On to a bigger stage

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
The readers are older but the tasks aren't harder. Does it matter, asks Dennis Hamley

LONGMAN LITERATURE SERIES Edited by Roy Blatchford. URN BURIAL. By Robert Westall. Edited by John O'Connor THE SNAKE STONE. By Berlie Doherty Edited by Linda Marsh. GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM. By Michelle Magorian. Edited by Adrian Tissier A SERPENT'S TOOTH. By Robert Swindells. Edited by Madeleine Birch. NIGHT FIRES. By Joan Lingard. Edited by Jacqueline Fisher FOLLOW A SHADOW. By Robert Swindells. Edited by Madeleine Birch. Longman Pounds 4.99 each.

We have become familiar with the distinctive black-based covers of this staple school series, and there is no doubt that its editorial support has set the standard for other series. However, the extension to novels for the 11 to 14 age range has meant a departure from the structure of novels for A-level and GCSE.

These novels are demanding, thought-provoking works, and to see them treated at a serious critical level for schools is encouraging. There is a note in them all to say that the activities "have been carefully prepared to meet the needs of key stage 3 learning and teaching, including national curriculum English tests". This begs a few questions - not of the series or activities, but the national curriculum tests themselves and the nature of progression in critical reading.

Each novel has an excellent introduction from the author, except Urn Burial, for which John O'Connor writes a short but effective piece on Westall's life and work. After chapter summaries and glossary, the "Working with the novel" section consists of comprehension practice, language study, oral activities, writing tasks, homework assignments, further reading and a final word search.

These activities ensure that the student is constantly referring back to the text, using a variety of responses. They are excellently devised, and aimed to give a real understanding of each book. They go far towards the goal of real critical reading.

They are less detailed, so less demanding than comparable work for older students - and so they should be, you will say.

Well, yes - but I compare Goodnight Mister Tom in this series with the Read and Respond activities recently edited for Scholastic by Angel Scott for the same novel at key stage 2 and find that in some ways the KS2 activities are more sophisticated, with more writing round the text, more use of contemporary documents, more detailed insight into character. Why should this be?

The Longman editors have interpreted their briefs well and produced worthwhile editions. No, I find further evidence of something I've long suspected - that key stage 2 and 3 English tests do not represent true progression, and that when students come to tackle some literature requirements at key stage 4, they have to dig deep into their memories. When they left primary school, they did not necessarily "put away childish things".

But that's another matter and should not detract from the achievements of this series.

Dennis Hamley is a former English adviser for Hertfordshire

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