Look and Read
Look and Read is a BBC schools TV series from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, covering Reading for primary school pupils.
A tremendously successful and treasured series designed to make stories and reading stimulating and interesting to children, using exciting cliffhanger drama serials, memorable characters and songs, all accompanied by reading strategies, opportunities to read from the screen, and physical story books.
The series' lasting success was inspired by the captivating dramas which made the programmes attractive and memorable to pupils, teachers, and viewers looking in from home, and also by several re-uses of older films for new generations.
The structure of a Look and Read episode stayed remarkably consistent across its four decades on the air, though with some notable deviations along the way.
At it's heart is the drama serial, a 4-5 minute segment at the start, and another at the end, forming a complete story across the school term. The stories - set out below and on more detailed pages of their own - include crime-solving adventures, family dramas, science fiction, fantastic quests and animal-saving crusades. Reading or the ability to read is often a plot point, for example through secret messages, code solving and riddles.
In between the story segments is a teaching section, led by a presenter who talks about the story, some vocabulary or phonics seen in it and reading strategies to help understand them. For nearly 20 years the human presenter was joined by Wordy, a floating orange puppet who knew a lot about words and was cheeky, sometimes humorously obnoxious, along with it and became extremely popular with children.
Original songs are another common features of these in-between bits, accompanied by animations, and providing an explanation or mnemonic for a particular grammatical point. The songs developed their own characters who recurred across the years, such as the Magic E Wizard who illustrated split digraphs by having his magic wand cast a spell on the vowel two places behind an 'e' to change its sound, Bill the Brickie who demonstrated morphemic structure by building a wall with bricks of different word parts such as "happen" and "ing", or Dog Detective who hunted out sounds or phonics within words and sentences.
The in-between bits also featured documentary spots and demonstrations on topics covered by the dramas, which could be linked to project work in the classroom. Finally there would be an opportunity for reading directly from the screen, as a few sentences from the story would be displayed slowly, designed to provide viewers with the morale boost of being able the read these words after being shown how they work. The reading sections were shown in complete silence for several minutes to provide no distractions, and so in the 1970s it was necessary to notify both the BBC1 presentation department and the television transmitters before each broadcast, in case somebody thought that sound had gone wrong and pulled the programmes off air!
The concept of a schools television series using drama to stimulate reluctant readers was novel in the mid-1960s, and it was introduced carefully and slowly with lots of observation and review. First a story called Fishing for Fivers, about a theft from a travelling fair, was broadcast as part of the established primary schools miscellany series Merry-Go-Round in early 1965. You can read more about the preparations leading up to that very first story on the Fishing for Fivers page.
A year later a second short experimental story called Tom, Pat and Friday, a seaside adventure also about thefts, was broadcast within Merry-Go-Round, with the addition of a children's reading book alongside the TV programmes. With these experiments considered a success another story was produced the following year. This was called Bob and Carol Look for Treasure, also about thefts but this time from a stately home, and it was no longer part of Merry-Go-Round but launched as a full term's broadcasts as a series in its own right, called Look and Read.
The series was originally designed for what were then called "backward readers" - children whose reading habits and ability had still not yet developed by the time they reached junior school at age 7 to 9, generally because they were not much interested in reading, had not seen reason to give it much effort, or who had been put off by how difficult it was to start. The series does not actually teach children how to read and never sought to do that, nor does it align to any particular reading scheme, it simply encourages them to try reading, and shows the rewards it offers. The series always promoted reading for meaning - the words children saw on screen were always there because they were relevant to the story they were following, not simply as letters to be sounded out.
In the 1960s and 70s it was the very fact of using the fairly new mechanism of television - and later colour television - with an exciting filmed story that was itself a stimulus. In between the drama the programmes could make words seem interesting using visual tricks such as animating an "ed" word ending to join the stem word, or making the "oo" in the middle of "look" a pair of eyes that look about. That concept of moving eyes within "look" was a hallmark of the programme and formed its title sequence for two decades from 1974, but was used right back to the very first experimental pilot programmes in the mid-1960s.
