Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Oxford Reading Tree: Chip & Biff & why I hate them

The Oxford Reading Tree Read At Home collection
I really don't like the Chip and Biff books. 

I was at the stage of mild dislike, where I tolerated them because I could see that my daughter was able to read the ones she brought home from school.

And clearly school were using them as part of their reading scheme, so my first reaction was to trust that they have a plan; a strategy; and that Biff and Chip must somehow play a part in that plan.

However, after my 5 year old brought home "The Magic Key" last night I moved on a stage - straight to hatred. 

She might as well have been reading a list of words to practise her reading.  The story "The Magic Key" is less of a story and more of a vague throwing together of scenes where the cast have a limited vocabulary that generally involves some, or all, of them saying "Oh no".  The gist of this 'story' was that Chip and Biff found a magic key.  They picked it up and it made them shrink.  They picked up a few random objects on the floor (pencil, pin) and marvelled at how heavy they were (at this point I was vaguely interested in why, of all the objects them could find, a sharp pin which was now the size of a sword, should be chosen. I needn't have bothered)  Then they saw the dolls house and tried to get inside.  OK, so far there is some promise of adventure.  They have, after all, a weapon.  But no.  They couldn't get in the house and that 'storyline' was abandoned.  Then a dark shadow scared them. Oh, I thought, somewhat foolishly, here we go, here's the action.  But no.  It was a mouse.  A boring mouse that looked at them and went away again.  And that, dear readers, was the end.

I can't work out where the drama is in that.  I can't work out where there is consideration of plot.  Of a beginning, a middle and an end.  Of conflict and resolution.  Of character development. 

I refuse to accept the answer that "there doesn't need to be any".  Of course there does.  You wouldn't try and teach a child to read by making them read the dictionary.  The reason to learn to read is to be able to experience other worlds, to jump into stories and enjoy them.  And of course, to be able to learn things from non-fiction books, to read newspapers, to read road signs, to communicate.

Children will not get a love of books (actual books, made of paper) or even a love of reading, if this is what they are subjected to.  You wouldn't produce a film with this plot, so why is it acceptable in a book?

I understand that when writing for a reading scheme you are supposed to use a certain batch of words.  What I am less sure on is why?  Why not just read stories; any stories.  The common words, by their very nature, will appear more often and will be picked up quicker due to their repetition.  There will be tricky words, but then again, I'm in my late 30s and still have to occasionally ask what a word means.  

There are hundreds of stories out there that are good stories.  With all the Roald Dahls, Julia Donaldsons, Enid Blytons, A A Milnes, Roger Hargreaves' out there, why oh why oh why do we need this rubbish?

I have a set of these at home gifted from a neighbour who is also a teacher.  Of all the books my girls have these Chip and Biff stories are NEVER selected by them when it's bedtime story time.

I don't know what frustrates me more.  The fact that my daughter has to read this stuff to tick the box in her Reading Record, or that I could write the stories so much better!

What do you think?  Why do teachers use these 'schemes'? Do you use them at home? What are the advantages of this kind of book? I presume there must be some, otherwise someone, somewhere, is making money out of a con.

I'd appreciate your thoughts.  Biscuits at the ready as ever.

Read my thoughts on the teaching of phonetics and the new phonetics test here.


  1. I really can't stand this reading scheme either. Our school seems fixated on getting them to read every single book in the whole colour band before moving on *yawn*. It is so dull. My son reads thes quickly with no expression, no challenging words then rushes to get out his latest Enid Blyton....developing a love of reading has to be the key for me and if that is by Enid Blyton rather than biff and chip, I am happy with that!

    1. I adore the Enid Blyton books. I remember The Enchanted Wood with such fondness. It seems a shame that we have to endure this scheme when so many great books are out there.

      Thanks for commenting. I agree that a love of reading is key.

  2. Hello! I'm yet to encounter these books - TT is only 2. But they sound pretty unappealing from what you say. It sounds to me like reading schemes may be causing over-analysis of what children should be reading, leading to plot paralysis!!!

    I agree with you, there are many wonderful books out there for children to read. What a shame for children - and their parents - to have to endure boring books that don't have a decent storyline.

    We read Peter & Jane books at primary school. I remember them fondly, but can't for the life of me remember whether the story lines were good or not.

