Words and Pictures

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companyBBC & SFTV
started20th Apr 1970
53 school years
duration15 mins, 10 mins & 5 mins
age rangeAge 5-7
languageenIn English

Words and Pictures is a BBC schools TV series from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, covering Language, Books and Reading for primary school pupils.

Words and Pictures is one of the BBC's most popular and successful schools programmes of all time. It is a programme for young children in the very first years of school who have just started to read, encouraging reading "as an interesting and enjoyable activity", and providing practice at reading and writing.

It began in 1970 as, effectively, a spin-off from the schools programme Look and Read - which was already providing the same type of practice and encouragement for slightly older children. In its first few years Words and Pictures followed the structure of its older cousin quite closely, with serialised stories (told with real actors in Look and Read but with puppets in Words and Pictures) for children to follow accompanied by teaching sections in which the presenter and puppets tried out the phonics and reading skills they had learnt from the story.

Later the programme adopted a more open, magazine format, with a presenter in an area surrounded by books such as a bookshop, a library or just a television studio. Each episode would then feature a children's story book being read aloud and accompanied by animation, and separate activities in the studio including songs and games and writing practice.

The most frequently told story was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, covered in different episodes in 1977, 1987 and 1996. The traditional story The Tale of the Turnip (aka The Enormous Turnip) was also told in three different episodes, in 1978, 1983 and 1990. At least 10 stories from Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books were told during the 1970s and 80s, with specially-made stop motion puppet animation by Bura and Hardwick. Several of the other stories were specially written for the programme and not published, except in the teacher's notes.

For most of the 1970s and 80s the human presenter of the series was accompanied a funny little animated man called Charlie, who would jump around the set bantering with the presenter and singing with the children. Later in the 1990s and 2000s the series has seen a number of changes but its core as a programme encouraging reading for pleasure and based on phonics (now synthetic phonics) has remained intact. Music for the series in the 1970s and 80s was generally performed by Ian Humphris and Paddy Kingsland.

Words and Pictures has long been held as one of the most popular schools programmes in Britain, constantly praised by teachers and fondly remembered by children. In the 1980s the series was estimated to be used by 88% of all infant schools in the country, with a regular audience of around 2 million schoolchildren[1]. In the late 1990s and early 2000s when the attention of teachers was moving away from traditional broadcasting and onto online and interactive resources, Words and Pictures was still reportedly used by 70% of all primary schools[2].

This statement from a teacher in 1974 explains what makes the series so useful and popular with teachers:

To provide the same stimulus I would have to draw pictures, make slides, collect information about the environment and pass it on in an exciting and interesting fashion, have a story book which would last a term and take the children outside school to study their environment. Besides I would still have to teach phonics and reading.[3]


Up in the Attic

Gabriel Woolf

In the very first experimental Words and Pictures programmes, shown in summer 1970, presenter Gabriel Woolf is exploring an old house when a magic lamp produces an attic full of toys. Each week he meets a different set of toys, who have all sorts of phonic-based adventures.

Each week's story used a different type of puppetry - string puppets, glove puppets & shadow puppets. After the story there was another episode later in the week in which Gabriel Woolf and the puppets learned about reading and phonics.


Sam on Boffs' Island

Sam (Tony Robinson) and Small-Boff

The second Words and Pictures story is a 20-part adventure about a vague young man called Sam Samson (played by Tony Robinson) who daydreams himself onto an island inhabited by little men called Boffs, where words and letters are an important part of life.

The Boffs put the letters spoken by their flock of Say-Birds into a Shopping Machine, which then produces food and everything else they need beginning with the letter that was entered. The first half of the story is about how the Say-Birds escape from captivity on Boffs' Island and fly away to nearby Gurglers' Island. The Gurglers are nice, friendly creatures, but mistrusted by the Boffs. In the second half of the story the Boffs and Gurglers try to get along together on Boffs' Island but things do not work out, and eventually even Sam is attacked by the distrustful Boffs.


Words and Pictures in the 70s

Henry Woolf and Charlie

In 1975 the style of the programme changed greatly, although its aims and its audience were still the same. It now contained a series of features linked together by the presenter, Henry Woolf.

Henry works in a bookshop[4] where he is helped by a tiny little animated man named Charlie, who can jump around the set and interact with Henry and any children who are visiting the bookshop. Charlie's voice was provided by Charles O'Rourke and the unusual movements he made were credited to 'Aniform'.

Magic Pencil drawing "s"

Each episode concentrated on one particular letter or digraph. There would be short fun animations about things beginning with the letter, such as a "vanishing van", and a demonstration of how to draw the letter by a large, disembodied pencil known as Magic Pencil (these demonstrations were originally described as "a happy pencil learning to write"[5], but the magic pencil name was used from the beginning[4]). Magic pencil was accompanied by what the teacher's notes called a "movement jingle"[6] describing how to form the letter. For instance, the very first movement jingle was "top to bottom, over and over" describing a letter "m"[7]. The magic pencil sequences were later credited to Peter Travers-Jones[8].

