Pared down expectation

14th March 1997 at 00:00
Active Comprehension Books 1-4 By Margaret Stillie Richard Hegarty Stanley Thornes Pounds 3.99 each Essential English Introductory Book, Books 1-4 By Louis Fidge Stanley Thornes evaluation pack Pounds 9.95 each

If it is true that we are returning to traditional approaches in primary English, materials such as these are likely to become more common. We donot expect high levels of creativity and child-centredness from publications entitled Essential English and Active Comprehension.

Both these series would have seemed unremarkable 25 years ago and both miss some fundamental points about good quality teaching.

In the teacher's notes for Active Comprehension, the authors claim that this course "links comprehension to core reading and writing skills" and focuses on "higher order skills". Teachers are presumably to infer from this that comprehension is not itself a core reading skill, and that it is a higher order skill. Children, therefore, it seems, learn to read, then learn to understand. Such an unfortunate piece of nonsense certainly lowers expectations about the activities children are asked to undertake.

The books consist of a series of texts, taken from well-known children's stories or poems, each followed by questions. These do, to be fair, try to go beyond simply asking children to repeat information from the texts, but they are still cast as questions with right answers to be sought. There is little sense of reading as a dynamic interaction between reader and text. These stories and poems are included to give children practice in selecting information from them. There are also cross-curricular activities, many of which children may find interesting and stimulating. However, I would not want to approach the important task of encouraging children to relate to text in the reductionist and misguided way these comprehension materials seem to suggest.

If these books have the feel of the mid-1970s, then Essential English feels much older. Again we have the familiar comprehension passages, but here the questions are even less stimulating.

For example, in the Introductory Book a short extract from the children's classic , The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark, is followed by the question: "The owl's name was . . . ?" Children are then invited to move on to some "study skills" such as spotting the odd word out in "owl, robin, lion, sparrow" and filling in the missing words in the sentence: "A dog has . . . legs".

The series uses texts as the excuse for some very old-fashioned word and sentence study work. This becomes more interesting as the series progresses, but I would use these books very circumspectly indeed. This is not essential English, it is merely one small part of what should be a much more widely based approach to primary English teaching.

David Wray is reader in literacy in education, University of Exeter

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