Orderly stimulus

28th April 1995 at 01:00
THE HEINEMANN ENGLISH PROGRAMME, Edited by John Seely and David Kitchen. Heinemann Student Book 1. Pounds 7.25. 0 435 10352 0. Teacher's Resource File 1. Pounds 34.95. 0 435 10362 8.

When the world was puddle wonderful, and the national curriculum but a twinkle in Mr Baker's eye, I was part of a panel interviewing prospective heads of English. One colleague (a Booker-finalist) intrigued me and the candidates with his idiosyncratic advocacy of course-books: "You have some idea of what's going on." The ultimate utilitarian voice, the narrowing down, which by definition is counter-educational.

That is not a charge to level at this new programme, though some gurus will make it. Perhaps it forearms the earnest introduction to the Teacher's Resource File, boasting a "reliable" and "rigorously trialled" coverage of the new curriculum, "based on extensive research into the current and future needs of English teachers."

Teachers' needs, of course, are inextricably linked with those of their students. Foremost, that "stimulus material" does just that. If not, claims for systematic, coherent programmes are claptrap: the Lottery minus the jackpot. Here, numerous winners jockey to engage children's imaginations, especially among poems such as "Jonah and the Whale" by Gareth Owen, Mick Gowar's "Christmas Thank Yous" and Robin Klein's "So Much for Secret Powers". C H Leumane's "The Lambton Worm" will delight lovers of the North East dialect.

It will be surprising if the intended readers are not also affected by the stories of Dafte John (Vivien Alcock) and Lilly Minton (Tom Wakefield). It is unsurprising that the 33 named contributions include Berlie Doherty, Robert Swindells, Betsy Byars, Roald Dahl and Roger McGough.

The extensive repertoire of genre-writing (Tennyson, sharks, The Beano, et al) is organised within nine thematic units, each containing broadly related subject matter. Thus, "You're Not Eating That" centres on a poem "Me Aunt Connie" (Terry Lee), a story "Eating Worms" (Thomas Rockwell) and a magazine article "School Dinners Exposed". Titular vagueness, such as "Things, Things, Things", implicitly confirms that editorial principles are practised. Texts are selected by quality, not just because they fit the pre-ordained theme or activity.

Each unit tabulates the practicalities - "What you do" and "Why you do it" - and pursues an integrated approach in the follow-up study. A separate language glossary buttresses the programme. The layout is agreeably purposeful; occasionally, however, the visual decoration detracts from the texts.

The challenge of reconciling the call for explicit teaching about language with the principle of learning it through use, in real contexts, for real purposes, meets with mixed success. Creative work on Mary Kingsley's Travels in West Africa (interviews, newspaper reports, retelling the story for younger readers) contrasts elsewhere with comprehension questions of the most literal kind. Grammarians might also question whether the levels of abstraction in some definitions are too complex for many 11 year olds or if "fill in the gaps" exercises really help. The five "special projects" do. These promote extended work in the language modes involving such mysteries as "The Hound of Grismoor" (compare the Beast of Bodmin). Sadly, the least inspiring concerns the theatre in Shakespeare's time.

The Teacher's Resource File rationalises and develops the programme: differentiation strategies; sections on Assessment (Andrew Bennett), Drama (Rick Lee); and photocopiable worksheets.

Allegedly, Andrew Davies said that when he entered teacher-training he helped in the killing of course-books. Unlike John Seely and David Kitchen, he believed they could not satisfy the unique needs of this teacher, teaching this class. What then, of their continuing use? An indication of insecurities, about English, or some of its teachers, struggling for guidance or breath? Hence the comfort of a "reliable" textbook, also bestowing legitimacy in the eyes of parents, their children, even the occasional Booker novelist.

Brian Slough was a member of the Cox Committee.

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