Spoilt for choice

20th September 1996 at 01:00
NEW OXFORD ENGLISH 2 By Anne Powling, John O'Connor and Geoff Barton Oxford University Press, Teacher's book, Pounds 15. THE HEINEMANN ENGLISH PROGRAMME 4 By John Seely and David Kitchen Heinemann Teacher's resource file Pounds 27, Pupil's book Pounds 8.50.

ENGLISH SOLUTIONS By John Sweetman, Shelagh Hubbard and John Mannion Longman, Teacher's guide Pounds 27.50, Pupil's books 4 and 5, Pounds 7.99 each

Attitudes to the teaching of the subject will be decisive in choosing from three excellent GCSE resources, reports Peter Hollindale.

The first generation of new English courses, designed for national curriculum English in its post-1995 guise, and for GCSE as it will be for the 1998 contingent, is now in full production flow. Viewed first and foremost as examples of design, all these series are impressive. Gone are the days when a student's heart would sink at the drab and puritanical format of a textbook.

All these courses are sturdy enough to withstand tough usage. They are colourful and attractive, excellently illustrated, a constant visual compensation for the new task or unit remorselessly uncovered by the turning of the page.

For students interested in the process of turning writing into finished books, Oxford English is the automatic choice. The uneven, sometimes amateurish video that accompanies Oxford English 2 contains a useful briefing on the creation of an in-house product, the Young Oxford Book of Ghost Stories. This says something about the Oxford series as a whole. It is the most literary and in many ways most traditional of the three.

Even when looking at topics with a social or "general knowledge" dimension, such as advertising or travel writing, Oxford's compilers refuse to be diverted more than momentarily from the English language or, if they can help it, from literature. Heinemann English, at the same stage in Year 8, is happy to incorporate and use factual briefings on Mallorca or the workings of canal locks, becoming for a time a miniature Berlitz guide or Inland Waterways pamphlet.

Both courses do their work extremely well, and it is now a norm - meticulously observed by all these series - that the material selected is systematically related to national curriculum guidelines. Any teachers nervous of departing from their statutory brief will be quickly reassured by plans and charts in the appropriate teacher's guide. But the balance is subtly different. To exaggerate the point a little, Oxford is about English for English's sake in a way that Heinemann is not.

Three courses reveal the elasticity achievable within a common format. All devote ample space to literary texts and duly meet the requirements for attention to pre-20th century writing, non-fiction, the media, and so forth. Likewise, all give systematic attention to key skills and supply plentiful diverse incentives for writing. Somewhere along the line, though, there is a margin of choice between knowing and doing, between learning about the uses of English and practising it yourself. The Heinemann course is the most substantial of the three, not least in the thickness of the student work files that seem likely to issue from it.

The difference of policy is evident in the structure of the courses. The Heinemann books are separated into foundation and higher tier volumes, designed to be used in tandem and following parallel unit themes at different levels of demand. Differentiation, that new key-word, is devoutly served in the teacher's resource file, in the individual units, and in the overall conception of the books. "Differentiation by outcome", the preferred compromise of both the Oxford and Longman series, is accompanied in Heinemann by sharper differentiation of texts chosen and tasks set.

Longman's English Solutions instead divides its GCSE books into language and literature, and the difference is significant. This is a most attractive series, lively in content, concise and helpful in guiding students through a targeted learning sequence. Heinemann is rightly insistent that students should know exactly why they are doing a particular task, but Longman is more crisply effective in actually explaining itself. English Solutions is practical, unpretentious and seems best calculated to meet the interests of the full ability range.

All three are excellent resources, but different attitudes to content, skills priorities and the ability range are evident, and need to be considered before a choice is made.

Peter Hollindale is a senior lecturer in English and Education Studies at the University of York.

* MEG, the Midland Examining Group, and Longman, the educational publishers, have collaborated to provide a range of free materials for examination centres following MEG's new GCSE English and English Literature syllabuses for first examination in 1998. The first to be distributed is a free 64-page Poetry anthology withJ55 selected poems covering section C of the literature exam. MEG centres can order as many as they need for their students on MEG courses. Details and future free offers:MEG, tel: 01223 553217.

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