Secondary and comprehensive

COMPREHENSION TO 14. By Geoff Barton. Oxford University Press. Student's Book Pounds 7.50. Answer Book Pounds 10.

ENGLISH TO 14. By Liz Lockwood. Oxford University Press Pounds 7.50

DEVELOPING COMPREHENSION SKILLS. By Clare Constant and David Kitchen. Heinemann Pounds 6.50

ENGLISH HOMEWORK COPYMASTERS. By Michael Temple. Oxford University Press Pounds 20

Mandy Watts reviews four texts for key stage 3 pupils

Geoff Barton's Comprehension to 14 begins with an ambitious statement of intent to move away from "dullness, passivity and a mechanical approach to learning English". Like most textbooks of its kind, it has been forced to resort largely to free-standing extracts to satisfy the need to cover a wide variety of forms, genres, eras and cultures. But it has managed to achieve this imaginatively, and with a nod to the demand for differentiation, by arranging questions in ascending order of difficulty. Inevitably, decontextualisation is an issue, although the sensible length of extracts should hold the attention and interest of most students.

Fiction, drama, poetry and non-fiction are all represented - Malory, Dickens, Larkin, Blake Morrison, French and Saunders. The text certainly helps break the back of the national curriculum key stage 3 prescribed reading list.

Activities aim to build students' confidence as they develop their reading skills, and move them from closed, to inferential questions and on to extended assignments. The non-fiction section in particular is colourful, attractive and well-illustrated, although all sections are clear and student-friendly.

While this text may not set the world alight for innovation, it is suitably solid, reliable and intelligent to fill a gap in any English department's Year 9 resources.

Liz Lockwood's English to 14 is aimed more directly at students working towards the end of the key stage. It has a broader brief than the Barton text and attempts to cover most of the content and skills demanded by the national curriculum programmes of study for English. The result is a useful "dipping-into" resource, likely to find favour with teachers and students.

The material is well-chosen, lively, colourful and, above all, practical. The learning objectives and key skills of each unit are succinctly signposted and addressed to students in a language they will understand. Footnotes link sections focusing on similar skills so some cohesion is possible if the text is used as a course book.

Extracts from popular classroom texts such as Buddy, The Granny Project and I'm the King of the Castle should enable teachers to integrate the book easily into existing units, while the commonsense advice on how to develop skills that will be assessed at the end of key stage 3 and beyond make this perhaps the wiser investment of the two texts if, as is likely, money is tight.

But it is Heinemann's Developing Comprehension Skills that, of the three books, comes up trumps. Despite the unimaginative title, the colourful format, interactive approach and fun, challenging activities explain why Heinemann seems to have cornered the market in high-quality English textbooks.

It is also the one that best lends itself to use as a course book, as it takes pupils from fundamental skills needed for reading texts - being able to identify audience and purpose, through increasingly demanding practical work on an imaginative range of texts, to providing resources for practice in timed conditions.

The writers' fingers are always firmly on the pulse of public examination requirements and the examples given bear a close resemblance to those that have appeared in national curriculum test papers.

The clarity of layout, high interest level of texts and quality of illustrations should make this an enjoyable course book for students.

Teachers are not forgotten and the answer file that accompanies the text not only gives answers to the questions and tasks set, but also helps teachers identify the main features of varying responses in the manner of national curriculum level and GCSE grade criteria.

Grammar, once a subject as taboo as composition or comprehension in English classrooms, is making its way to the forefront of political and educational agendas.

English Homework Copymasters for key stage 3 in some ways resembles the old-fashioned grammar books of 30 years ago, although it has dispensed with the dry academic tone in favour of an informal style, with topical examples and cartoon-style illustrations.

The book is arranged in double-page units, each intended to occupy a lesson and a homework. The left-hand pages explain key points of grammar or style, while those on the right provide practice exercises to reinforce these points.

This format lends itself to some sections better than other, for example, when nine different parts of speech are covered on a single page, a potentially dull subject is presented in a down-to-earth, accessible way.

The six units are free-standing, but could be used to help a teacher or department develop a grammar course. Reinforcement of the key points would certainly be necessary, as explanations, even in the better sections, are cursory.

This resource offers a good investment for departments trying to make their way through the minefield of the "naming of parts".

Mandy Watts is head of English at Mill Hill County High School, Barnet

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