Carried away with words

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
THORNES CLASSIC POETRY. Edited by John Foster and Gordon Dennis. - 0 7487 1910 5.

THORNES CLASSIC NOVELS. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and THE BEACH OF FALESA. By R.L. Stevenson. Edited by John Seely. - 0 7487 1829 X.

HUCKLEBERRY FINN. By Mark Twain. Edited by Sarah Matthews. - 0 7487 1830 3.

SILAS MARNER. By George Eliot. Edited by Elizabeth Seely. - 0 7487 1831 1.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL AND THE CRICKET ON THE HEARTH. By Charles Dickens. Edited by Frank Green. - 0 7487 1832 X.

Stanley Thornes Pounds 4.99 each Age range 11 plus

The theme of the final poem in Thornes Classic Poetry, Emily Dickinson's "There is no frigate like a bookTo take us lands away", leads naturally to this particular book's concluding activity. In it, students at key stage 3 are asked to reflect on their experiential journeys from reading, talking, and writing about the 60 chosen poems, the majority by pre-20th-century writers recommended in the Programmes of Study. Teachers could probably predict most of the anthology's selection, knowing it is arranged into six familiar thematic sections (brandished as "appropriate to key stage 3") - creatures; the sea; mystery and magic; weather and seasons; people and places; and reflections.

Such familiarity is not necessarily detrimental, unless shared by the students, which curriculum planning should obviate. There will be jibes, of course, not only about the choices but the whole enterprise. Certain poets (themselves on the "recommended" list) have written about "taking the medicine" of pre-1900 authors, which middle-class children were prescribed 50 years ago. Ignore them. This reviewer, (origins: working class) still takes pleasure from "The Tyger", "Cargoes", "Ozymandias", and most of the rest included here. These we have loved, so too can today's youngsters, of whatever background. As Dickinson's poem puts it: "This traverse may the poorest takeWithout oppress of toll. "

They will be helped by activities based on the poetry which are no mere obligatory "toll". Foremost, they offer opportunities to write poems in response to what is read, often around techniques employed within the classic poetry, and stimulated by editorial guidance. Equally cheering is that so many activities emphasise the sounds of poetry and its spoken presentation, while the direction towards technicalities (structure, figures of speech etc) is clear, purposeful and reinforced through cross-reference.

The other support material - biography, introductions to individual poems, glossaries, even the illustrations - is helpful and never overbearing. The layout would be improved if each poem and its pre-reading began on a fresh page, otherwise this apparently unprepossessing book is more rewarding than its sub-title as "a practical guide for key stage 3" suggests. It is that, but its content rises above austere-sounding "practicalities".

If the format of Classic Poetry is unexceptional, that for Classic Novels reworks the mould. The unabridged texts are accompanied on every page by commentaries and by separate notes explaining difficult words and expressions. This practice has long-standing precedent in many study editions of classic plays. But here there is more: most provocatively, "fast forward rewind sections". These are endorsed on the grounds that "some people like to read a story quickly to find out 'what happens next', missing out the less important sections."

Boxes which contain video-machine symbols suggest the appropriate moments for these manoeuvres. The editors see this as "innovative", allowing for short-cuts through the text. Others will consider it smacks of textual vandalism or literary action highlights for the quickly bored. Cricket on the Hearth: limited-overs version. Some students might suspect this is as tacit acknowledgement of the tedium they feel about their literary heritage. A sweetmeat wiith the medicine?

There are other interruptions to the original stories, albeit less contentious in themselves. Each chapter, or "stave", begins with two pieces of advice on "what to look for". Whether these pre-empt students' responses at a first reading is, at worst, debatable. I'm less convinced about certain illustrations, supposedly of "key moments" or "helping to explain" the difficult vocabulary. Certainly the combined force of all these "aids to enjoyment and understanding" runs the risk of throttling the original text. For example, one page of The Cricket on the Hearth contains: nine explanations of difficulties; a shaded commentary; a "rewind" section; an illustration; and Dickens' own writing. There are eight typefaces. The impact is of visual clutter, rather like my car manual, which baffles me.

Not so with the introductions. They provide straightforward information on authors (with photos), characters (drawings, family trees), settings (illustrations, maps) and backgrounds. The editors sensibly suggest that this material can be read after the novels and is not a compulsory, preparatory dosage. It is also mostly free of dogmatic assertions implying accepted interpretations, which students question at their intellectual peril.

Each edition concludes with a study guide of seven or eight pages. There are variations in the methods of achieving a sharp textual focus, including "tracking" or "signpost" questions, which the mean-minded might construe as narrowly-conceived comprehension.

But there is undoubted coherence and "guide" is not a misnomer. I particularly liked several features in Elizabeth Seely's Silas Marner: not least the style of introducing certain activities, thus "You might find it helpful to make a diagram of the pattern of the story . . ." accompanied by a starter suggestion is surely preferable to the Basil Fawlty instructiions of many textbooks.

Sarah Matthews's study section in Huckleberry Finn is especially distinguished. The guidance is lucid and in sufficient depth: the methodology encourages a range of responses blending the critical and creative, enough to motivate even the fast-forward readers.

Brian Slough is the former head of Kettering Boys' School and a member of the Cox Committee

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