All the difference in the world

Pair and compare 2, By Geoff Barton and Mary Bousted, Pounds 6.95. 0 00 23043 0, Collins Educational.

Brian Slough on fresh ideas for exploring like and unlike at key stage 4.

One cannot help wondering whether Pair and Compare is an auspicious title for a school book. In a world of league tables, most teachers are likely to agree with Donne that "She and comparisons are odious". Those familiar with the companion volume for key stage 3, however, will know that Geoff Barton and Mary Bousted provide plenty of added value.

Like its predecessor, this book for key stage 4 is arranged in nine units, each covering a particular theme. If the thematic approach is not for you, no matter. Within each unit, texts are placed in pairs, or larger groups; just rarely one text stands alone. That is the raw data. The added value starts from the quality within the provocative compilation of 72 different texts that comprise the units.

Their generic range is well-suited to developing students' ability to read, understand and respond to all types of writing. Thus, an RSPCA advertisement opposing the heedless transportation of animals differs in style and form to Heathcote Williams's imaginative, poetic extract on whaling. "Strange all this difference should be'Twixt Tweedledum and Tweedledee". The juxtaposition, of course, adds an extra layer to the responses evoked, not least in the delicate question of differentiation.

Like Book One, the inclusion of the unpredictable enlivens potentially stale topics. "The Price of Fame", for example, is approached via a Guardian feature on Michael Jackson and Kitty Kelley on Nancy Reagan. The selection of pre-20th century writing, and from other cultures, is equally stimulating and justifies the editorial claim that it is no token gesture but has something special to say - whatever the ability of the reader.

Even those English teachers who are sniffy about this kind of textbook generally admit to trawling its pages for a bright idea. It might be a little-known short story (how many of us are aware of Winston Churchill's "Man Overboard"?) or a fresh look at the familiar ("Ozymandias", linked with Ghanian and Nigerian poems, to explore "leadership"). Perhaps revisits to the currently unfashionable (Shaw)or even the Authorised version of the Bible, resurrected post-Cox (here, Psalm 107, alongside Melville and Falconer in a "travel" unit).

"Developing reading skills" is the book's subtitle and teachers are guided on how the texts focus on 10 specific aspects of reading. There are also short "after reading" questions, followed by more detailed "discussion" and "assignment" activities, often focused on matters of comparison but not exclusively so. These might be tackled as discrete entities, whereas in total they offer a coherent programme.

Overridingly important, this collection presents the prospect of enjoyment in a wide range of literary forms: short stories, poems, extracts from novels and plays, but also non-fictional literature such as biographies, autobiographies, diaries, advertisements and newspaper features. If used wisely, few readers are likely to echo Mrs Malaprop's cry: "No caparisons, miss, if you please. "

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