Hello and welcome to the NT English Team's blog! We'll keep you up to date with our publishing activity and any other English-related bits and bobs catching our interest!

Friday, 10 September 2010

Grammar goblins

One of the most pleasurable things about my job is that I get to have stimulating debates with my colleagues about English-related topics. Often provoked by the morning paper or last night’s Radio 4 programme, these discussions give us a more rounded knowledge of our market and feed into the work we do preparing new resources for schools.

The debate this morning centred around an article on the BBC Radio 4 website, Schools urged to get strict on grammar, about the columnist Simon Heffer and his campaign for grammatical correctness (read it here).

We’ve been here before. Lynne Truss, anyone? I am very much in the David Crystal camp of pragmatists on this issue. (You can find a link to his excellent language blog to the right of this page, as well as to a blog site written by Dan Clayton, one of our language specialist authors, whose blog on Heffer made me chuckle. ) Language gives us the ability to communicate, and as long as we can communicate effectively and appropriately in any given situation, I don’t think zero tolerance in favour of archaic and often arbitrary rules is necessary. Don’t get me wrong - I know that rules are required in order to understand the nuts and bolts of how to communicate – for example, a misplaced apostrophe can alter the meaning of a sentence. Ah, how we love our red pens in those cases. But where's the line? Take the example of the grammatically incorrect sentence given in the Simon Heffer article:

The Prime Minister has warned that spending cuts are necessary.

According to Heffer, the verb ‘to warn’ requires an object, ie someone to warn:

The Prime Minister has warned the House of Commons that spending cuts are necessary.

Does this really matter? Is the crux of the sentence about spending cuts, or is it more important for us to know that the House of Commons has been given this news? Perhaps this is the argument for getting things grammatically correct, but then surely the writer/speaker could have written it as The House of Commons has been warned that spending cuts are necessary if that was their intended message. Then again, is it crucial to know that it was the Prime Minister himself sending this warning? The critical factor here is not whether you know the rule that ‘to warn’ requires an object, but to understand what the recipient of your message will take from that message, and whether that is the point you are trying to make or not. I guess the question is whether being taught the rule enables you to do this more effectively.

Perhaps it depends more on the kind of learner you are. I wasn’t taught grammar at school. In fact, the first time I came across classifications like ‘adjective’ and ‘verb’ was at university, where my journalism lecturer was in a permanent state of horror at our grammatical ineptitude. But (hmm - isn’t there some sort of rule against using a coordinating conjunction to start a sentence?) I have always been a voracious reader, as have my parents, and perhaps I learned to communicate effectively that way. My lack of education in this area certainly hasn’t prevented me from having a career in publishing. But (oops, I did it again) what if you’re not a big reader? Where do you learn how to structure sentences effectively? I’ve repeated the word ‘effectively’ several times because that, to me, is the point to all of this. Language is a tool kit which facilitates communication (should I have said ‘tool kit that’? Does it matter? Did you understand the point I’m making regardless?) and maybe some people need to be given the tools more prescriptively than others during their education.

Heffer also makes the point in this article about what he calls ‘verbicide’. Get over it, I say. Language is, and always has been, a vacillating entity, evolving to meet the needs of the user. Does it really matter that the strict definition of ‘viable’ is ‘capable of living’ and should therefore only apply to living organisms? Do I understand what my boss is trying to tell me when he says my latest proposal isn’t viable? Of course I do – he means it isn’t feasible – but by using viable, he’s giving me the message that my idea will never have life, not just that we can’t do it for some practical reason. So, in a way, viable is the right choice of word, but he’s just extended the reach of its meaning.

These days we are increasingly in contact with people all over the world, and naturally colloquialisms and dialects are converging and merging whilst rules are being bent, shaped and outright ignored. Does that make us wrong? I don't think so. It makes language creative and exciting. And as long as your message is appropriate for its purpose and is clearly understood by the recipient, does it really matter whether you split an infinitive or use an Americanism along the way?

