Cliff Moon examines the growth of the series as an aspect of the move to `real books’. Are they just mini-schemes in disguise?
We are currently witnessing one of the most interesting periods in the history of the teaching of reading. For nigh on fifteen years researchers and commentators from a wide spectrum of academic disciplines have been casting doubts on traditional resources for teaching and suggesting instead that learning is where the action is. And studies of how real children actually learn to read demonstrate that the process is far messier than the scheme-designers ever envisaged. In a nutshell, children tend to learn to read much as they learn to do anything else – by attending to what it means and how relevant it is to their accumulated experience of the world.
As a consequence, many reading schemes have been criticised for their irrelevance, meaninglessness and painstaking build up of subskill on subskill, word on word and level on level at the expense of even a hazy reflection of what reading can offer. This rising crescendo of condemnation has resulted in three distinct developments, the first and most obvious being the design of new reading schemes which aim to eliminate the earlier problems but maintain the educational publishers’ hold on a fairly substantial market. Examples of these new-look schemes published in recent months include Open Door (Nelson) and The Reading Tree (O.U.P.). The general aim seems to be that if you look in every direction at once you will be all things to all readers. Hence the story books use natural language, are non-sexist and multi-cultural, involve parents as reading partners; yet here also are the word-counts, the flash cards, the phonic worksheets and a teacher’s guide of such mammoth proportions that one wonders whether it is they, rather than the children, who are being taught to read!
The second development is that a growing number of primary schools are eschewing schemes altogether and simply stocking their classrooms with a variety of picture books and children’s fiction culled from paperback bookshops and children’s libraries. There are teachers in these schools who have sufficient knowledge of their children’s reading tastes, the books which are available and the reading process in general to feel confident that they can go it alone (or frequently with parental cooperation) because they’ve learnt that it is schools who
need reading schemes, not children. What is an organisational necessity to one school is a straitjacket to another. People like Jill Bennett (Learning to Read with Picture Books and Reaching Out) pioneered this movement and more recently Liz Waterland’s Read With Me (Thimble Press, 1985) has tackled all the practicalities involved. Some book suppliers have seized the opportunity to service such schools by providing boxed selections of children’s books with an approximate guide to readability for those who feel they need it. The two brand-leaders are Individualised Reading (Scholastic) and Kaleidoscope (Books for Students).
The third development has been around for some time but is enjoying something of a revival. This is the trend among mainstream publishers of children’s books towards producing a recognisable series of books, often by different authors, and assigning them either to one or a limited range of difficulty levels. Singly it is often difficult to separate the books from any ad hoc collection of children’s books but as a set or series they can serve to provide coherence and security to teachers and schools who are unwilling or unprepared to throw out what they see as the baby with the bathwater. More often than not such series are used in all kinds of schools – as `supplementary’ readers to an established scheme or as titles in their own right alongside mixed `children’s book’ resources. In one sense their publishers are hedging all their bets. They stand to gain either way if the difficulty grading is consistent, reliable and clearly shown and if their literary quality puts them comfortably alongside library books, Fontana Lions, Puffins, and other `real’ books.
Well-established examples of this publishing genre include I Can Read (Worlds Work/Kaye and Ward, some in Puffin), Read for Fun (Burke), Hopscotch (Hodder and Stoughton), Collins’ Bright and Early and Beginner Books brought in from the USA (Dr Seuss and The Berenstains) and Readalong (Arnold/Wheaton). More recently, for 7-9 readers, we have seen Banana Books (Heinemann) and Kites (Viking Kestrel) join the long running Gazelles and Antelopes (Hamish Hamilton).
What follows is a round up of some of the newer series for beginner readers, including two due for 1986 launches.
Bodley Beginners, various authors, Bodley Head, £3.75 each.
To date this series boasts twenty titles by authors like Pat Hutchins, Eve Rice and Jean Van Leeuwen. With 48 pages and a fair amount of text, they are suitable for novice readers. Some, like The Crow and Mrs Gaddy by Wilson Gage, are continuous stories whilst others present a sequence of short episodes. An example of the latter, Fox All Week by Edward Marshall, shows Fox missing school on Monday, throwing away sandwiches on Tuesday, being evicted from the library on Wednesday, smoking cigars on Thursday, sampling Mum’s cooking on Friday, giving away granny’s chocolates on Saturday and playing on Sunday. Altogether there are four Fox books in the series.
Cartwheels, various authors, Hamish Hamilton, £2.95 each.
The first six titles were published in 1985 and three follow this year in this precursor to the well-established Gazelle and Antelope series. There are two Sheila Lavelle stories (one about Ursula) and a Rosemary Sutcliff variation on an old theme: The Roundabout Horse. A recent addition, Mrs Simkin and the Very Big Mushroom by Linda Allen, is a delightful tale about how a giant mushroom serves as a sunshade, a bird-table, and an umbrella before culminating in enough mushroom soup to feed the entire street. The general quality of this full-colour series is consistently high.
