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Treading wisely through the exam maze

ENGLISH TO GCSE By Geoff Barton Oxford University Press Pounds 9 WAYS OF TELLING By Mike Royston.

Stanley Thornes Pounds 5.99 PARALLEL POEMS By Mike Royston Stanley Thornes Pounds 5.99

DISCOVER GRAMMAR By David Crystal Longman Pounds 5.99 Age range: 14 - 16

Brian Slough is heartened by GCSE English guides, one of which includes valuable contributions from students.

Some books thrive on titles whose simplicity implies their indispensability - like Who's Who. English to GCSE, a what's what, is in that category. For starters, it should satisfy students and parents uncertain about the nature and purpose of English as a GCSE subject. The aim is to boost confidence through understanding the important elements in GCSE courses and the requirements for tackling them. Not a glib crib, with promises of A grades, but expert guidance through coursework and revision.

Seven broad areas of English ("speaking and listening", etc) are subdivided into 70 discrete sections. The scope is compendious, from advice on spelling to poetry "unseen", against a backcloth of grade criteria.

A regular feature is a smiling examiner's advice on samples of students' examination or coursework. He also answers questions that bug the anxious, in spite of teacher-reassurance: "Does it matter if I speak in a strong accent?" The students' collaborative presence is instructive, through comments universally pertinent for key stage 4.

An expanse of texts, activities and questions, illustrations and photographs, are appealingly presented and invite involvement. English to GCSE fulfils a need, not just for students; it should prove hugely popular.

Geoff Barton advises on textual comparison in this new book and recently co-wrote Pair and Compare, which dealt with most genres. Mike Royston's comparative approach, Ways of Telling, concentrates on stories and poems, built around thematic units, each with a minimum of two core texts and related activities It contains 12 twentieth-century short stories, offering a blend of narrative styles (fable, diary, conflicting viewpoints, etc) and cultural traditions. They focus on pre-eminent themes such as families and love, with an eye to teenage topicality. Thus, human barriers are examined through Jeanne Desy's satirical "The Princess Who Stood On Her Own Two Feet" and Bernard MacLaverty's "Father and Son". Incomparable, one might say. All these stories are captivating and accessible for 15 and 16-year-olds.

Understandably, that is not entirely so with Parallel Poems. It has 15 units, several garnished by additional poems related to the core themes. There are 41 in all, providing an anthology of varied poetic form and style, from pre-20th century and contemporary sources: sonnet to rap, Browning to Brownjohn.

The pairings are fertile in themselves and by cross-reference to other units, without recourse to shotgun contrivance. Thomas Hardy joins with Elizabeth Jennings on love lost; Christina Rossetti and Caroline Norton on love fulfilled and betrayed. If that seems uphill, freewheel with the Raving Beauties ("Men Are...") and Liz Lochhead ("Men Talk"). Certain themes are expected, such as death, and the price of progress, but there are surprises. Two ballads on the dangers of coal mining are moving reminders.

Both books contain pre- and post-reading activities geared to GCSE - and hence national curriculum criteria. They are extensive yet coherent, inventive without eccentricity.

Not least, students will be helped to appreciate the pleasures of poems and stories. Mike Royston genuinely wants that. These books enter a competitive field, in literary genres and textbook format. They deserve to prosper.

Discover Grammar has the pedigree for prosperity: David Crystal has written it, with the ubiquitous Geoff Barton as classroom consultant. Its introduction is a lucid rationale, explaining what is meant by grammar and why it is important to know about it. The book is then divided into 45 topics, grouped into six sections. "It won't tell you everything there is to know about grammar," writes Crystal, but enough for most readers.

The layout is helpfully consistent. Left-hand pages deal with essential information about the topics. Those opposite contain connected activities, of increasing difficulty, separately structured with three or four parts. These are distinctive in their variety and ingenuity. Many are fun to do, such as transforming sentences into Yoda-speak (of Star Wars fame) to increase understanding of the object. Crucially, the approach should help to improve students' sensitivity to their own use of language.

The book has scope for a host of uses, at GCSE level and beyond. A comprehensive reference work, it also promotes discovery learning and never forgets that the power of language lies with the people. The best of its kind I've come across.

Brian Slough is an author and former head of Kettering Boys' School.

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