    1. I ordered the Peter and Jane books as you can still get them and I remember them too. But interesting there is next to no plot. However, they are really basic and mix writing in with the reading, so as learning texts I think they are OK. But you definitely need to supplement them with proper stories.

      It is the pretence of a story that frustrates me most. Not necessarily the lack of one!

      Thanks for commenting luv.

  3. Totally agree with you! We have now had nearly seven years of B & C, but I think the end is in sight as daughter is a pretty advanced Y1. You will be 'thrilled' to know that the magic key takes them on many, many adventures up several colour bands. Our school at least mix B&C up with other books, but to be honest those aren't much better. My middle one is bringing home historical novels which are written especially for reading schemes and they are BORING. He reads Harry Potter, Jeremy Strong and Skulduggery Pleasant, which are 'harder' and way more interesting, but we plough on wearily with the reading books to tick the box.
    There is a whole other debate about less able and reluctant readers who get no support at home, but I won't go into that here.

    1. Glad he is enjoying other books as well.

      I am thrilled indeed to hear there are more Key adventures to come! *snore*

      Yes, a debate for another day that!

      Thanks for commenting.

  4. What would the teacher do if you refused to read them? I've done that with my Child3's teacher, and although she seemed a little put out (and continues to religiously place a new ORT book in his folder every week), she would have a battle on her hands if she tried to argue with me. As far as I'm concerned the ORT books were putting Child3 (who turned 5 in February but is a very able reader) off reading altogether. Instead he's reading things like Alan Ahlberg's Gaskitt series and Claude by Alex T Smith, which are infinitely better written. And he spends half his life with his head stuck in a space encyclopaedia. So what if he doesn't read Biff and Chip - he could certainly teach his teacher a few things about gamma ray blasters (whatever they are!).

    1. If that was our foster son with his head in an encyclopaedia, if he could tell me what he was reading about wouldn't that outweight Chip and Biff by miles??

    2. Absolutely it would! I don't think the teacher should be concerned about a child reading one particular set of books if he is reading lots of others instead!

  5. Yep, the magical key adventures do get a bit more exciting - and seem to be the entire basis of the later stages of the scheme, but that is a completely rubbish way to introduce it!! That being said, they are still not the most exciting books in the world. I grew up reading Peter and Jane, and I taught DS1 to read using them (against his pre-school's advice) and now he's well ahead of the rest of his year. I went in at the beginning of the second term of Year 1 and just asked if he could bring books in from home instead of having school ones as they were so dull, and fortunately they agreed. Now he's reading Jeremy Strong, Dinosaur Cove and the Alexander McCall Smith Akimbo stories - all the kinds of things kids actually like to read at home. I'm aiming for a Roald Dahl or an Enid Blyton next!

    1. Sounds like a sensible teacher to me!

      The Twits is a good Roald one to start with! Brilliantly gruesome!

  6. I remember reading the Biff, Chip AND Kipper (I think Kipper was the dog?) books when I was in junior school. I can't really remember any of the stories but "The Magic Key" sounds very familiar. Maybe the stories just got boring when they dropped "Kipper" haha!

    1. Kipper is another sibling. Floppy is the dog.

      I hate that I even know that!

  7. I remember when I was at lower school (so to the end of Year 4) I was on the last band in the school and was reading lots more at home than I could read at school. (This is where I admit I was a super geek but I was reading Shakespeare around this time out of my own choice! And I got the GCSE Maths textbook out of my local library because my maths lessons were too easy)

    I think I did read the Chip and Biff books but never really liked them because they were too easy and I wanted to read more. I loved Jacqueline Wilson, Julia Jarman and Roald Dahl. I loved Famous Five and Secret Seven and wanted to read and read and read rather than do other work (especially as although I love writing my handwriting can be really bad).

    But on the other extend my brother has Dypraxia - he hates reading and it's probably only in the last 3 or 4 years that he's started reading stuff. When the Thor movie was made a few years back he read a whole book on Norse Mythology which was so out of character for him in a way.

    I have a foster son who seems to read enough to fill his 10 minute quota for the day and then doesn't read any more. We've taken to getting him to read the cooking instructions of lasagna jars or the description of the film on the TV before we watch it or something like that. Maybe it's a boy thing maybe it's just an education thing but he really doesn't like reading more than he has to. He's in Year 8 and we're desperately trying to get his reading age so that when he starts at Upper School in September he'll be able to try and keep pace with the kids around him.

