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Students will want to keep these

ENGLISH MATTERS 11-14. Edited by Clare Constant and Susan Duberley. Student Book 1 Pounds 6.99. Skills Book 1 (packs of 8) Pounds 17.99. Teacher's Resource File 1 Pounds 21. 99. HEINEMANN HODDER ENGLISH GOLD BOOKS 1,2 amp; 3. Edited by Sue Hackman and Alan Howe. Hodder amp; Stoughton. Pounds 8.50 each.

The design of English course books increasingly courts street-cred appeal - witness these publications from Heinemann and Hodder. Their targeted readership, lower-ability students at key stage 3, working at national curriculum levels 2-4, should approve. That is not patronising; the currency of most well-designed resources has potential beyond its stated purpose.

Fashion is ephemeral, however, unlike the immutable format of these books.English Matters Student Book 1 comprises eight thematic units and a ninth,entirely devoted to "skills" (letters, punctuation, spelling). A typical unit contains three genres: a fiction extract (Robert Leeson), non-fiction (charity advertisement) and a poem (Vernon Scannell) with allied activities - comprehension questions, language study on adverbs and letter writing. These also involve pair and group work, and should engage short attention spans, encouraging stickability through achievable steps and the right tone.

Similarly, the layout is finely tuned to its users: numbered sections, signposted cross-referencing, colour-coding to distinguish work within the language modes, plentiful illustrations and refreshing white spaces.

A Teacher's Resource File and Skills Book complete the package. The former (80 substantial, if pricey pages) offers guidance, photocopiable worksheets and a spelling section. The Skills Book provides extra practice for class and homework and ultimately constitutes a record of achievement.

In contrast, English Gold has one self-sufficient book for each year of the course, plus supporting cassette. This is a team production, headed by a distinguished duo - Sue Hackman and Alan Howe - in association with the Basic Skills Agency. Each book has six units, organised a touch more flexibly than its Heinemann counterpart, acknowledging that teachers will filter in their own material.

The team approach (16 in all) requires editorial watchfulness over course coherence but stimulates variety and freshness of content and presentation,not least in riskily repetitive areas. Thus "Autobiography" in Book 1 uses book covers, birth announcements, time lines, interviews, fact files and so on, among autobiographical abridgements from such as Billy Connolly, Christy Brown and Ian Botham. Likewise, with "difficult" topics. In Book 2,"What the Dickens!" introduces an accessible encounter with more testing language. Key skills are "established, revisited, and consolidated", recognising the progression but recursiveness of the English programme. Also pleasing that each unit explains to students its whys and wherefores,concluding with an evaluative ending.

It is not a cop-out to avoid suggesting the "better buy". Both courses contain valuable resources and are therefore worth inspecting, whatever your faculty circumstances and policies. The ambience is of books students might like to possess for their own sakes, so that national curriculum needs are met without their knowing.

Brian Slough is former head of Kettering Boys' School.

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