Education: Janet and John take a long walk: They wrangled for years, but now the experts agree, learning to read will never be the same again, says Karen Gold

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The Independent Online
For any parent or teacher who has despaired of persuading a reluctant young child to read a dog- eared reading scheme book with a boring story and ludicrously dated illustrations, help may be at hand.

An extraordinary consensus between the professionals about how children learn to read has set off a whirlwind of activity among reading scheme publishers, and the market is about to explode.

More than 400 new books for young children will come flooding into primary schools this spring, as publishers start the biggest race ever for the hearts, minds and pockets of teachers of reading.

Virtually every major educational publisher is entering the race. Seven new collections of books have been announced, including several which were planned for next year but have now been rushed out as soon as possible to keep up with the competition.

Schools are currently deluged with advertising material, sales reps' visits and half-price offers - and that is a big temptation, bearing in mind that re-stocking with a new reading scheme can cost a school more than pounds 1,000.

But do children actually need new reading schemes now? And is there really anything so different in all these new schemes, each with six or even seven-digit development costs, that makes the publishers think teachers and parents will be keen to replace existing ones?

The answer to both questions lies in the emergence of a new and surprising consensus about the way children learn to read.

Five years ago teachers, experts, parents and politicians were at loggerheads over how children should be taught to read. Should they have reading schemes - books written as teaching aids, with simplified vocabulary - or mainstream story and picture books, so-called 'real books'? Should they be taught formally, using flashcards or phonics - letter sounds - or allowed to pick up the habit of reading for themselves?

The battle raged, then suddenly calmed - for two reasons. First, a survey by school inspectors showed that more than 95 per cent of teachers were using a mix of methods to teach reading: phonics, flashcards, reading schemes, real books, anything they could get their hands on. Second, a batch of results from psychological experiments came together to prove that children's sensitivity to sounds was the crucial factor in helping them learn to read. The research showed that very young children who know a large number of nursery rhymes, who can hear that 'cat' is made from 'c' and '-at', who make up nonsense rhymes like wobble/ bobble/dobble, are invariably the first children to read.

Suddenly phonics, dismissed as old-fashioned in the last reading schemes produced in the 1980s, were back with a vengeance. Their return meant that structured schemes were back too.

But teachers had also been persuaded by some of the arguments of the 'real books' movement, in particular that although most children were able to to read, a far smaller number read for pleasure once they had mastered the skills - and perhaps the stilted writing and old-fashioned illustrations of some reading schemes were to blame.

The result was consensus, says Tom Hardy, director of primary publishing for Thomas Nelson, one of the companies bringing out a scheme this month. Everybody wanted everything: 'People want phonics, they accept that a certain degree of structure is necessary, but at the same time they want children to have real stories that stimulate and excite them.'

And as of this month, everything is what they will get. The four new schemes out now come from publishers Longman, Collins, Ginn and Nelson. More are expected to follow from Heinemann and Oxford and Cambridge University presses.

All contain phonics, either telling whole stories in words that look like they sound (not easy in English), or producing phonic workbooks for children to learn about letter sounds alongside the non-phonic stories they read. Taking note of the latest research, each scheme has books of poetry and nursery rhymes too.

Following national curriculum guidelines that even six- and seven- year-olds should not only read stories, they have plays, raps, and reference books about nature and science. One has even produced an early reader's encyclopaedia.

The result is a bewildering banquet of choice. Existing schemes have jumped on the bandwagon: Ginn R360, a 20-year-old scheme used more in northern schools, is being relaunched with modernised illustrations; Oxford Reading Tree, eight years old and used in 10,000 primary schools, has new poetry and reference books and 'talking stories' to be read on computers.

Several schemes focus on a set of characters whose adventures children follow: one has two children, Rosie and Sal, who live in the village of Mulberry Green, another centres on a phonically convenient extra-terrestrial creature called Max. Other schemes have commissioned collections of books from different authors. The most ambitious of these, the Longman Book Project, has more than 100 well-known children's writers and illustrators producing myths and legends, jungle stories, exquisitely photographed natural history books, football stories, teddy stories, even stories about a biscuit.

It seems a very long way from Janet and John. But then it needs to be, says Longman general editor Sue Palmer: 'If you want children to learn to read, not just to read reading schemes, then you have to give them a rich, varied diet.'

TEACHERS REACT TO THE SCHEMES

'I really liked the Longman non-fiction. The story book I had was about a giraffe and the book itself was long and thin - I liked that' - Deborah Alexander, 26, reception class teacher at an infants' school in Haringey, London.

'The illustrations weren't consistent in the Ginn books - the colour of the characters' hair changed. But I did like the precis of the story that they give on the back cover' - Julie Moran, 42, infants' class teacher in a Cambridgeshire village school.

'What I didn't like was the gimmicky illustrations; some of them look more like comics than books' - Margaret Speak, 52, special needs teacher in a surburban York primary school.

(Photograph omitted)

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