Phonics is an approach to reading that teaches children to identify words by sounding out the letters - C A T spells cat - and, later, to recognise common sounds in combinations of letters, such as 'oa' in boat, 'ch' in cheese. This approach, which was challenged during the Seventies and Eighties, is rapidly regaining ground. The national curriculum for English, in its latest rewrite, now requires teachers to incorporate some phonics when they start reading with infants.
Poor phonics teaching results when a teacher or parent sounds out a word like 'but' - buhh, uhh, tuhh - in such a sloppy way that it sounds like 'butter'. The main characteristic of Letterland - and it is only one of a number of phonics schemes on the market - is that it takes the actual sound of each letter and makes it into a word. Every letter of the alphabet thus becomes a character - Annie Apple, Bouncy Ben, Munching Mike, Wicked Water Witch - complete with picture.
Instead of rules, the children learn stories to explain how the letters behave together. For instance, Hairy Hat Man, who hates noise, finds Sammy Snake's hissing sound too noisy, and so he hushes him up: 'Sh]'. Clever Cat's nose tickles beside the Hat Man's hairy hat, so she sneezes and we hear 'ch]'.
'It does seem twee to us, but the children love it,' says Paula Augar, a reception teacher at William Bellamy Infant School in Dagenham, east London. Mrs Augar has a Letterland frieze on the wall in the classroom book corner and the children have done art work based on some of the characters, including Dippy Duck finger puppets and little Munching Mikes made out of tin foil.
Judy Drew, head teacher at William Bellamy and a firm believer in phonics, spotted the Letterland scheme at a book fair in the late Seventies, soon after it was first published. She introduced it at a primary school in Forest Gate, east London, and brought it with her to William Bellamy four years ago. She believes it has many advantages.
'I like it because of the stories. It is extremely infant-oriented and the children have to do things, like making hats for the different letters and dramatising the stories. It's not just sitting around holding up a flashcard saying 'C',' she says. 'It also makes it easier for me to monitor what's being taught, and I think it gives less experienced teachers more confidence with phonics.'
Pupils at William Bellamy are introduced to the Letterland characters informally in the nursery class, and work with them from reception to Year 2. A carefully structured, step-by-step approach is set out in a Letterland teaching manual ( pounds 16.95), although Mrs Drew emphasises that teachers need use this only as a basis for other work.
Letterland is only a part of the school's approach to reading and is complemented by reading schemes, story-books and other techniques for recognising whole words (known as the 'look and say' method).
To familiarise parents with the scheme, the school holds occasional Letterland workshops and provides special song books - 'Yo-yo Man says y in words' to the tune of 'Baa, baa, black sheep', and other favourites.
But how well does it work? Mrs Drew says Letterland suits some children better than others. 'It suits children who are fairly average. For children who are already reading when they come to school, they could be bored witless by Letterland if the teacher takes them through it too slowly.
'For less able children, I think there is a danger that they can become too dependent on it. The characters become an entertainment rather than a tool.'
Her staff are mixed in their response to the scheme. Terry Walker, a recently qualified special needs teacher, says she felt self-conscious about using the characters' names when she started. Mo Wood, a Year 2 teacher and the school's English language co-ordinator, says it can be difficult to wean less able children off Letterland characters' names and on to sound and alphabet names.
The Phonics Handbook, by Sue Lloyd, which has sold 13,000 copies since it was published in February last year, avoids this potential problem. Instead of teaching about characters, the scheme takes children through activity sheets for 42 sounds, each with a story line, a picture to colour, a sound-related action, and words and letters to practise.
Mrs Wood says the Letterland stories are helpful in explaining simple sound blends, but for more advanced blends such as '-tion', the stories become too complicated. 'Sometimes it's easier just to tell them that this is the way the English language works.'
And there is a further pitfall for teachers. 'If you ask the children what Clever Cat says, the answer you get is usually 'miaaoouw','Mrs Wood says. Sometimes children are just too clever by half.
Letterland, PO Box 161, Leatherhead, Surrey KT22 8HY. 'The Phonics Handbook', pounds 19.95, Jolly Learning Ltd, Clare Hall, Chapel Lane, Chigwell, Essex 1G7 6JJ.
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