Saturday, 15 December 2012

Finally - phonetically decodable books that children really want to read.

Just over a year ago I was reviewing a number of books from Oxford's Project X series, which I dubbed the most exciting new development in children's books since Dr Seuss. Project X was a set of levelled readers which included both non fiction and fiction titles especially designed to bridge the attainment gap between boys and girls in literacy. While the series was designed to get boys reading - I see no reason why girls would not enjoy it every bit as much. There were 2 very strong female characters, and girls can enjoy action and adventure just as much as boys can. The series featured four children who discovered special watches which allowed them to shrink to micro size. At first it was all fun and games. I think every child has dreamt of shrinking down to the size of their toys, playing in their toy castles and riding in scalectrix cars - but soon it became an adventure as the team battled the evil Dr X.

I can't speak highly enough of my opinion of the original series, beginning with level one at age 5, within a year my son made it all the way to level 16 before growing bored with the series and moving on to young adult books and then graphic novels. These books made him really want to read, and I can remember him rushing to the post, happily abandoning a video game for a new book, and gave him the ability to read far more complex text. In addition to being a wonderful tool in developing literacy, they are also just good storybooks and both boys have rediscovered the original series now. My youngest absolutely loves them and Shrinky Kids books were one of the top items on their Christmas list.

But as much as we loved them - they did get some complaints for not teaching phonics. I happen to be a staunch supporter of phonics, and in addition to the Project X books - I spent a small fortune on Hooked on Phonics, Starfall Phonics and BOB books - however I believe most children will learn best with both phonics and whole language. Not every word in the English language is phonetic - and sounding out words takes too long. In addition to this, Phonics primers have never been very exciting - they were not the type of book children really wanted to read again and again. In all honesty - I never expected to find a completely decodable series of books with a high level interest for children - but I am over the moon to be proven wrong this time.

Project X Code is every bit as revolutionary as the original series - if not more so. The programme is designed for children with special educational needs or delayed reading levels - but I see absolutely no reason not to use this as beginning reading series for all children. The series uses synthetic phonics and is leveled just as the original series was to match the expected phonetic progression as children work through the different reading levels. It is not a series of phonics instruction ( project X has another series for that) but is is a series of phonetically decodable books beginning at a very easy reading level and progressing to more and more complex material in very tiny steps. This series provides very high interest reading material, which a child only just beginning to sound words out can start to enjoy.

So how did Project X accomplish the impossible and create a truly interesting series using only decodable words? Well - it appears they cheated just a little bit. They divided each book into two halves - the first half of which is 100% decodable. The second half is only 80% decodable. The idea is that in the beginning the child will read the first half of the book while a parent or teacher reads the other half until they are able to cope with both. Just as with the original series - the first books have limited text and a very small vocabulary, adding a few new words with each book until the child is reading fluently. Even the first books do have a distinct and enjoyable storyline - so much so that both my seven year old and my 4 year old enjoy listening to these. I was very surprised to see my seven year old take such an interest - he is very selective in picture books now, but the main theme of this story has really captivated him and he can't wait to get further books in the series as well. The main drawback at his age is that he can read the whole book in a few minutes - but at least he is still enjoying them. It is very unusual to find a book so easy to read that really interests an older child so much.

This specific book is not meant to be read by the child. My oldest read it easily, but it is intended to be read aloud by a parent or teacher to get the child interested in the series. It sets the scene for the rest of the series and is much larger as well. In this book a new micro-park is about to open , using technology similar to the watches used by Team X - or the shrinky kids as my son calls them. The entire them park is controlled by a computer named C.O.D.E. and built on a miniature scale. To enter the park, visitors must pass through a shrink ray, becoming micro-sized, but something has gone terribly wrong on opening day. The parks creator, Macro Marvel is trapped inside, sending out a desperate message to stop C.O.D.E. The super computer in the meantime is powering up with the intention of shrinking the entire world. Macro's daughter Mini, has rushed into the park to save him and is now trapped inside the park as well - the only ones who can help are Team X.

To defeat C.O.D.E. the team - with the help of Mini Marvel must travel through 4 levels in each of 14 worlds, overcoming the challenges and finally defeating the boss of each of world, very much like one would when playing the levels of a video game before taking on the main boss and clearing the game - or in this case series. To do this children must learn the vocabulary to read each book and read the code words at the end of each book. These are nonsense words used only to teach children to sound the words out and there is considerable debate as to the use of these. If your child is in school, this is part of the testing process so you may as well use them. If not the choice is yours, and I still haven't made up my mind. You can use the nonsense words or tape a wee post it over them using the most difficult words from the next book, or a combination of the non phonetic words from the book you are reading and new phonetic words from the next.

This book is illustrated using state of the art computer generated imagery, and it really is impressive. The books look like a video game, and the action , adventure and overall format make reading these very much like playing a video game. They have so much appeal - I believe most children will desperately want to read them. My four year old has now started reading his alphabet books regularly in an attempt to get ready to learn to read - specifically because he is desperate to read these himself. Completing each book gives the child the sense of satisfaction of completing a level on a favourite video game. Through out the series the shrinky kids will visit: a bug world, space, a dragon realm, a vehicle based attraction with all sorts of wild races, a jungle, an undersea zone, a waterfall zone, a polar region, a castle, a valley with volcanoes and dinosaurs, a zone with famous landmarks from all over the world, ancient Egypt, and finally Marvel Towers and C.O.D.E. control. There is certainly something here to fascinate any child - and this can easily be combined with other sources to encourage all sorts of learning.

This book was the most expensive of the series. I paid £7.15. This is because it is larger and includes an interactive CD- ROM with a short cartoon, teaching information and this book as well as the first 4 in the series all in an ebook format. The next books can be purchased from £3.20 each. This is terribly expensive - but I honestly believe a series like this can do more for my children than tuition in a high quality fee paying school - and compared to that - the price is peanuts indeed. It is a considerable investment - which is why I am really starting to collect the books now as story books before my youngest really needs them - but I can think of no better way to spend to my money then investing it in my children's education. So - all I can say is Thank God for Dooyoo who make it possible for me to afford some extras like this.

I think it is fairly obvious by now that I giving this book a full 5 stars - and that only because I can not give it 10. But don't take my word for it - you can read the whole book online here: http:// oxed/ primary/ projectx/ code/ Just take out the space after each /. This will give you a chance to see the quality of the animation as well. You can read the entire text of 4 of the main books on the Oxford Owl site as well, so you can see if this series suits you before buying any books. I read the free books with my children to gauge their interest - which was incredible before my first purchase. This series would work very well with or without the original series. I do feel the phonics set would be a real benefit to those using this, but it could be used with other phonics sets.

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