A more sophisticated sense of style

31st October 1997 at 00:00
LITERATURE, CRITICISM AND STYLE. By Stephen Croft and Helen Cross. Oxford University Press Pounds 10.

LIVING LANGUAGE. By George Keith and John Shuttleworth. Hodder amp; Stoughton Pounds 12.99.

ISSUES AND SKILLS. By Peter Turner. Hodder amp; Stoughton Pounds 10.99.

It can't be easy to plan textbooks when so much of the post-16 English curriculum is undecided.

There are still uncertainties about the new AS-level and Labour's proposals for A-levels generally, and the implications of Dearing's key skills have yet to be worked out. To top it all, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's revised assessment objectives remain untried, unfamiliar and overweight. None of these books is going to show you how to integrate Dearing's demands for the study of number and information technology, but there are compensations.

In Literature, Criticism and Style, Stephen Croft and Helen Cross give students a coherent perspective rather than an episodic ramble through someone else's favourite books. Starting with the new assessment objectives, they go on to introduce the main genres, using excerpts and commentary to focus discussion about "writers' choices of form, structure and language".

For example, the section on non-fiction prose takes Swift's A Modest Proposal (again) to illustrate satire and literary structure, while also looking at essays by Francis Bacon, autobiography by Brian Keenan, and documentary writing by Defoe and John Pilger. Here as elsewhere, there is a careful selection of extracts from different periods.

Given that much of an A-level literature course is built around set texts,which vary from board to board and year to year, the editors have done well to arrange material which is generic, rather than specific.

They begin with the questions students ask, and write directly for that audience. There are six chapters on writing literary essays, and a further six on revision methods and exam essay technique. Throughout there are plenty of examples of students' writing, past paper questions and examiners' remarks. There are few references to creative approaches or critical theory, reflecting the nature of the current assessment regime.

George Keith and John Shuttleworth are two of the brains behind the pathfinding Northern Examinations and Assessment Board's A-level language course, so their Living Language will be met with interest. It doesn't cover the whole A-level in just one book, but it provides a structure for the first year.

The book is brimming with interesting texts and data, suggestions for getting more, and methods for investigation and experiment. There are short outlines of research findings, but the main focus is on providing an accessible explanation of the frameworks students need to give precision to their own studies, stylistic and linguistic.

Overflowing with ideas and humour, this is essential department reference,and an ideal textbook for any first year A-level student. The cramped abundance is also the result of an editorial method which seems to have filleted material so that the backbone remains a shadow. However, there are luminous, imaginative explanations of stylistics, grammar and textual recasting, and teachers should have no great difficulty in supplying the frame which Hodder has removed.

Peter Turner's Issues and Skills is a revision of a tried and tested textbook for the Associated Examining Board's 623 Course. The revisions do not address the new syllabus objectives, and this "English" course is starting to look less challenging than "English Literature", "English Language" and the combination. Peter Turner has written a well crafted, tailor-made solution to English A-level, if that course runs in its present form.

Tim Shortis is head of English and communication studies at Saint Brendan's Sixth Form College, Bristol

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