Critical Reading series. Beloved The Handmaid's Tale Wuthering Heights. NATE, 50 Broadfield Road, Broadfield Business Centre, Sheffield S8 0XJ. pound;4.95 members pound;5.95 non-members.
The four GCSE study guides from Hodder seem to signal a move away from the substitute-for-reading-the-text for lazy students towards a more interactive, teacher-friendly format.
The emphasis here is on practical activities based on the text. The guides are designed to develop skills of analysis and planning and organising written responses, but sugar the pill with refreshingly imaginative, fun activities such as role-play, conducting surveys and completing flow charts.
The text is colourful and eye-catching, with attractive illustrations. Stills from recent film versions Of Mice and Men and Twelfth Night make the guides up to date and relevant to students as does material drawn from a variety of sources, including poems by Bob Dylan and Adrian Henri.
The language is straightforward and accessible to students of all abilities, though the structured tasks and style of presentation, such as the "Help" box, are particularly suited to middle and low attainers.
The format varies slightly across the titles - one criticism of the Of Mice and Men guide is that, unlike the others, it does not introduce background detail and explain the social context of the novel until one third of the way through - but all conclude with useful advice on how to prepare a full written response for coursework or exams. At pound;3.99 each, the guides might even encourage English departments to invest in a set to use in the classroom rather than keep them under lock and key for their own use.
English teachers who complain about A-level students' over-reliance on GCSE study guides would do well to introduce them to three new guides to Beloved, The Handmaid's Tale and Wuthering Heights from NATE's new Critical Reading series.
The guides are divided into five sections: Before Reading, First Reading, After Reading, Re-reading and Revising, and Contexts and Connections. The activities are interesting and challenging variations on the usual "things to do with a novel". The aim is clearly to develop students' critical responses through carefully staged tasks. Close textual analysis is encouraged, and increasingly demanding activities guide students' practice in the kinds of research and organisational skills that they need to answer A-level questions.
The guides use a scaffolding technique, for example by supplying the first line of each chapter of Beloved, and leaving blank spaces for students to write accompanying notes, or selecting quotations and guiding students through the process of using them to construct a cohesive essay. They introduce students to planning techniques ranging from annotation to brainstorming and mapping to tracing motifs. The suggestions for linked wider reading are particularly helpful for those syllabuses with a comparative element.
My only criticism is that the texts are rather dry, although the directions for students themselves, are clear, concise and bullet-pointed. The font is also small and condensed and unrelieved by illustrations or white space. This may be off-putting for less academic students, but this is a minor criticism of a resource of real substance for A-level students and teachers of all levels of experience.
Mandy Watts is head of English at Mill Hill County High School, Barnet.