Pleasure island

30th January 1998 at 00:00
WIDER READING: Student Activities for Ages 11 - 14. Alison Kilpatrick. Folens Pounds 49.45.

These photocopiable units will work most potently when children have already learned the intimate pleasures of libraries- they will equip them with the language in which books are discussed. As more conscious readers and writers themselves, aware of authorial voice, inference, genre and so on, their pleasures will be the greater.

The units offer a guide for students, aspects of a novel, genre, and theme. Extracts are followed by options for writing and discussion which, in the section on "beginnings" for instance, raise issues like character and purpose and, most importantly, pose the question: "Do you want to read on?" They are well chosen, Jane Austen's immortal opening: "It is a truth universally acknowledged..." sitting democratically alongside Judy Blume and Robert Westall. The comparisons are stimulating.

Kilpatrick also knows when to be concise: Scott O'Dell's My Name is NOT Angelica addresses "endings", and the slave who refuses to leap to her death when she realises she is pregnant needs no analysis. On the other hand, all the subtlety of character development is carefully demonstrated through a series of extracts from Joan Phipson's Hit and Run in which a thief learns responsibility. The craft of writing is complex and children discover there are no facile solutions.

Plot is explained through the simple structure of chronological order, the parallel device whereby two characters present different viewpoints, flashback, diary and letter form. Genres are distinguished by "markers": the high level of tension in a thriller, for instance. Again, extracts cross time and cultures through authors from Beverley Naidoo to Rosemary Sutcliff and R L Stevenson.

Another unit raises issues like change, disability, and evil. On racism, writers like Mildred D Taylor and Jan Needle transport readers from the Deep South to South Africa and London.

Like all good resources, however, this file depends ultimately on teacher intervention. Outlines and helpsheets, for instance, are for the less able; they are not a soft option for the pupil who should be writing an essay.

It is just a pity that the twin spectres of accountability and evidence appear in the form of skills review and self-assessment sheets. They are a digression from the serious pleasures and rigours of this file. There is a time to take understanding on trust, and teachers are not leaving anything to chance if they ignore the tick boxes and read another novel instead. They can choose from the admirable book lists provided.

Jill Pirrie is a former language co-ordinator at a middle school in Suffolk

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