It was not until the early 1990s that the Look and Read teacher's notes formally acknowledged that the dramas had a strong appeal to the whole class and could be used successfully with all junior school age children to develop their enthusiasm for reading, not just a small group of more reluctant readers. Along the way the scope of the teaching content was expanded, so that songs and features which initially covered only phonics and letter sounds expanded to include punctuation and reading strategies such as guessing an unknown words then checking to see if the guess makes sense. More fun and catchy songs, and characters such as the puppet presenter Wordy also emerged in the 1970s and 80s.
Producers of Look and Read were well aware of how children would suffer through the in-between bits in order to reach the drama segments that they were really interested in. This was referred to as "the urgh factor", after the disappointed sighing sound classes would make when they realised that the first part of the drama was over and they would have to wade through lots of teaching content before they got more story. Reducing the urgh factor was a priority in designing the programmes and led to many developments over the years. The Merry-Go-Round pilots and early Look and Read units were introduced by a friendly but essentially detached presenter who would simply comment on the drama. 1968's Len and the River Mob, a dockside crime caper, brought the two elements closer together by having the hero Len also introduce the teaching parts of the programmes. Later units similarly used characters from the drama, or the writer or even "illustrator" to introduce their own story. Various techniques were also used to shorten the purely teaching content, such as extending the recaps of the story-so-far at the start of an episode, and showing song animations twice with the second having key words missing for viewers to sing along themselves.
1989's Through the Dragon's Eye, an epic fantasy quest, was the first Look and Read story to have no teaching middles at all - each episode is entirely drama, but with songs, animations and words displayed on screen within the story of each episode, and 1998's The Legend of the Lost Keys, a contemporary thriller about doorways between worlds, managed a similar structure.
As the recognisable brand for junior school TV series, Look and Read was also the parent to some more general programmes outside of the traditional story structure. 1995's LRTV was billed as a Look and Read Special and marked the first time the series was broadcast in the summer term, and used a TV station run entirely by children to promote writing and communication skills. 1997's Captain Crimson was another summer term Look and Read Special, but with a dramatised story structure in which a comic book hero comes to life and attempts to help his creator. From 2002 the series was further expanded into a comedy sketch show and animated character format in units of Spelling Strategies and Spelling with the Spellits.
The final Look and Read story produced, 2004's Shadow Play, about a boy stepping back in time to solve a Victorian mystery, was modern but fundamentally recognisable as the same type of programme, with the same structure and techniques as those experimental pilot programmes produced almost 40 years earlier. This was perhaps not surprising because immediately before this final story was made the BBC had opened up the Look and Read archive and re-shown all surviving episodes dating back to the early 1970s (plus one no-long-surviving episode that had to be remade). An expanded version of the Shadow Play story segments was shown as a feature-length children's drama on CBBC, finally confirming the interest the series held, which had expanded from a small group of "backward readers", to the whole class, and finally the whole country.
|Bob and Carol Look for Treasure (from Look and Read)||1967-1970||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|Len and the River Mob (from Look and Read)||1968-1972||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|The Boy from Space (1971) (from Look and Read)||1971-1973||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|Joe and the Sheep Rustlers (from Look and Read)||1973-2007||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|Cloud Burst (from Look and Read)||1974-2007||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|Radio Resource Material (from Look and Read)||1974-1985||Age 7-9||English||Radio|
|The King's Dragon (from Look and Read)||1977-2007||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|Sky Hunter (from Look and Read)||1978-2007||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|The Boy from Space (1980) (from Look and Read)||1980-2007||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|Dark Towers (from Look and Read)||1981-2007||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|Fair Ground! (from Look and Read)||1983-2007||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|Badger Girl (from Look and Read)||1984-2007||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|Geordie Racer (from Look and Read)||1988-2007||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|Through the Dragon's Eye (from Look and Read)||1989-2008||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|Sky Hunter II (from Look and Read)||1992-2007||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|Earth Warp (from Look and Read)||1994-2007||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|Space Warp (from Look and Read)||1994-1995||Age 7-9||English||Radio|
|LRTV (from Look and Read)||1995-2006||Age 7-9||English Language||TV|
|Spywatch (from Look and Read)||1996-2007||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|Captain Crimson (from Look and Read)||1997-2010||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|The Legend of the Lost Keys (from Look and Read)||1998-2007||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|Zzaap and the Word Master (from Look and Read)||2001-2008||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
|Spell It Out (from Look and Read)||2002-2009||Age 7-9||English Language||TV|
|Spelling with the Spellits (from Look and Read)||2002-2007||Age 7-9||English Language||TV|
|Shadow Play (from Look and Read)||2004-2009||Age 7-9||English Language, Reading||TV|
Broadcasts Look and Read stories were typically shown twice a week during the autumn and spring terms, and from the start of the 1970s until the middle of the 1990s it occupied slots on Tuesday mornings, with repeats on Friday mornings.
