Individuality in the scheme of things

1st March 1996 at 00:00
NELSON ENGLISH, Book 4 Evaluation Pack Pounds 26.20, Book 5 Evaluation Pack Pounds 27.40 Nelson Age range 10 - 12.

Far be it from me to agree with chief inspector Chris Woodhead but I, too, think that there should be more whole-class teaching, in balance with other methods of working. So I cannot help being slightly worried to read that Nelson's English scheme is basically designed for pupils to use "individually and independently".

It isn't just that I have seen too many children working unchecked through other structured courses who have ended up none the wiser, or made simple mistakes which are compounded over time. It isn't, either, that individual learning schemes demand knowledge on the part of teachers to recognise when, where and how to intervene. No, in the end it is because language is a vibrant, living thing which involves communication with others. It is meant to be shared, savoured and played with. So we should be doing just that - together.

Of course, there is nothing to stop you using Nelson English in more creative ways in spite of its design, but you will have to fight against its comprehensive grammar exercises, (although teachers who missed out on a formal training might find them personally useful).

Each unit comprises three parts - Skills and Development books for pupils, and a teacher's resource book - and runs from Foundation level, through books 1-5, covering the 5-12 age range. The emphasis is on skills; though what they call "skills" others would call knowledge of the rules (such as they are) for grammar, spelling and punctuation. The teacher's books contain back-up photocopiable exercises of a very traditional kind, albeit more attractively presented. But aren't they just the old "First Aid in English" given a face-lift?

The pupils' books are in full colour and have their good points. The range of extracts, poems and stories is impressive and well-chosen, and the comprehension questions in the Development books are a welcome departure from the usual "closed" exercises, as are the opportunities to practise writing in a wide range of genres and styles.

These Development books are designed to broaden the use of language and encourage more imaginative responses. They are by far the most interesting components of the course. However, I do wish the authors had imparted as much about the craft of writing poetry as they do about prose. For acrostics (God help us, not them again!) and shape poems to be virtually the only poetry-writing suggestions demotes our highest literary art to a poor relation.

Following a scheme does not necessarily lead to an easier life for teachers or better results from pupils. One scheme cannot do everything even if, like this one, it tries. It is people who make and use language, not schemes.

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