Listen and learn

5th March 1999 at 00:00
For slow readers who are baffled by set texts, short stories on tape may make all the difference to GCSE success, writes Rachel Redford

The GCSE English syllabuses make much heavier demands on students' reading skills since they have been burdened with compulsory literature. Studying short stories rather than novels lessens the load, but for lower ability readers even a short story can take an age to read and understanding and enjoyment will almost certainly be lost along the way. A professional, unabridged reading on audio cassette could make the difference.

Being read a story is not like being talked at and because students are being asked to listen and not perform a task they find difficult, they can relax. The literacy demands of mainstream lessons are enormous for lower ability readers. With the first "I bethought me" in a pre-1900 story they lose the plot. The tremendous narrative drive of a story on tape allows students to discount the vocabulary they can't understand without losing the coherence of the story. Once the story has been heard, understood and enjoyed, analysis will be much easier.

And, of course, listening is an assessed GCSE skill.

Mysteries and tales of the supernatural are always popular. Elizabeth Gaskell's 'The Old Nurse's Story', set against the storm-swept fells, has all the gothic ingredients of the genre, and Thomas Hardy's tale 'The Withered Arm' is on the same cassette.

Letting students listen to the gripping plot of Frederick Marryat's 'The Werewolf' without telling them the title allows them to pick up their own clues about the apparently sweet new wife, who eventually turns out to be the white wolf killing her husband's children. Edgar Allan Poe's chilling tale 'The Black Cat' and Charles Dickens's 'The Signalman', other popular supernatural GCSE choices, are on the same cassette.

The psychology of murder is another theme that intrigues all abilities. In Patricia Highsmith's 'Ming's Biggest Prey' the narrator is Ming, a cat so jealous of the affections of his mistress, Elaine, that he pounces on her increasingly unworthy lover and causes his death. The irony is that only the cat and the reader know the whole truth and neither can speak.

Studying the tight structure of short stories encourages students to shape their own writing and the all-seeing animal narrator can inspire those searching for an idea for their own stories. The deceptions in the story make a focus for a critical essay.

Audio performance brings other cultures in stories vividly to life, with the potential stumbling blocks of unfamiliar names and customs accepted without difficulty. Zhang Xinxin's 'Friends Old and New' is a 64-year-old Chinese woman's astounding life story. Sold into a brothel at 14, she stayed there until the Communists forced her into rehabilitation. It's a vivid insight into the treatment of women in China's changing political climates.

For Years 9 and 10, Lu Xun's allegorical 'Kong Yiji' encapsulates the changing times in 1920s China. Kong Yiji is a 'long gown' of the old school who has fallen on hard times. When finally he crawls out of the inn to die, dragging his broken legs on a board, he is jeered. A symbol of old China, his death is unlamented. The harshness in these stories is an interesting cultural element for study.

Rudyard Kipling's 'Plain Tales from the Hills', written in the 1890s, spring from a very different culture. These spell-binding tales told in the oral tradition are particularly successful on audio tape. At the end of 'Thrown Away' a mother writes in gratitude to the major who had told her of her beloved son's death from cholera. In fact the lad, quite unsuited to regiment life in India, had blown his head off. With its subtle layers of irony, its theme of wasted youth compares interestingly with the doomed youth of the war poetry which is such a popular choice for study at GCSE.

Joyce Carol Oates's 'Heat' seduces listeners from the start: "It was midsummer, the heat rippling above the macadam roads, cicadas screaming out of the trees and sky like pewter, glaring.'' This heat is the palpable background to the murder of the narrator's classmates, the 11-year-old twins who had basked in their power of sameness. The layering of chronology in the story is intricate and in the powerful final paragraphs we realise that the effects still ripple in the narrator's adult life. The story provides an inspiring theme for students' creative writing as well as raising complex issues of guilt and responsibility for speaking and listening class discussions.

The shocking events in Graham Green's 'The Basement Room' are also told partially from a child's standpoint. Philip has been left in the care of housekeepers, the authoritarian Mrs Baines and Mr Baines, who is unhappy with the "hopeless sad hate of something behind bars". Students listen, helpless, as Philip becomes the innocent instrument of the Baines's differently tragic ends.

Analysing the visual power of scenes in this story obliges students to study the effect of language, which is an essential GCSE skill that students often find difficult. Very short texts such as James Joyce's 'Eveline' can be particularly appropriate for this.

Eveline is trapped by duty in her father's house, but Frank offers marriage and escape to Buenos Aires. So why, when the day arrives and Frank seizes her hand, does she grip the iron railing, unable to move? The answer is in each charged phrase that precedes Eveline's final renunciation.

* Rachel Redford is principal examiner for GCSE English for the Southern Examining Group

Elizabeth Gaskell 'The Old Nurse's Story' and Thomas Hardy 'The Withered Arm' read by Prunella Scales on English Short Stories 1800-1900 (Penguin Audiobooks 7hr 45min pound;12.50)

Graham Greene 'The Basement Room' read by Nigel Davenport on English Short Stories 1900-1950 (Penguin Audiobooks 7hr 45min pound;12.50)

Joyce Carol Oates 'Heat' read by Laurel Lefkov on American Short Stories 1950 to the Present Day (Penguin Audiobooks 7hr pound;12.50)

* Penguin, tel : 0171 416 3000

Frederick Marryat 'The Werewolf', Charles Dickens 'The Signalman' and Edgar Allan Poe 'The Black Cat' read by Robin Bailey on Classic Tales of the Paranormal (CSA Telltapes 3hr pound;8.99)

Patricia Highsmith 'Ming's Biggest Prey' read by Liza Goddard on Cats (CSA Telltapes 3hr pound;8.99)

Rudyard Kipling 'Thrown Away' read by Martin Jarvis on Plain Tales from the Hills Volume 2 (CSA Telltapes 2hr 50min pound;8.99)

James Joyce 'Eveline' read by T.P. McKenna on James Joyce Dubliners 1 (CSA Telltapes 3hr pound;8.99)

* CSA Telltapes, tel: 0181 960 8466

Zhang Xinxin 'Friends Old and New' read by Miriam Margolyes on Chinese Women's Stories (Rickshaw Productions 2hr 30min pound;8.99)

Lu Xun 'Kong Yiji' read by Martin Jarvis on Chinese Classic Stories (Rickshaw Productions 3hr pound;8.99)

* Rickshaw Productions, tel: 01926 402490; email

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