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Pedantic textbooks give pupils the pip

English textbooks are in danger of killing off pupils' love of the language. One, singled out by an academic, introduces the novel Great Expectations by pointing out that it begins with a subordinate clause.

The resource, aimed at key stage 3 studies, encourages children to consider the first three sentences of Dickens's classic as part of a game in which different text types are labelled.

It has been criticised as an example of the "death by extract" approach to literature. Joy Alexander, of Queen's university, Belfast, cited the example at a conference on English teaching at Oxford university, though she would not name the textbook.

She said: "It might seem incredible that what is deemed worthy of remark about the first words of this great novel is that it begins with a subordinate clause. But this is the modern way to 'do' Dickens at key stage 3. Literature is categorised into genres and pupils have to show they can identify the different genres correctly.

"At every stage there is a gradual moving away from the living voice of the writer speaking to, and communicating with, the reader."

Dr Alexander said Dickens was such a playful user of language that this approach, which she described as how not to teach English, was doubly wasteful. She also criticised a key stage 3 lesson plan to support teaching of the novel and Jane Eyre in which pupils were encouraged to spend three weeks on tasks including "analyse the writer's use of setting" and "understand phrases and clauses".

Dr Alexander said: "One wonders how many pupils are inclined to read more of the novel having survived their three weeks' work on it."

In The TES last month Anthony Farrell, head of English at St Ives school, Cornwall, pointed out that pupils can achieve top marks in national tests and GCSEs without ever having read a book. He said that many teachers were abandoning whole novels and plays because they were short of time and under pressure.

Key stage 3 teaching in particular has become "dominated by extracts", as schools have struggled to find the time to teach literature alongside non-fiction, a Qualifications and Curriculum Authority report said last year.


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