Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Learning to read diversions; Oxford Reading Tree

I spent a while after posting yesterday musing on whether I had been unfair on poor old Peter and Jane. Does the process of learning to read (at least in the early stages) have to be so supportively repetitive that feeling like you want to stab out your eyeballs with cocktail sticks for sensation as you work through the books is just a necessary phase?

Having rejected P 'n J and knowing Bill to be able to sound out those words that worked to sound out  I cast about for alternatives in the library and discovered Julia Donaldson's 'Songbirds' range for Oxford Reading Tree. Hurray for Julia! No cocktail sticks required; these were pithy, varied and fun for both Bill and much more importantly obviously ;), me. He still talks about the story of the Red Man and the Green Man who live in the traffic lights and the chaos that results when they go on holiday. We liked those. And hurray also for the fact that they employed more than one illustrator and style in the making of them; anything to keep us awake and guessing.

These are a recent addition to the Oxford Reading Tree canon. Since the late 1980s or so (judging from Mum's hairstyle, earrings and the children's red striped wallpaper choice) the majority of Primary School children in this country have been taught to read by Biff, Chip, Kipper and Floppy the dog. With the beginning of the Phoney Phonics War  I sense their star has been on the wane; and they are not currently in use at the boys' school. They are being reinvented in synthetic phonic form- but too late for us-and for the school who have invested in the fairly knuckle-chewing, cheek-slapping, quick-jog-around-the-room-and-back-to them but Local Authority Approved Get The Job Done, Rigby Star series instead. sigh.

I started to get some Biff and Chip 'classic-style' out of the library as Bill progressed to quicker recall reading. I approached them with a sense of gloom and foreboding but was pleasantly surprised by how involved we both got. If you haven't hung out with them; Biff, Chip and Kipper (strange names I know- presumably Very Evidence based for Supportiveness) move into a new house and during the course of some renovations discover a secret room, a precise miniature replica of their house, a mysterious box and a magic key.
Once you get to level 5 or so the 'magic key begins to glow' with predictable regularity in each book, shrinking the children and transporting them on a range of educational adventures. They get to influence the design of the sphinx, meet Queen Victoria, party with pirates and fool around with Laurel and Hardy amongst many other fun times. Not revolutionary but interesting enough for Bill to actively request me to get the next one out so he could read on. And for me to (cough) read ahead to find out what happens. I see the appeal and why they were so ubiquitous for so long. We were a little sad to reach the end of them

I imagine if I were a teacher reading them every year for a twenty years they might start to pall.

Last year the bookpeople (online book discounters- my dirty little secret haunt when not visiting Proper Bookshop) started offering something called the Time Chronicles which turned out to be a whole new set of Biff and Chip books- revisiting them when they were all 3 or 4 years older and offering first 'chapter' book experiences. They were a good deal so I bought 'em for Bill and me to find out what happened next.

Cool! It turns out that all those magic key adventures were just testing and training the children for their future role as Time Runners saving humanity throughout history from the threat of the evil alien Virans. Mr. Mortlock, the school caretaker (who I always marked as a man of mystery- often appearing in the background of the original books  having trouble with his baseball cap and glasses) is actually a centuries old Time Guardian who has been watching them carefully before revealing their true purpose. Each book involves a different dangerous mission into the past to stop the Virans interfering with the Web of Time (and involving a nice trot through different historical events too) We were hooked and Bill rattled through them reading in long chunks non stop during daylight hours for the first time. Like a less scary Dr. Who primer.
I love the fact that Roderick Hunt was able to return to these characters over 20 years after he'd first invented them and imbue his old very simple stories with whole new layers of secret meaning. He and Alex Brychta the illustrator must have had fun letting all their conspiracy theories loose and I loved having mine realised.

'Readers' that both you and your children actively choose to read. Now that is a bit revolutionary.

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