There would also be a story read from a book in every episode, told with illustrations or animated film with occasional words and phrases shown on screen for children to read out, and just as in the earlier programmes the words would 'light up' as children read them[4]. Some exciting topic would be discussed in the studio - in one episode the visiting children had to mend their broken go cart, in another there was film of a circus[9] - and finally there would be a rhyme, poem or song to sing.

Words and Pictures in the 80s

Vicky Ireland and Charlie

In 1982 Vicky Ireland became the first female presenter of Words and Pictures. The format of the series continued largely unchanged, as episodes featured a story and rhymes, a writing demonstration by magic pencil and intervention from Charlie.

Magic Pencil drawing "h"

The setting moved to the Words and Pictures library, where Vicky was children's librarian.[10] Just like in the bookshop of the 1970s, the set is naturally filled with books, and there are always some children on hand to play with Charlie.

During the 1980s magic pencil began to draw letters with serifs, referred to as "flicks" in the movement jingles. This was done to provide "a natural introduction to the cursive style of handwriting"[11]. Previously magic pencil would draw simple block letters, although it did draw "q" with what was then called a "kick"[11].

While Words and Pictures changed its style in the 1990s (see below), a new series very similar to the "traditional" Words and Pictures of the 70s and 80s began on Channel 4. Rat-a-Tat-Tat was a series encouraging young children to read for pleasure with help from songs and nursery rhymes, a letter-of-the-week, words and phrases shown on the screen for reading practice, and one story book each week. It was launched in autumn 1993 as one of the first series on the new Channel 4 Schools service. It was produced by Moyra Gambleton (of Words and Pictures), with narration by Vicky Ireland (of Words and Pictures), music by Paddy Kingsland (of Words and Pictures) and animation from the regular Words and Pictures animators. It even came to an end in the early 2000s with a series of five-minute programmes based on individual phonics (see below for the Words and Pictures equivalent, Fun with Phonics)[12].

Words and Pictures in the 90s

Stuart Bradley and Nutmeg

Words and Pictures saw many changes during the 1990s. First in 1990 the programme was presented by Stuart Bradley and a cat puppet called Nutmeg. The programmes were based in a studio, where Nutmeg would type words on a word processor. The two presenters would also venture out to locations like a hairdressers and a fire station, to set the context for the stories and read words in the environment, like signs and menus.

Sophie Aldred

In 1992 the presenter was Sophie Aldred, who continued to present studio-based programmes with location visits and all the other features of the programme since the 70s.

Words and Pictures was such a popular schools programme that two video tapes were released to the general public based on these episodes and with special introductions by Sophie Aldred - Alphabet Fun Time, containing Magic Pencil sequences for every letter of the alphabet, and Time for a Story, reprising several of the stories told through illustrations or animation.

Michael Hobbs

There was another new presenter in 1993, Michael Hobbs, again based both in the studio and out on location where stories could be acted out and words could be read.

Sophie Aldred again

Sophie Aldred returned as presenter in 1996 for more regular episodes and two special series, Phonics Special and Phonics Year 2, in 1999 and 2001 respectively. In the last series Sophie was living in a special lighthouse which could keep words safe (by showing the rules needed to avoid getting them wrong) and had a telescope to spot words in real life. Each week she is visited by Sid the Seagull, who tries to spell out words using the episode's phonics, and actors pay a visit to read a story book.

These later episodes focused on the more complicated phonics like consonant blends and "magic e" words which had been a staple of Words and Pictures in the early 1970s but not since.

Finally in 2001 there was a new series of four Magic Pencil programmes, which were edited from the Alphabet Fun Time video released in the previous decade, and also presented by Sophie Aldred.

Paul Ewing and Jim

In 1999 there was a series titled Words and Pictures Plus, presented by Paul Ewing and the animated character Jim. The programmes proceeded at a slower pace, one phoneme or phonic point per episode, and so were more suitable for the younger part of the Words and Pictures audience, around 5 years old.

The highlight of each episode was Jim's Word Workout, where Jim stretches a word out to pronounce its individual sounds, and then blend them back together.

Fun with Phonics

Pui Fan Lee and Will Vanderpuye

A new series of Words and Pictures with the subtitle Fun with Phonics was launched at the end of the autumn term 2006. It is made up of short, five minute episodes, each concentrating on one particular letter sound.

There are two special characters in these programmes - Whirlybird, a kind of Wurlitzer organ which can produce all the letters needed to spell a word but needs viewers' help to blend the letters together into a word; and Pollyphonic, a parrot with a flying machine that produces letters, who can split words that she is given into their constituent phonic sounds. Animated sequences were drawn by Alan Rogers of Cut-Out Animation, who had been contributing to Words and Pictures since the 1980s.

