Biff and Chip · decodable readers · Oxford Reading Tree

Biff and Chips to go? Oh no!

There’s been a lot of adverse criticism recently of the Oxford Reading Tree series, featuring Biff, Chip et al, and teachers often ask me on Sounds-Write courses if they shouldn’t just throw them all out because they do not conform to what most people recognise as decodable readers.
The answer, of course, is absolutely not!
Here’s why. It’s certainly true that the series isn’t easily decodable for beginning readers. Here are the first two pages of The Go-Kart, a Stage 2 reader, which I have coded according to sound-spelling correspondences:
D a d  m a d e  a  g ok ar t.

B i ff  w a n t e d  th e  g ok ar t.

Anyone who teaches synthetic or linguistic phonics knows immediately the difficulties a beginning reader would have in trying to read a text like this. There are two schwas, one split spelling, the spelling of the sound ‘o’ after the sound ‘w’, five two-letter spellings, and more. In fact, the degree of complexity is so great that many beginning readers get the idea that the words need to be memorised as whole words because the words are too difficult to read, which is why, for some teachers, these books have lost their appeal..
However, after the Initial Code – i.e. all the one-to-ones in CVC, CVCC, CCVC, and CCVCC words, (etc), plus the double consonants and ‘sh’, ‘ch’, (etc). – has been covered and once pupils have been taught four or five ways of spelling the sounds ‘ae’, ‘ee’, ‘oe’, ‘er’, ‘e’, ‘ow’, ‘oo’ and ‘ie’, ORT books are fantastic for building fluency and confidence. In fact, with a little help from a knowledgeable teacher, The Go-Kart is easily accessible to a beginning reader who knows the one-to-ones and understands that sounds can be represented by two-letters spellings. In addition, common sound-spelling correspondences, such as the ar spelling for the sound ‘ar’ can build code knowledge along the way.
In addition, our course attendees are almost always united in their enthusiasm for the characters, the story lines with their simple plot structures, the illustrations and their familiarity. They can also be fun to read to children.
Take ‘Charlie’ for example. Charlie came to me as a complete non-reader at the end of YR. What had happened is that he had been taught Whole Language and he simply didn’t ‘get it’. After just three months work on the Initial Code, well supported with lots of reading decodable materials – Sounds-Write readers and Dandelion Readers – we went straight on to Oxford Reading Tree books, again supported by decodable readers to focus on the issues of adjacent consonants and on the ways in which particular sounds are spelled.
Despite the drawbacks, as long as teaching practitioners have a clearly established purpose in mind for using the ORT series, they should be a very useful adjunct to our teaching.  All of which is why Biff doesn’t make me want to chip*.
*London slang for ‘leave’, ‘depart’.