    (Sorry essay of a comment!!)

    1. Absolutely no need to apologise. I appreciate you taking the time.

      You allude to an interesting point that children are interested in reading when it also fulfills another interest. The Thor interest leading to reading on that subject.

      Has your foster son any particular interests that you could use to direct him to books on the subject?

  8. Yep, we're in our first year of B&C, and although I don't *hate* them, I don't love them either. There have been one or two odd endings, or strange plots...but my daughter seems to enjoy them and is certainly progressing well with her reading, so they're certainly not having a negative effect. She only does them for homework though and then reads lots of other different books at home. In fact, I was just thinking tonight that I should really get her more books for her age range - so at least the school's keeping on top of her reading ability even if I'm not!

    1. Hi, Some aren't 'that' bad. But this particular book took me over the edge. We are getting them sent home on a daily basis at the moment! I guess if she's enjoying them you haven't got a problem. Though you may just get fed up after another year of it! ;-)

      Thanks for commenting.

  9. Oh yes - hate 'em. Done them twice, but we only read them for 'homework'. My mother in law gave my son some for his 4th biorthday (don't get me started) and the only time i got them down was to prove to my daughter's reception teacher that she was a lot further on in her reading than she would give her credit for. That's the other thing about these schemes, the insistence that you must start at the beginning, regardless. My daughter basically just picked up reading and could read before she started school. I will never forget her coming out on the second day in tears because she'd been given the very first book int he scheme which doesn't even have words - you're supposed to talk about the pictures. We've always read widely to the kids and talked about books so this was just ridiculous in her case. To her, I tried to be really positive but "[sob sob] it's not a proper book...[sob]... it doesn't have words in it" So I got out the ones we had at home and eventually managed to persuade the teacher that she needed to be at around stage 4, but it took about 2 weeks. Now, although she's still at the tail end of the ORT scheme, there's no more Biff & Chip and both kids get much more vareity to read from school. If they don't want to read the school books, we just read a home book and make a note. Both teachers are cool with them reading - what they read is not so important.

    1. It's great that the teachers are now cool with whatever they are reading; but I'm astonished it took 2 weeks to persuade them she was well ahead.

      I think we'll end up in this position with our 3 year old. She is picking up reading now because she sits with us when her 5 year old sister is reading. But she is also a September baby, so she has friends at nursery that are not ready for school but will start in September this year as they turn 4 in August. Her birthday is only a week later in September, but she won't start school for another year. She will be one of the oldest (if not the oldest) in her year.

      At the rate her reading is coming on now I think I might talk to the school in advance so we don't end up in a similar situation to yours.

      Thanks for the heads up!

  10. My children are now grown up and this dislike of the Oxford Reading Tree puzzles me. You should have seen the dull, depressing rubbish their schools gave them to learn from! In desperation a friend bought the entire scheme for her son and passed it on to the rest of us. My son turned from an angry, frustrated, book-hurling boy to a keen reader within a couple of months. I'm sure it's not perfect (and I agree that the 'magic key' plot you describe has a few holes) but at least there is some magic, not to mention a few jokes (sadly lacking in other tedious learn-to-read books 20 years ago).

    Is there now a better reading scheme? If so, I'd go for it like a shot if I still had small children. I agree, Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton write far more magical stories but you can't learn to read with them. There has to be stepping stones.

    I'm interested that you say your daughters never choose a Biff and Chip book for their bed time read - good for them, because I don't think that's what they are for! I used to get my son to read one with me (which wouldn't have worked if he'd hated it!) and then he chose his bedtime story afterwards.

  11. these books are outstanding, I can understand why you dislike them, let me explain how it works.
    The magic key is a journey through the vital vocabulary of your childs language, the books explore the world of words that unlock the final stage, Your child being a free reader.
    My daughter (now 16) learnt via 'The Magic Key' and believe me when they bring home the final story you will be awed by how fantastic a reader they are.
    I now home school my son and have just paid allot of money for these brilliant books.
    if you want your child to read with ease and learn from the words ,chose these.
    Enid Blyton and Roald Dhal are for more experienced readers NOT for learning new readers.

