In the wake of guilty tyrants
Dennis Hamley on a text that meets the needs of key stage 3. The responses of educational publishers and coursebook writers to the language and standard English demands of the revised national curriculum Order have been interesting. The provenance of the new emphasis in the revised Order has undoubtedly been malign: a right-wing desire for order and control, both in the classroom and in society at large. The place of language in such a wide aim is central. But language is also the greatest of all liberators and enablers and - unless a deliberate Orwellian assault is made on it (and some might say that's already happening) - no attempt to use it in this way can be guaranteed to work. The tension has always been there: Lindley Murray's archetypally rule-bound grammar textbook of the late 18th-century was quickly followed by William Cobbett's, written to liberate ploughboys and the like and full of exemplar sentences such as "The guilty tyrants are ready with their dungeons and axes". Remarkably similar content; utterly different purposes and social preconceptions.
Thus now. The suppressors of Language in the National Curriculum (LINC) project had no dungeons or axes at hand but the message they received was clearly unacceptable to them. The view of language they had in mind was LINC's opposite. Their view, though, simply cannot wash with 90 per cent of English teachers and anyone who tries to peddle it commercially has to be on a loser. So, while this present, excellent book does faithfully what it is supposed to - fulfil the new language demands of the national curriculum at key stage 3 - its methods, while rigorous and accurate, are collaborative, active and clearly devoted to a concept of language as an agent of change.
The book follows a conventional pattern: there are seven units, a reference section and a glossary. The reference section contains a concise but full account of punctuation and grammar which brings together items which have been encountered in use in the preceding units and a comprehensive section on essential skills - using a thesaurus, the skills of formal letter-writing, proof-reading, public speaking and the like. The units themselves - Language and Technology (good on IT jargon); Explaining things clearly; Language and Humour, Stating the case 1 and 2; Choosing the form; Language curriculum 2005 (pupils are invited to forecast what their successors may be taught in 10 years time, thereby assuming this book's own obsolescence: Lindley Murray stayed in print for a century) - combine individual and group work, give scope for teacher mediation and contain a refreshing range of examples and activities.