There were two presenters, Pui Fan Lee and Will Vanderpuye, each presenting 22 of the 44 episodes in the series. When broadcast for schools the 'episodes' are ten minutes long and look at 2 separate letter sounds, but when shown as a general children's programme on the Cbeebies channel or on BBC2 they are five minutes long and only cover 1 sound at a time. The schools versions are simply a combination of two Cbeebies episodes, with the end credits removed from the first.

Re-edited versions of the episodes, with some extra material, are available to buy in the shops in three packs...

...while the original episodes, with a lot of rich supporting material, were available to schools from bbcactivefunwithphonics.com (archived 2015).




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Sources & References

  • Alster, Laurence (1997) 'Auntie's long lesson' in Times Educational Supplement 19 September 1997, TES2 p.26
  • BBC (1975) Words and Pictures Teacher's Notes Autumn 1975. London: BBC
  • BBC (1978) Words and Pictures Teacher's Notes Spring 1978. London: BBC
  • BBC (1982) Words and Pictures Teacher's Notes Autumn 1982. London: BBC
  • BBC (1987/I) Words and Pictures Teacher's Notes Autumn 1987. London: BBC
  • BBC (1987/II) BBC Radio and Television for Primary and Middle Schools 1987-8. London: BBC Books
  • BBC (1998) Words and Pictures Teacher's Notes Autumn 1998. London: BBC
  • BBC (2001) BBC Primary Catalogue 2001-2002. Wetherby: BBC Educational Publishing
  • Brace, Alison (2000) 'Will Auntie's lessons survive the e-volution?' in Times Educational Supplement 14 July 2000 p.21 (available online (archived 2015))
  • Hayter, C.G. (1974) Using Broadcasts in Schools: A Study and Evaluation. London: BBC Publications ("a joint BBC/ITV publication")
  • Moses, Diana & Croll, Paul (1991) School Television in Use. London: Libbey
  • Porter, Pam (1978) Television with Slow Learning Children: attention to educational television programmes. London: IBA
  1. 88% viewership and 2 million viewers in schools mentioned in the preface to Moses & Croll (1991) p.3.
  2. "Nearly 70 per cent of primary schools regularly uses Words and Pictures, a language series that has run for 30 years and picked up several Royal Television Society awards along the way." according to Alster (1997) col. e. and "programmes like Words and Pictures, used by 70 per cent of primary schools, will continue to be commissioned in traditional form" according to Brace (2000) col. e. Possibly the figure from 2000 was just copied from the 1997 article in the same newspaper, so 70% may be a bit high for use as late as 2000, but I don't know of any more reliable figures.
  3. "To provide the same stimulus" quote from Hayter (1974) p.44 (paragraph 110), attributed to "a Scottish teacher".
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Confirmation that the Henry Woolf episodes were set in a bookshop, and other details of those episodes, from the description of the episode Mr Bumble's Invention in Porter (1978) p.11.
  5. "A happy pencil learning to write" quote from the Radio Times description for the episode Mighty Monsters, 22nd September 1975.
  6. "Movement jingle" phrase used for instance in BBC (1978) pp.2-23. The same source indicates that magic pencil sequences were only used during episodes looking at single letters, and not digraph episodes.
  7. First movement jingle given in BBC (1975) p.2
  8. The sleeve notes to the 1997 BBC Video release 2 on 1 Number Time and Alphabet Fun Time credited magic pencil to Peter Travers-Jones. This is the only such credit I have ever found, it is not included in the video programme itself and it was not even present on the sleeve to the original 1994 release of "Words and Pictures Alphabet Fun Time".
  9. "Inc film of the circus" mentioned in the description of the episode Trip Trap (12th May 1976) in BBC archive catalogue.
  10. Confirmation of the format of the 1980s Vicky Ireland episodes from BBC (1982) p.2: "In this, the first programme of a new series, Vicky Ireland as children's librarian introduces herself and the 'Words and Pictures' library. Charlie is on hand to help out."
  11. 11.0 11.1 Explanation of serifs as "a natural introduction to the cursive style of handwriting" from BBC (1998) p.2 The original jingle for "q" in the 1970s was "all the way round and down, kick", according to BBC (1978) p.11.
  12. Sources on Rat-a-Tat-Tat were all TES articles: 'Rhyme and Reason' by Gerald Haigh, 17th September 1993 p.19; 'Abc: as simple as one TV' by Bethan Marshall, 16th February 1994 Extra English p.XI; 'All together now' by John Stringer, 30th September 1994 p.26; 'Trigger for Learning' by Arnold Evans, 1st November 1996 p.26; also thanks to John Willmott

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