    I am shocked that people would rather leap beyond the brilliance of the Magic key and go for books that interest them instead of their children :S
    Griselda I agree with you !
    you really need to imagine being 5 and how huge the world of words are, these books are magic just you wait and see
    Not for bedtime and not to be snuffed at .
    read them daily

  12. Nat and Griselda,

    Thanks both for your comments. I have had a good think about the things you both say, and I can see where you are coming from. I understand that these books are designed to build reading confidence slowly, and the word structure and vocabulary are very good at doing just that.

    My sticking point is still that I can't understand why they can't manage to combine this with better plots.

    Since writing this post my daughter has read a fair few more of these (obviously), and there are other titles in the series with some better plots that the first 'magic key' story that I refer to in the post above. Some have surprised me by including morals in the stories too. But the plots could still be better, and the text could be less stilted, and it would still do it's job as a reading tool.

    One of the things I love about blogging is that there is the opportunity to share, debate, learn and have your mind changed. I'll never be a fan of these books, but you've both reminded me of their purpose, and, on the basis that my daughter's reading has come on leaps and bounds this year, I lower my angry sword and submit.

    Thank you again for commenting. I appreciate you taking the time to share.

  13. According to recent research of the What Kids are Reading for Pleasure the ORT books are the number one books that young children enjoy to read.

    I am a teacher and teach my class to read with B & C and all the kids love the stories. They are about kids their age doing similar things which they do. It is very of putting for a child who is learning to read to be given a book which is to far advanced for them and they end up hating reading as they do not understand anything. The ORT try and make the story interesting whilst introducing words bit by bit for the young readers. Other reading schemes donot even have a story for the early readers and instead just have words and a picture which the kids do not like.

    1. Thank you for commenting. I agree that it's great that these books have stories. I guess I just don't quite understand why there are so few reading scheme books that also have good stories. The two shouldn't be mutually exclusive.

      Admittedly there are some better books in this range than others. But there are also some really poor ones in this range, which frustrates me.

      Whatever individual views, if the range helps just one child learn to read, then it's worth it. I guess I just want more.

      Thanks again for your input. It's really interesting to hear everyone's views.

    2. As a retired teacher, I wholeheartedly agree with this lady - children need confidence to read, not to be overloaded with print they cannot decipher. ORT are not meant to be a story choice for bedtime, more a tool to guide the child along a secure path to becoming fluent, expectant readers.

  14. Thank goodness I've found this. Our 4 year old son has just come home with ORT after his first day at school. A book with NO WORDS has been given to him to teach him to read (?) and we have a separate sheet of paper with a photocopy of the so-called story on it. Bearing in mind he can recognise many words and write most of them too his first reaction was one of utter disappointment and the phrase "but where are the words mummy?" On the third attempt at looking at the book he simply got up off the sofa, went to the children's bookcase and chose a book and promptly started pointing out the words and letters that he knew.
    Furthermore (and fuelling my anger), where are the proper boy's and girl's names? Do you actually know anyone called Chip? Or Biff? Or Kipper? Apart from a dog, I bet not.
    I'm cross that a child who is so excited about starting school has already had the experience that school books are uninspiring and dull. And then we wonder why literacy levels are so poor in schools!
    In my opinion just because all the children are forced to read the ORT books and have success with them does not mean the books are any good. Learning to read should be an enjoyable process that will provide a love of books for your entire life and not just be a means to an end.

    1. I am glad if the post made you feel better. It's an emotive subject for parents of children just starting school. My younger daughter started school this week, and since her older sister is 7, Little Miss George, at 4, has a great grasp of words and stories. I know that the school will give her these books without the words in first, and she'll be bewildered, so I have warned her.

      I actually asked the teachers at the school about this, and they said they have to work through all he required books, even if they work though them at breakneck speed, to ensure they meet the child at their capability level and not past it.

      Please be reassured that if you send these back to school swiftly, and ask the teacher to issue them daily to work through the process, you will quickly move up to the stories he will enjoy. It's just a pity we have to do this.

      Oh and yes, I completely agree about the names. Apparently the letters and sounds in these particular names are particularly helpful (?). I am sure they could have found some actual names that would also suit though!

      Good luck. I hope you get there and continue to enjoy reading with your boy.

    2. My 5 year old son loves Oxford Reading Tree and so does my 3 year old daughter! My son went to school reading having learnt his synthetic phonics with Jolly Phonics resources. My daughter can already read and decode.