Fun-to-Read Picture Books, various authors, Walker Books, £2.95 each.
Sixteen books in this major new series are being launched between March and September 1986. Authors were commissioned to produce simple texts which were then tested in schools and assigned to one of three approximate readability levels, unobtrusively denoted by the colour of each spine. The advantage of this procedure is that the books can stand alongside general library and reading-corner picture books in their own right or provide the support many teachers need in their reduced reliance on a traditional reading scheme. A surprising range of authors have contributed, among them Jan Mark, Charles Causley, Dick King-Smith and Colin West. The variety is endless – from hilarity in The Sneeze by David Lloyd to the startling illustrations in Big Baby. Causley’s offering is, in fact, a picture-book version of his poem `Quack!’ said the Billy-Goat whilst Jan Mark’s Fur has got to be the shortest story she has yet produced.
Paired Reading Storybooks by Bill Gillham, Methuen, £1.95 each.
Deliberately aimed at parents, these books include guidelines for the kind of `paired reading’ found to be so successful in numerous home reading projects since the early eighties. Four titles were published in 1985 and a further four follow in May 1986. Of those already available, two are about naughty children and reservations have been expressed about them, especially concerning their treatment of pets and their inherently sexist bias. Candy’s Camel is, however, outstanding. Most young children have an imaginary friend and Candy’s accompanies her everywhere. This is just the kind of thing with which children can identify and which is rarely, if ever, found in reading schemes.
Reading is Fun, various authors, Collins, £1.50 each pbk; £3.50 each hbk.
This inexpensive series was launched with six titles in 1985 and four more follow in September 1986. The new quartet perfectly illustrates the variety of reading level inherent in the series – Wise Dog by Ruth Craft and Nicola Smee tells of family relationships between Rumble the Dog, Vernon and his mother (both of whom are Afro-Caribbean) in pictures and a spare caption-text whereas the Olaf the Viking books (The Dark Forest and The Long House in Danger) are more wordy, albeit amply illustrated. Variety is nevertheless the hallmark in this attempt to present reading as an enjoyable and satisfying experience.
Red Nose Readers by Allan Ahlberg and Colin McNaughton, Walker Books, £1.95 each.
This sensibly priced series of eight hardback books, all at the same readability level, presents reading to beginners as the problem-solving activity it actually is. Each book includes three or four zany sequences which are sometimes picture/caption stories and sometimes `word sums’ like ‘balloon + pin= bang’. Apart from their light touch the greatest strength of these books is the close match between text and illustration – a feature which encourages children to accurately predict words from the company they keep.
New additions to the Red Nose Readers series are the Yellow Books and the Blue Books published in June and September.
The Yellow Books, Crash! Bang! Wallop!, Push the Dog, Me and My Friend and Shirley’s Shops feature sentences. Lively illustrations extend the story and support the text, with lots of use of speech bubbles, varied type styles and weights. The reader predicts, and at the page turn predictions are confirmed often with a verbal or visual joke. There is a picture dictionary at the end of each book. The Blue Books, out in September are stories in rhyme. All books are £1.95.
Step into Reading, various authors, Corgi, £1.50 each.
These are anglicised versions of American books in three levels, called Steps 1, 2 & 3. Ten titles will be published from April 1986 onwards and they include a short note of guidance to parents, encouraging them to first read aloud and then invite the child to join in – a shared reading approach. They range from A Dozen Dogs by Harriet Ziefert (Step 1), a picture plus caption counting story, to Deputy Dan and the Bank Robbers (Step 3) by Joseph Rosenbloom which will delight seven and eight year olds who appreciate puns and the misunderstanding they lead to. Quality is somewhat patchy but it is well worth selecting the better titles at this price.
Umbrella Books by various authors, Oxford University Press, £3.95 each.
This series of eight titles, which has been slowly accumulating since 1982 under the editorship of Jill Bennett, includes as author/illustrators William Stobbs, Tomie de Paola and, this year, Val Biro with The Donkey that Sneezed, a three-by-three folk tale about three brothers who seek their fortunes and are tricked by a crooked innkeeper who inevitably gets his come-uppance. All the books are superbly illustrated and the stories memorable. Giant by Nick Ward is probably the uneasiest with its explicit scenes of violence but it has an eerie Gulliver-like atmosphere about it that is hard to resist. Two outstanding titles were published in 1985: Teeny Tiny by Jill Bennett and Skipping to Babylon compiled by Carole Tate. The first is a scary story with the most natural repetition in the world, the second demonstrating that children’s skipping and playground rhymes have always been multi-ethnic.
Cliff Moon who popularised Individualised Reading while working as a primary teacher is now a Senior Lecturer in the Teaching of Reading at Bulmershe College of HE. Cliff writes extensively on reading and has acted as a consultant to many publishers in assessing the reading level of books; he worked with Walker Books on the testing of the Fun to Read series.
Because of the large number of titles featured we have been forced to omit ISBNs from this feature. Publishers of series you like the sound of will be happy to provide catalogues on request.