading’ logo on titles like the M and M books and Harriet Ziefert’s Small Potatoes series. These are particularly appropriate for early readers. But so are Philipe Dumas’ Laura books and Shirley Hughes’ Chips and Jessie which don’t have the label.
The Young Corgi series is growing apace, paperbacking titles from Gazelle and Antelope and from Julia MacRae’s Blackbird and Redwing series. Those which beginner readers will find most enjoyable as first full-length books are discreetly signalled ‘A By Myself Book’ on the back cover. With authors like Sheila Lavelle, Catherine Sefton, Jacqueline Wilson, this is a series worth watching. See also Help from Booksellers, page 19.