      My mother was a teacher and she is very impressed by the gradual progression/confidence building which others have noted in this thread. You can check out the following websites as there is loads more than just Biff and Chip with Traditional Tales, Non Fiction and Poetry all designed to give children breadth.

      My child's school use a variety of schemes and free reading which I think works best and the best teachers will do just that sure enough of the National Curriculum read across to be able to stretch and extend your child.

      If you are looking for alternatives at home outside of ORT you could try the Read Write Inc books which I think I would use if we home-schooled. We have just read Yellows Books in Fiction and Non Fiction with school (Set 5 Do we have to keep it? features a baby that wees on the boys combats and made us all laugh) and they are great for comprehension as well as stretch.

      Whatever you do steer clear of Jelly and Bean books by Marlene Greenwood. Honestly, purgatory doesn't come close.

    3. The real names are Christopher (Kipper) Barbara (Biff) and David (Chip), I'm not sure how he got to Chip, maybe he likes them a lot.

      They're a bit strange, but childhood nicknames often come from mispronunciation and silly endearments. My friend's sister was called Crystal (Not sure on spelling), but they called her Poppy for years.

    4. Thanks for your comment. I agree with you all that there is good gradual progression in this range. But I do keep coming back to the fact that some of the stories are really poor. Having a good progression shouldn't preclude good story telling. Or maybe I expect too much? Some of the stories are good; but too many have been, in my experience, not the best.

      I agree that they help improve reading. My elder daughter is only 8 and is working her way through the Harry Potter series now. But I honestly think that has more to do with the daily bedtime story reading sessions then ORT.

      But again, anything that helps a child read is good. I just want better....

  15. My 3 children all learned to read with ORT and LOVED them. The visual humour in the illustrations was just as important as the words. The satisfaction of being able to read the whole story and understand the sub-plots based on facial expressions of dogs, teddy bears, neighbours etc. was immense. My children all learned to read differently. The most able dispensed with ORT by the end of Reception, the least able was still reading (and enjoying) them at age 9. They all have their favourites and remember them fondly. ORT books were never the only books my kids were reading and I certainly didn't read them as bedtime stories. That's when they got a richer diet in terms of plot, language and imagination. My oldest two are now at university. ORT definitely launched their reading careers.

    1. Thanks for commenting. As I've said further up in this thread, I agree that there are great benefits to this range. There are certainly plenty of people fighting their corner and loving them.

      I still wish the stories were better though.... Sorry. Even though I agree with your point about the visual humour which is generally very good in these stories, I still can't get past why the plots shouldn't be richer even at this early stage. But if this was a vote I think I've lost it! ;-)

  16. I will argue against this strongly. I learned to read from these books and loved every one of them. The characters develop in some of the stories, overcoming fears and whatnot. Generally, Kipper is a grouch who dislikes anything until the end of the book. The stories never seemed endless, they were full of exploration, looking at the world from various angles (usually from low down) and visiting different places through the magic key, historical or fictional. Hell, I remember thinking that Biff had terrible choice in wallpaper. There came the point where the school stopped using them, but I found out there were five more stages after that.

    I remember that both me and my brother loved these books so much that she re-wrote a few so that we were actually part of the story (We may have replaced the side characters).

    I'm pretty sure the magic key stuff is why I still love stories where there is more to the world than meets the eye, like Harry Potter, Grimm or Supernatural. They have been a huge part of my life, I'm even writing a dissertation on them.

    Parents, if you don't like these books, try not to show that to the kid. They've got to make up their own mind. They're going to be reading with these things for years and children's opinions of things are usually dependent on how their parents react.

    Also, for the person who's got those wordless ones, you could have tried letting the kid 'help' read from the story sheet. Or if they're not challenging enough, try asking the teacher if you could skip ahead. The main stories that have to be read are the ones that introduce all the characters, the one where they move house, the ones explaining the magic key and dollhouse. The rest could go in any order you like. You could try using Oxford Owl to read some of the other books in the series.

    1. Very good point about the few stories that should come first. We read a magic key story without having read the introductory story and were a little confused.

      I'm really pleased you have such great memories of them, and if they helped then that's brilliant.

      Your other important point I absolutely agree with is the one about not showing children which books we, as parents, like or not. I may dislike this range, but my children don't know that. I always try and make all books as exciting as possible, and I ask my children what they thought. Very important point.

      Thank you.


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