Ant and Bee by Angela Banner
A blast from the past – it’s not just Anthony Horowitz who remembers these little babies…
In case you can’t see it, at the base of each cover there’s a little sentence saying “‘These are the books that taught me how to read’ – Anthoy Horowitz”. So there ya go.
Anyway, these little books follow the long story of Ant and Bee and all the many friends they meet (Kind Dog amongst others) and the many places they go. Like I said, I remember them myself from when I was first starting to read waaaay back in Reception and Year 1, although even then they were being overtaken by the ever-popular Oxford Reading Tree.
Now, my pedagogy may be a little out of date since I did my Primary PGCE a few years ago, but if I’ve got it right there are at least two lines of thought on children’s learning to read. The first is that children should use phonics, which as any parent knows allows children to break down words into their phonemes and then blend them back together to read the word. Sort of like spelling out c-a-t, only allowing for the various sounds in English that just do not make sense when spelling out a word letter by letter (t-h-o-u-g-h-t, anyone? Or k-n-i-f-e?). By learning phonics, the word ‘thought’ would be spelt out in phonemes like this: th-ou-gh-t. Much easier, spelling a word out by the sounds rather than the letters.
Well, that’s the idea anyway, and it does make a lot of sense. I for one can remember spelling out words that once spelt out still didn’t bare any resemblance to any words I knew (the joys of English!). However, there is a school of thought that the older trend of word recognition has some beneifts over phonics. This relies on the remarkable ability the brain has to recognise words it regularly sees, for example ‘and’, ‘want’ etc. The reader doesn’t need to read them phonically because the readers recognises the pattern of the letters – so it bypasses the actual reading bit and just recognises the ‘picture’ or ‘shape’ of the word. If I’m remembering this all right, there are some who believe that a reliance on phonics alone to decode words and read is actually a hindrance to the reader’s reading and interrupts the flow, and that some words should be taught so that children recognise them rather than painstakingly decoding them.
Now, I could be remembering this all wrong (and probably simplifying it horribly regardless), but if I’m right I think these little Ant and Bee books fit into the earlier school of thought. They seem to work with the idea that early readers should be able to recognise short words so that they get read more easily without interruption. On one page you are introduced to the word you are about to learn in red, and on the opposite page is a big picture to help you remember that word. Then you turn the page and there’s a short piece of writing in black with the new word learnt on the previous page in red. The idea is that the parent reads the black words and the child follows the flow of reading along and reads out the red words.
By the end of book one the reader should theoretically have learnt 29 odd three-letter words and by the end of book two they should have learnt a similar number of four-letter words. The same goes for book three, which gets the reader reading five-letter words.
Now, in these books repetition is the name of the game, which whilst invaluable for getting these new words to stick in the memory of the reader does make for a bit of a stilted read so for an adult the story can get a little protracted and dull. However, they are a little bit retro, and the cute illustrations and the various unexpected twists and turns Ant and Bee go through (courtesy of needing to introduce the next three-letter word on the next page) can make it a bit of a more unusual read than other learning-to-read books (Biff Chip and Kipper, I’m looking at you).
There’s also the added benefit that these are a great confidence booster for a new reader. As they go further and further through the book, more and more of the words they’re reading are red so after a while a new reader is reading a fair amount of the words on each page. This continues in books two and three so that not only are four-letter and five-letter words in red, but also the previously learnt three-letter words too. Can you imagine being a young reader, just starting to get your head round this reading lark, being faced with a page of text and seeing that a good chunk of it is in red? That means that you, yes you, can read it, all of it! I don’t need to be 5 to know that’s got to be a boost to the ego. I swear, half of teaching someone to read seems to me to be as much a matter of psychology as it is of skill.
Finally, all the Ant and Bee books (there are at least two more than these) are pocket sized hardbacks. Whilst this isn’t exactly handy for most books, being the size of a coaster is brilliant for Ant and Bee. They’re handbag-sized so you can just sling ’em in your bag or into the bottom of the buggy and when you’ve got a minute to fill or need to keep junior occupied until the bus comes you can have a little bit of reading practice. No fuss, no trying to jam a big ol’ paperback into an overcrowded bag, just toss it in there and bam! off you go. You also get considerably more reading practice out of these too since they’re one long story in one volume, whereas other learning-to-read books tend to be sold in individual short stories.
So, to sum up Ant and Bee: not exactly scintilating for the adult reader but their benefits far outweigh their very small cons. They’re excellent for practicing reading words that could probably be recognised rather than phoneticly spelt out, they’re nifty enough to fit in any handbag and they can be great ego boosters for a young reader. They even look nice too!