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Core texts turn over a new leaf

School books have seen radical transformations to suit the curriculum. Geoff Barton reports.

For some teachers, school textbooks are like old friends. For others, they are stockroom pariahs which encourage passivity and deadly conformity from students. But, at their best, textbooks provide resources and strategies that few hard-pressed teachers could ever consistently muster lesson by lesson.

In an age of great curriculum control, a tight testing regime and new developments in electronic publishing, what is the future of the traditional school textbook?

When I started writing English coursebooks about 10 years ago, I hammered out ideas on an old-fangled Amstrad, sent off the dot-matrix printout and waited 18 months to see the result. They were often motley compendiums of ideas and approaches, relatively unaffected by syllabus needs.

Now all that has changed. Textbooks have to match national curriculum requirements in order to sell. Syllabus relevance has become paramount. And increasingly they need to provide something more than words and images on the page. One recent trend is to provide a wider range of accmpanying resources, aimed at matching students' individual needs more closely.

Last year I worked on three projects, all to be published this year. Between them, they show the way the school textbook has developed. One will provide free additional resources on the publisher's website, including e-mail support. Another includes five CD-Roms of student-friendly resources. The other - again on CD-Rom - starts by testing students' current strengths and weaknesses, maps out an individual study programme, and then presents a tailor-made revision plan for each student.

The writing process itself has changed from those early Amstrad days. My latest project was managed by a freelance telecommuter in London, and the manuscript was e-mailed back and forth between London, Suffolk and Moscow, with occasional queries from the marketing director in Massachusetts.

As the old certainties of teachers, blackboards and desks fade, so school textbooks are responding to the individual needs of students. The textbook isn't dead. It has been reinvented.

u Geoff Barton has written and edited more than 30 English textbooks.

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