Pass Notes Fail Students; EDUCATION NOTEBOOK
Byline: SUSAN ELKIN
THE PURPOSE of studying English Literature is to learn about life, language and style.
It's also to explore the writings of men and women who have helped to shape our culture. It's about reading and, above all, about thinking.
Or is it? Does passing English Literature just mean that you have been exposed to some sketchy notes about your 'set texts', watched a film, learned a few responses and phrases by heart and drawn some jolly 'spidergram'?
Earlier this year I was commissioned by a publisher to write an English Literature study guide for GCSE students. Having agreed to do the job, the first thing I did was to have a good look at what was on the market. I was horrified by what I found.
High Street shops are full of series like Letts Explore literature guides for GCSE on exam favourites such as The Catcher In The Rye and Lord Of The Flies. Then there are York Notes for GCSE, Macmillan Master Guides, Brodie's Notes, Cliff's Notes and Spark Notes. Older series such as Penguin passnotes are still around at car-boot fairs and in charity shops. It's big business.
Inside each Letts title there's an abundance of pointless, poor quality line drawings.
And in Letts Explore To Kill A Mockingbird the illustrations are positively misleading. Black servants in Alabama in the Thirties did not dress or have haircuts like 21st-century teachers or retailers.
The text promises 'extended exploration', but is perfunctory and banal.
Author Stewart Martin spends just 75 words on 'Justice'.
But justice - and travesties of it - is what this book is all about.
If students aren't led to think about it in depth, then there's not much point in studying To Kill A Mockingbird. But the exam is all.
'The books cover everything in the syllabus of all exam boards,' says Julia Swales, Letts' spokeswoman.
'If the sections are brief, it is because there will not be much focus on these parts in the exam. It's just necessary to know the basics.' Her defence of the pictures is odd, too. She declares they need to be up to date (why, if a story is set in the past?) and focused.
She adds: 'Illustrations usually have to be used to answer a question, so are very important.' But as far as I know, there are no pictures on GCSE English Literature papers.
In other study guides, I have spotted 'factual' errors in the plot summaries and incompetent proof reading that lets through such a solecism as 'poignant' when the writer means 'pertinent'. …