Rainbow readers

Brian Slough

HENDERSON STUDY SYSTEM: Edited by Jeannie Heppell. OTHELLO Pounds 3.99. - 1 85597 573 4.

MACBETH Pounds 3.99. - 185597 574 2.

ROMEO AND JULIET Pounds 3.99. - 1 85597 575 0.

JANE EYRE Pounds 5.99. - 1 85597 576 9.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS Pounds 5.99. - 1 85597 578 5.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE Pounds 4.99. - 1 85597 577 7.

Henderson Publishing Age range: GCSE and A Level

Brian Slough is not mauve with envy at a new system of colour-coded study texts.

I'll let you into a secret: Shakespeare's Sonnet cxi is a warning memo to the study-text industry. "My nature is subdued," he writes, "To what it works in, like the dyer's hand." In the closing couplet he asks for pity. You can see his point. Indeed, it is "the dyer's hand" which provides the unique feature of this new series: a colour-coded tab study system.

Each book begins with a list of themes (14 in Great Expectations: snobbery, the nature of justice, etc) followed by a two-page discussion, then the unabridged text with notes juxtaposed. Wherever a theme appears, it is underlined in its designated colour. The student fixes stickers (supplied at the back of the books) to the appropriate coloured shapes, representing the themes, at the page edges. These stickers form the tabs to indicate relevant pages for later study.

The system is heralded as "revolutionary", but some revolutions are restorations. Thirty-three years ago I used similar methods with my first A-level group (substitute coloured pencils for stickers). We faced a "traditional" set books exam, which controlled my teaching and (to my regret) their learning. This series is also exam-driven, with a comparable fallout. Thus, the initial six titles are promoted as "classic examination texts" and the system as an "outstanding success for a decade at both GCSE and A level. " So be it.

If "outstanding success" means a study tool for passing particular styles of examination, these books might be for you. Their prescriptive content is critically orthodox and there is close textual focus, if within self-imposed limits.

Certain concerns arise from the visual impact of the system itself. Most immediately, the underlining is inescapable; it intrudes between the reader and the original text, reminiscent of working with a secondhand copy, complete with its previous owner's notes. Moreover, the nature of thematic overlap means that some passages need underlining more than once, which tests editorial judgement, not to mention the colour chart (16 themes are listed in Othello).

To be fair, the editor urges students to rely on their own opinions in resolving such complications. So, consider Macbeth's "Bring forth men children only . . ." speech. Jeannie Heppell proposes courage (red) and children (pink): what does your undaunted mettle compose including suggested colour co-ordinates?

There are some odd associations of colour and theme. Jealousy in Othello (universally "the green-eyed monster") is coloured mauve. The constant and recurring theme of blood in Macbeth is black, presumably because of its suggested links with guilt. Which leads to the question of the colour blind - a minority group also entitled to their literary heritage.

Recently, there have been significant advances in the format of study-texts. Rex Gibson's work with Shakespeare has stimulated approaches that are imaginative, social and physical (not least in exploring language). These can lead to more formal literary responses, for examinations. It is difficult to see how the Henderson Study System can avoid pre-determining students' thinking. In the process, the nature of writers, and their readers, is "subdued" - as Shakespeare observed. He is not alone in feeling the pity of it.

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