HONG KONG SCHOOLS are being offered a magic key to help unlock the door to children's reading. Instilling a love of reading is central to education reform, and last week schools were given help to implement the government's literacy policy from an unlikely source. Forget international educators and curriculum experts: meet instead, a white middle-class nuclear family with three happy children and an eccentric dog. Mum, dad, Kipper, twins Biff and Chip and Floppy the dog have been central characters in the Oxford Reading Tree (ORT), a British-based graded reading scheme, since its inception in 1988. For a whole week, independent literacy consultant Mary Langley toured schools at the request of Oxford University Press (OUP) to give seminars to teachers and parents on how the tree might help with a whole range of reading skills and strategies. The series was the brainchild of Rod Hunt, who decided he could do a lot better than the dull books his son brought home from school and was reluctant to read. His aim was to create stories that engaged developing readers who would be motivated to learn to love to read. The discovery of the magic key in the books that form the trunk of the tree is the hook to adventure and lively cross-curricular subject matter. It transports the children and the readers from their everyday lives to dramas back in time, in other cultures or even into space. Ms Langley believes the cultural context of the stories documenting the lives of a typical, if slightly dated, family is less significant than the universal reading values the tree promotes. 'The characters become familiar, as do the settings and experiences,' she told a group of parents at one of her seminars. 'There is a humour and mischievousness, animation, discussion and enjoyment that are universal and appeal to adults as well as children, allowing them to share the reading experience. This is so important. We have a shared reality the world over and this includes gossiping, scheming and manipulating.' Parents were encouraged to share books with their children in a creative, relaxed way in a secure environment that stimulated interest for a deeper understanding of reading rather than instilling a fear of failure to decode accurately. 'Children need to understand the English alphabetical code, but listen to your children, encourage them and praise them and don't do too much teaching.' The response from parents was generally enthusiastic, but some qualified their optimism with practical considerations. Fanii Kwok has a Primary One child attending the G.T. (Ellen Yeung) School in Tseung Kwan O: 'I feel more confident to use English texts as well as the Chinese ones we use at home. I am determined. But it is difficult for busy parents to find the time and also, even though these Oxford books will be sent home from school, we have to pay for them ourselves.' Although the text is a vital element of any reading material, it is the illustrations that make the tree particularly valuable, in Ms Langley's eyes. 'These books can be used at various levels of independence. Illustrations are drawn in such a way as to engage a child at a more sophisticated level than just simple text can. They form an additional text the child and adult can read and comment on to articulate their understanding of the story. Humans learn through narrative, we tell stories.' Although this theory might apply to other published materials, it was as head of an international school in which ORT was used successfully on students with English as an additional language [EAL] that Ms Langley became convinced of the benefits of a structured scheme using appropriate language and creative pictures. 'EAL had been almost comic before that. I realised students needed to understand the mechanics of English as well as its subtleties, and ORT helps them do that. You need a balance of formal instruction in the traditional sense and the use of whole books or texts.' Her work as a teacher trainer reinforced this conviction. In a session held at the Australian International School, Ms Langley encouraged more than 200 teachers from local schools to make reading a more active and interactive experience. She stressed the need to expand reading for its own sake into wider aspects of literacy. 'Link reading with writing; good readers should become good writers. First model reading using shared and then guided reading and then encourage your students to become independent and appreciate and understand different writers' styles and a deeper appreciation of literature,' she said. Ms Langley uses role play to get them to experience the elements of an effective reading session. During one session she demonstrated a hierarchy of reading skills, ranging from how to handle a book to interpreting the nuances that illustrations add to the written word. One teacher said: 'I agree with this way of looking at things. But I am worried that looking at pictures and talking about the books takes too much time.' Lucy Norton, an executive at the ORT explains. 'The new curriculum guidelines from the EMB [Education and Manpower Bureau] emphasise the importance of spending significant amounts of time on reading. But many teachers lack the background, expertise or resources to extend their practice beyond very formal exercises or using text books. 'In many ways it is reminiscent of the 1950s when teaching reading was very formal, but not much fun. I know time is an issue, but we need to educate teachers that they can use reading to help them cover the curriculum and not see it as an additional burden.' ORT books, fiction and non-fiction, support many topics in the general studies curriculum, beyond English-learning. Ms Langley found teachers in Hong Kong committed, professional and eager to learn but with real concerns about teaching reading and writing in a different way. 'I used games and creative materials to show teachers that reading and teaching reading need not be so formal. I appreciate the difficulties of large classes and think that hardcore reforms need hardcore support but there are ways of using groups, assistants and good quality materials to do a good job,' she said. Responding to teachers' needs as she toured schools, Ms Langley found herself talking increasingly to teachers about phonics, which the tree addresses in one of its lower branches. 'An awful lot of teachers asked about the best way of approaching phonics, and I did my best to respond and show how phonics fits into the bigger picture.' She cited teachers who expressed additional concerns about teaching text types other than traditional stories. 'The analysis and appreciation of different types of non-fiction texts as well as narrative is causing some anxiety to a lot of teachers in local schools. I tried to show teachers how the various types extend and embed an understanding of how some skills are universal.' To this end ORT is introducing two new non-fiction series to augment the growing stable of extra readers and support materials. Parents showed particular interest in the interactive books available on CD Rom, which allow readers to control how they interact with the text as well being entertained with sound and moving graphics. Further activities are provided on the website at www.oup.com/orto/ One obstacle to introducing reading schemes has been a belief that classes must have a copy of each title for every child, making them unaffordable. But Ms Langley said this was not so. Big books or digital versions can be used for class teaching and each title can be circulated for children to read in class or take home. Love them or hate them, the family with no surname appeals to lots of students in Hong Kong. Oxford is looking for magic growth in sales here, which is a potentially rich market given current curriculum initiatives, from a low base. Parents and schools may have to finance some of any increase that occurs, but in the end the readers will decide. One Primary Two student was heard saying: 'I like Biff and Chip. Mum and dad [in the ORT books] are always getting cross. That's just like my mum and dad!' It seems some things never change.