Well versed;Interview;John Foster;Reviews;English

10th April 1998 at 01:00
Elaine Williams meets John Foster, poet and author of textbooks for English and PSE

As an Oxford undergraduate in English, John Foster seemed destined to be a sports journalist. He wrote for the student newspaper, was a keen cricketer, a fanatical supporter of Carlisle United and had reported for The Times.

But at the eleventh hour he realised that sport was preferable as a pleasure and he would make a better teacher. As it turned out, teaching served his writing career, but in a different way. Twenty years' experience teaching English has combined with a prolific output of secondary texts and poetry anthologies, as well as his own poems.

With Oxford University Press alone he has more than 100 poetry anthologies in print, including popular titles such as School's Out, Twinkle Twinkle Chocolate Bar; the First Verses series; OUP's Paintbox Titles such as Ghost Poems and poetry books including Monster Poems and Dinosaur Poems with illustrator Korky Paul.

Then there are the books of his own poems: Four O'Clock Friday and Standing on the Sidelines. Sales last year totalled pound;1.7 million. Add to that 15 short story anthologies, information books and about 26 sets of English, general and social studies textbooks and you have a staggering production. He has 30 books in the pipeline.

OUP regard him as a star player in the promotion of literacy. Collins also views him as a major catch. His latest publication for them includes a textbook series called English Direct aimed at under-achievers in Years 7, 8 and 9, and the second volume of Viewpoints, a collection of current affairs clippings and extracts for general studies A-level students.

He is praised by publishers for his versatility, practical nature and ability to produce material of long-lasting currency. Most of all, he is valued for his innate sense of what makes children tick and how to interest them in learning.

Some criticise his work for not exposing children to the beauty of language, but Foster seeks to entertain, to get children reading, to make them think about themselves and the world around them: "My view is that through wide reading in the early stages, discrimination will follow."

In both his English and PSE textbook work he is concerned with the education of the whole person and views the poetry and textbook writing as an equally creative process. He says: "I think there's an overlap between being a creative writer and writing textbooks creatively. It's about having that ability to grab attention. But it's also a feeling that I have to give something back to children."

For example, English Direct came about because he believes most textbooks for the English curriculum short change those with learning difficulties. The real challenge, he says, is to provide examples of different genres of writing that are motivating and at a level they can cope with.

He is critical of the contemporary assessment-driven curriculum. "I could have spent the last five years making money writing practice papers for assessment tests. I have been approached, but I haven't the inclination. It leads to a narrowing. What we want is a broad, genre-based English course."

As a teacher, he experienced the full social and academic range, from Lord Williams's Grammar School, a rural boys' establishment, to Redefield School - a comprehensive school on the Blackbird Leys estate in Oxford, where he was head of English. He retired from teaching 10 years ago and now, at the age of 56, apart from writing at his Oxfordshire home, he dedicates much of his time to poetry workshops in schools.

As a young teacher at Lord Williams's he tried to move the language syllabus away from a narrow diet of grammar for its own sake. This broader approach to English also led him into PSE, which he regards as the most crucial subject. He approves of moves to make it compulsory. "I have waited the whole of my career for this to come about. The next step is to make it an examinable subject. Not that I agree with that, but only then will it enjoy the status it deserves."

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