Search for structure

11th April 1997 at 01:00

Elaine Williams visits publishers' exhibitions at the National Association for the Teaching of English and the British Dyslexia Association conferences

If publishers have got it right, the course book and the anthology are returning with a vengeance to English teaching. Exhibition stands at the National Association for the Teaching of English at York University were full of them, with Oxford University Press and Heinemann in particular slugging it out. As the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board proved so effectively when it produced an anthology with its GCSE syllabuses, this type of book attracts customers because it is kind to school budgets.

Cambridge University Press has produced five poetry anthologies in the past three months, and Faber was at the show, promoting The School Bag, a rich, idiosyncratic anthology edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes as a sequel to their hugely successful Rattle Bag (reviewed on page 6).

The pressure of league tables, national tests and cuts has forced teachers to seek value for money and finely tuned resources to support their lessons. NATE members might once have sniffily dismissed the idea of course books, preferring to use texts and their own cuttings. But younger English teachers seem glad of the back-up provided by this new generation of colourful, well-laid out books .

This year's NATE conference attracted only 150 delegates, fewer than 20 of them from the primary sector. This compares with 500 delegates five years ago. But workshops on grammar were heavily subscribed, and books on grammar such as Elspeth and Richard Bain's The Grammar Book, published by NATE, were in demand, a sure sign of teachers' anxiety about government requirements.

Geoff Barton, head of English at Huntington School in York, is to publish a grammar book with Collins in the autumn. His Comprehension to 14, published by OUP next month, attracted much attention.

Some teachers regretted that English lessons should be returning to comprehension exercises, and others were critical of a book so closely geared to key stage 3 tests, but the text has already sold 800 advance copies. Mr Barton said teachers should no longer feel embarrassed about teaching the structure of language.

"Comprehension has been a taboo word with some teachers," he said. "But it is the most important skill in English. Before we make a personal response to texts we must understand them. We should not be ashamed of teaching children how to do that."

He added:"Reading carefully has never been more important. If we are to sift knowledge from the Internet, we have to learn how to understand texts - and understand them quickly. In my exercises the first part is factual, the second is about personal response. You cannot have the second without the first. "

Mr Barton also included texts that would not usually be part of reading exercises. The book uses a range of genres such as crime, legend, ghost stories, horror and non-fiction, and includes a Joyce Grenfell monologue and a cutting from the US national newspaper The Weekly World News, with the headline "I killed the Loch Ness Monster". It also includes a cutting from the Yorkshire Evening Press "about how hopscotch can make you brainy. These explain something about the nature of newspapers. They beat the usual cuttings from The Guardian that teachers tend to use," Mr Barton said.

Later this spring Cambridge University Press will celebrate the sale of one million copies of its Cambridge School Shakespeare edition, a sure sign that teachers are also looking for structured guidance to make texts accessible to their pupils. CUP was promoting its latest publication of Shakespeare's Sonnets at the NATE show and The Winter's Tale is the next play to be published in the series this year.

Opposite every page are suggestions for activities and ways of approaching the text, a facility many teachers obviously find invaluable. Keith Rose, CUP's publishing development manager, said: " These books get kids out of their seats, living the play, and that has to increase their motivation."

The few primary school teachers at the conference also appreciated the new information books strand of CUP's Cambridge Reading. Written by Meredith Hooper, they are beautifully laid out, using source material wherever possible, with a stretching text that would interest children, boys in particular, aged five to seven.

Publishers, though, are not always sensitive to budgetary constraints. Few drama books prov-ide an overall structure for drama within the primary school curriculum. But Patrice Baldwin, the primary standing chair for National Drama, who held workshops at the conference, was upset that Collins was selling her work The Drama Book as part of a multimedia package.

The book provides a stand-alone structured series of drama lessons for five to 11-year-olds, but The Drama Box contains the book with a tape and resource cards. Ms Baldwin said: "Instead of the Pounds 20 the book might have cost alone, the whole thing costs Pounds 75. No primary school can afford that. I feel as if my life's work has been locked up in a box."

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