From 2002 to 2008 there were also repeats on the CBBC Channel including, from spring 2003, archive repeats dating back to the 1970s.
The series has also been broadcast on Teachers' TV around the world on BBC Prime, and on channels in Australia and Malaysia, amongst others.
Visit the Look and Read schedules section for records of all UK broadcasts ever.
Look and Read became a multimedia phenomenon, with a wide variety of resources and in some cases several generations of new resources produced to accompany the same original TV series.
It was normal for a BBC broadcast for schools to be accompanied by a booklet of teacher's notes explaining the content and suggesting follow-up material for each programme. There were also illustrated story books in the form of "pupils' pamphlets" (a phrase originating in the 1920s which the BBC continued to use until 1995) given out to each child to read back what they had been on television.
Alongside these standard resources Look and Read was accompanied by worksheets and posters, full-length novels, computer software, readings of the story on LP record, audio cassette and even a companion radio series which ran for more than 50 episodes. It was so popular in the late 1980s that 2 stories in the were accompanied by their own t-shirts for children and adults!
The following grid summarises the resources available for every story.
|Story||TV||Radio||Storybook||Teacher's notes||Worksheets||Resource Pack||Novel||Video release||Digital release||Audio release||Software||Website||Clothing|
|Fishing for Fivers||4 TV episodes||-||-||Teacher's notes||-||-||-||16mm film rec.||-||-||-||-||-|
|Tom, Pat and Friday||4 TV episodes||-||16 page pupil's pamphlet||Teacher's notes||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-|
|Bob and Carol Look for Treasure||10 TV episodes||-||48 page pupil's pamphlet||Teacher's notes||-||-||-||16mm film rec.||-||-||-||-||-|
|Len and the River Mob||10 TV episodes||-||48 page pupil's pamphlet||Teacher's notes||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-|
|The Boy from Space (1971)||10 TV episodes||-||48 page pupil's pamphlet||Teacher's notes||-||-||-||-||-||LP record||-||-||-|
|Joe and the Sheep Rustlers||10 TV episodes||4 radio episodes||48 page pupil's pamphlet||Teacher's notes||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-|
|Cloud Burst||10 TV episodes||3 radio episodes||48 page pupil's pamphlet||Teacher's notes||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-|
|The King's Dragon||10 TV episodes||4 radio episodes||48 page pupil's pamphlet||Teacher's notes||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-|
|Sky Hunter||10 TV episodes||6 (+1) radio episodes||48 page pupil's pamphlet||Teacher's notes||Spirit duplicating masters||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-|
|The Boy from Space (1980)||10 TV episodes||4 (+2.5) radio episodes||48 page pupil's pamphlet||Teacher's notes||Spirit duplicating masters||-||-||-||DVD (retail) / Streaming||-||-||-||-|
|Dark Towers||10 TV episodes||6 (+2.5) radio episodes||48 page pupil's pamphlet||Teacher's notes||Spirit duplicating masters||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-|
|Fair Ground!||10 TV episodes||6 radio episodes||48 page pupil's pamphlet||Teacher's notes||Spirit duplicating masters||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-|
|Badger Girl||10 TV episodes||-||48 page pupil's pamphlet||Teacher's notes||Spirit duplicating masters / Photocopy masters||-||-||-||-||Audio cassette||-||-||-|
|Geordie Racer||10 TV episodes||-||48 page pupil's pamphlet||Teacher's notes||Spirit duplicating masters / Photocopy masters||-||Novel||-||-||Audio cassette||BBC, Acorn & Nimbus software||-||blue t-shirt|
