Chance encounters with good plots

3rd March 1995 at 00:00
Longman book project, Fiction 2 Evaluation pack 30 books in bands 1-4; Teacher's Resource Book; Copymaster Pack; Audio cassettes; Who's Who in Fiction 1 and 2 Longman Pounds 67.50 + VAT 0 582 12341 0. The Longman Book Project continues on its ambitious way with the publication of Fiction 2 for level 3 children. The global aim is to supply a complete reading and language programme for the whole primary school. While it isn't possible to evaluate the complete project until we can see how interlinked and adequate the whole thing is, we can evaluate its parts as they come on stream. Does Fiction 2 simply sugar the pill of learning to read, or is it an education in learning to read fiction?

The pack consists of 30 original titles in four ability bands, written and illustrated by a range of different people; a teacher's resource book; a copymaster copiable consumables package; two audio cassettes and a Who's Who about the writers and illustrators.

The teacher's resource book is accessible and useful. Like many teachers' manuals, it provides a sound general introduction to the teaching of literacy as well as suggestions about work to develop from the stories. One key aspect is suggesting ways to help children to respond imaginatively to fiction. There is a general section about response and the "Teaching Pages" suggest specific approaches for each story. The Who's Who develops children's thinking about how stories come to be written, and the copymaster sheets lead children into open-ended explorations. But these extrovert approaches cannot plumb the deepest levels of response. A good story becomes a secret part of oneself.

The core of any scheme is the books themselves, and the key is quality: Is the linguistic challenge appropriate? Are the stories any good? The banding generally makes sense, but it is not easy to see what progression is involved in the recommended order in each band. The books have been extensively trialled, but this isn't always evident. One sentence in the first story - "In the whale's tummy with bits of their boat all broken up were Bill and Bianca, washing about!" - has gratuitously complicated grammar and the rhythms don't help. (However, it is remarkable how the excellent reading on the cassette salvages this story.) Overall, stylistic variety is aimed at (Smugglers of Mourne attempts to be ballad-like in effect), but there seems to be no controlled development in grammatical complexity, spelling patterns or vocabulary.

The illustrations are generally entertaining, and sometimes lovely, but too many of the stories are feeble at the levels of plot and emotional content. Baabra Lamb has the sheep saying, " 'I am your ewe'. 'My me?' 'No, your ewe.' 'My you?' " Too many of the stories are vacuous. Though some are amusing, in general plots could have been better worked-out. For example, in Henry Seamouse, otherwise quite an attractive story, the key turn of the plot is unconvincing. As Aristotle argues, good plots turn on choice, not chance.

As for emotional resolutions, Horrible Baby, dealing with sibling rivalry, muffs the issue with an unexplained change of heart. And a potentially interesting story, Jug Ears, evades the issues it raises by resorting to the arrival of big-eared extra-terrestrials. It is a relief to come across the retold folk-tales for a bit of moral realism. Just a few books, like The Sandtiger and Rachel and the Difference Thief, might contribute to that secret moral growth which is the real response to literature.

So Fiction 2 is a bit of a curate's egg. It doesn't absolve teachers from thinking out their own programmes, but it offers resources to work with.

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