Listen and learn
In this series, the tape of King Lear discusses the gap between theory and reality, an irony which seems to be lost on the publicity machine. "After listening to the tape," it states, "you should have no difficulty answering the questions you face in the real thing". The tapes are promoted as "revision aids", which is also questionable. Revision should be an ongoing process throughout a course for example, combining, re-examining notes, essays and so on, culminating in specific exam-focused techniques.
In fairness, the tapes eschew seductive promises of easy answers, to questions or lethargy. Their reality is an audience of committed, able A-level candidates and undergraduates. Indeed, a strength of both tapes is the frequent direction to pause, ponder, and analyse. Line references are to the Arden editions and the presentation is listener-friendly.
Each tape (60 minutes-plus) concentrates on themes: family, society and the cosmos in Lear. Occasionally, we are told, the discussion is "deliberately controversial", taking account of recent Marxist, feminist and psycho-analytical trends. Three cheers. Teachers should encourage controversy, but not as final revision. Trendy or traditional, the familiar issues appear: ghosts, revenge, delay, death, justice, regeneratin et al. Both tapes are particularly instructive on the functions of sub-plots and parallel families. Analysis of language, such as ocular imagery in Lear, ears motif in Hamlet, is skimpy. Likewise, the accompanying booklets. Sixteen perfunctory pages cover the cultural backgrounds, sample context and essay questions, and bibliographies.
Missed opportunities apart, the tapes contain some splendid stimulus material for class discussion. Students seeking quick-fix revision, however, will be disappointed.
GCSE English Literature dangles the carrots of exam success (an A grade) and "revision" tips, but is sensibly billed as part of the learning process. Fair enough.
It advises on "stand and deliver" exams: what examiners are looking for, exam techniques and such like, before moving to literary genres. Clear-cut suggestions emphasise worthy principles, notably that an informed personal response matters most. The register and tutorial voices are sensitively aware of divergent abilities at this level.
So, to the purists' objections. Less the choice of illustrative texts (essentially Animal Farm, Macbeth, "Dulce et Decorum Est") for detailed comment. More, the booklet's suggested answers on them. Protestations about trusting your own judgment will thus lack credibility with many potential GCSE customers. In that lies a dilemma with this kind of resource: learning aids still need teacher guidance. Buy it with that proviso.