|Through the Dragon's Eye||10 TV episodes||-||68 page storybook||Teacher's notes||Photocopy masters||Literacy Resource Pack||Novel||Video tapes||-||Audio cassette||2x BBC, Acorn & Nimbus software||-||green t-shirt|
|Sky Hunter II||10 TV episodes||-||44 page storybook||Teacher's notes||Photocopy masters||-||Novel||Video tapes||-||Audio cassette||BBC, Acorn & Nimbus software||-||-|
|Earth Warp||10 TV episodes||10 radio episodes (Space Warp)||44 page storybook||Teacher's notes||Photocopy masters||-||Novel||Video tapes||-||Audio cassette||BBC, Acorn & Nimbus software||-||-|
|LRTV||8 TV episodes||-||-||Teacher's notes||-||Writer's Kit||-||Video tapes||-||-||Acorn software||-||-|
|Spywatch||10 TV episodes||-||52 page storybook||Teacher's notes||Photocopy masters / Worksheets||Literacy Resource Pack||Novel||Video tapes / Video Plus Pack||DVD Plus Pack||Audio cassette||BBC & Acorn software||Flash website||-|
|Captain Crimson||8 TV episodes||-||68 page storybook||Teacher's notes||-||Writer's Resource Pack / Literacy Resource Pack||-||Video tapes / Video Plus Pack||-||-||Acorn, Mac & PC software||-||-|
|The Legend of the Lost Keys||10 TV episodes||-||52 page storybook||Teacher's notes||-||Literacy Resource Pack||Novel||Video tapes||DVD Plus Pack||Audio cassette||Acorn, Mac & PC software||-||-|
|Zzaap and the Word Master||6 TV episodes||-||68 page storybook||-||-||Literacy Resource Pack||Novel||Video tape / Video Plus Pack||DVD Plus Pack||Audio cassette||-||Flash website||-|
|Spelling Strategies||3 TV episodes||-||-||-||-||Literacy Resource Pack||-||Video Plus Pack||-||-||-||Flash website||-|
|Spelling with the Spellits||8 TV episodes||-||-||-||-||Literacy Resource Pack||-||Video Plus Packs (x4)||DVD Plus Packs (x2)||-||-||Flash website||-|
|Shadow Play||5 TV episodes||-||68 page storybook||-||-||Literacy Resource Pack||-||Video Plus Pack||DVD Plus Pack||-||-||-||-|
|with||Charles Collingwood as Wordy's voice|
|Reading consultant||Joyce M. Morris|
|Written by||Joy Thwaytes|
|Music by||Inigo Kilborn|
Sources & References
- BBC annual programme guides and wallcharts, 1965-2006
- Chovil, Claire & Mee, E.C. (1965) BBC School Broadcasts Bulletin: Experimental television programmes designed to help backward readers (1st and 2nd year juniors), School Broadcasting Council for the United Kingdom, September 1965
- Fawdry, Kenneth (1974) Everything But Alf Garnett: A Personal View of BBC School Broadcasting, London: BBC. ISBN 0 563 12763 5
- Look and Read teacher's notes, pupils' pamphlets and other resources, 1967-2004
- Look and Read TV programmes, 1968-2004
- Mee, Ellen C. (1967) BBC School Broadcasts Bulletin: Television and backward readers in the junior school, School Broadcasting Council for the United Kingdom, May 1967
- Radio Times television listings, 1965-2009, and television listings from the Times Educational Supplement, BBC Online Schedules, BBC Whatson Schedules (& BBC Backstage) and DigiGuide.
Some 'behind the scenes' information is based on private research but not specifically attributed, in accordance with the wishes of my sources!
- Words and Pictures, the companion series for younger children, had used a similar magic E wizard character in a story four years before the Look and Read song version arrived.
- Chovil & Mee (1965) p.6 confirms that animation of the "oo" in "look" was used during Fishing for Fivers: "There remain many words for which it was necessary to devise some kind of mnemonic. In doing so, there was an attempt to use visual 'tricks' to make the words interesting. For instance, the double 'o' in 'look' became a pair of moving eyes."
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