For one reason or another, people seem to mix up the characters ‘Janet and John’ with ‘Peter and Jane’. ( I think the late lamented Terry Wogan had a hand in adding to the confusion). You see the pictures on the right? Not Ladybird. The two children in the best-known Ladybird reading scheme were Peter and Jane. I just thought I’d clear that up from the start.
As I say, the first and best known of Ladybird Reading schemes is the Key Words to Reading series, which first appeared in 1964. I believe a structured, comprehensive reading scheme on this scale this was something of a 1st in British education. The books which had been extensively read in schools before the appearance on the the scene of Peter and Jane were the Janet and John books. In origin, J & J are not from these shores. Effectively the readers were imported – via New Zealand I think, but widely used here in the late 1950s, early 1960s.
The Key Words Reading scheme – or “Peter and Jane” books
The tenets of the Key Words reading scheme was devised by William Murray and Jim McNally and was based on the concept that the vast majority of the language that we use every day relies on a surprisingly few ‘key words’. Murray states, indeed, that a quarter of the language that we normally read and write is made up of just 12 words and that half of our everyday language is made up of just 100 words. As Murray states in the Ladybird Book ‘Teaching Reading’:
There are three parallel sets of books (a,b and c), each set consisting of twelve carefully graded books with full colour issustrations throughout. All three sets are written with the same controlled vocabulary up to and including stage nine …. The early books are in large print and the simplified forms of ‘a’, ‘g’ and ‘I’ are used. Words new to the text on each page are also printed at the foot of the page for easy reference. A list of all the words new to each book is given at the back of every copy …. In Book 1a, the learner meets only sixteen different words, with an average of ten repetitions per word. He then reads Book 1b to find the same sixteen words, but in different context and with different illustrations. Moving on the book 1c, he again finds the same sixteen words… but this time in a writing context
So all very systematic and methodical. Basically the child is expected to learn through repetition of exposure to recognise these words on sight – and word flash-cards were a key component of the Key Word reading scheme. This is what’s known as the “Look and Say” method. You often hear people in the media today discussing the best way to teach reading and contrasting: “Look and Say” with “Phonics” where a child is helped to work out or ‘decode’ the sound of the word by building up an awareness of the patterns. This debate is not a new one, and Murray was familiar with it in the 1960s. He says,
“English is not a purely phonetic language, so care must be taken in presenting this method to the learner. Too much emphasis on the phonetic method, especially if used too early in the reading programme, can slow down progress and harm the attitude towards reading”. (Murray, p.17)
What he means by this is that you can easily teach a child that C A T = cat, but that’s not going to help the child read the word “caught” and that this child might then get demoralised.
Well, I’m a teacher and a linguist and a mother – but I don’t want to weigh into this argument except to say that it seems to me that different children learn to read in different ways. Some reading schemes suit some children, others suit other children. My own son responded well to the “look and say” method and was turned off reading by “jolly phonics” – yet I have heard very compelling research that phonics is more successful overall. So be it. All I can say is that the Key Word scheme was amazingly successful. First issued in 1964 it is still in print today – over forty years later!
In short, if you think that your child will gain confidence from the slow, steady repetition and “brick-by-brick” approach, and respond well to the fabulous, naturalistic illustrations, then try the Key Word scheme. As I say, these books are still in print and in bookshops. Although the artwork was revised in the 1970s and the cover style is updated every few years, the text remains pretty well unchanged from the 1960s versions.