We are, as ever, interested to hear your points of view on this so please feel free to comment on this post or email us at englishteam@nelsonthornes.com. I'm sure I've made lots of grammatical errors you can pick me up on...!


Wednesday, 11 August 2010

NEWSFLASH: Revision Survey

Do you know anyone who's just taken their exams (either GCSE, AS or A2), across any subjects, not just English?

We're conducting a survey about revision - pass on the following link for them to complete the survey and they'll be entered into a draw to win some vouchers!

Or: Click here to take survey


Monday, 12 July 2010

Our stand at NATE!

Hello! Hope any of you NATE delegates enjoyed the weekend of seminars and workshops. Becky L and I attended from the Publishing team, along with colleagues from Marketing and Sales. It was good to have the chance to see some of our authors again - Lindsay, Trevor, Tom, Dan, Judith and Heather - and we met lots of other great people! We also were very lucky to catch Pete Postlethwaite's engaging talk about his career, teaching and Shakespeare, which included a spontaneous performance of a snippet from Macbeth using an unwitting OCR spokesman as an impromptu extra!
Emma & Becky

Thursday, 1 July 2010

ICT and literacy

Are you going to NATE next weekend (9th-11th July)? Becky L and I will be at the Nelson Thornes stand so do pop by and say hello! Lots of interesting seminars on the programme, including sessions on interactive ways of teaching Shakespeare, and ICT in literature - things we’re thinking about a lot here as our kerboodle platform develops. In the first blog I wrote here, back in March, I mentioned my experimentation with an eReader. Almost five months on and I have to say I haven’t used the eReader again once, yet I’ve got through many paperbacks in that time. I now have a shiny new iPhone and am discovering ‘apps’ – including the Apple iBooks app, and an app for screen-friendly scrolling Shakespeare texts, where the scrolling slows if you tip the phone forward and speeds up if you tip it back. Witchcraft, I tell you. (Aside: I still don’t understand how the Wii knows you’re hitting an invisible ball in golf/tennis etc. Definitely black arts.)

You may have the impression that I’m not very technical by now. Not strictly true – I embrace technology, just slightly slower than my peers, who have been amused by my old-fashioned paper-and-pen diary technique for well over a year now. I’m easily wowed by fancy features, oh and I really, really want an iPad. I digress. In contrast to having to hook the eReader up to my PC to download books, my iPhone allows me immediate access to the Apple iBook store, which is visually very appealing with its fancy bookshelf design and familiar functionality. I've just downloaded a sample of a book for free. It's easy to read with fast page turns at a touch of the screen – far less clunky than my old eReader – and there’s an handy link for me to buy the whole book if I want to. I can change the font, adjust the brightness, the size of the text and the look of the page, look up words in a dictionary, add bookmarks, read ratings and add my own, browse charts... all on the move. Brilliant. I can definitely see myself using this more than the eReader. I'm never without my phone so I don't have to remember to pack another device, or ensure I've pre-loaded it with books.

In a recent article the author Tom Stoppard expressed a fear that reading is on the decline because of moving images taking over children’s lives. I disagree - surely students engage more with writing and reading now than ever before, through emailing, texting and MSN? Students can blog, post reviews, and even engage with collaborative creative writing online - I think it's easier to engage with writing and reading now. In March 2010, the number of iBook apps surpassed the number of game apps for the first time (see here). Whether that relates to children reading iBooks I don’t know, but surely making books more available, more dynamic, more portable, and more easily personalized, with the opportunity to read samples of new writers without risking the wrath of the Waterstone’s bookseller or the ridicule of your mates if they catch you in the Sci-Fi section (no offence, Sci-Fi fans), will only serve to encourage new readers? And students are challenged on their personal responses to texts – by engaging with the text in the way that best suits them, surely they’ll be better placed to respond effectively?

The thing I’m most excited about is the way the iBook is becoming so much more than just a digital version of the printed book – it can be dynamic with audio, video, links and supplementary information, and so on. Author David Eagleman hit the nail on the head:

An electronic version of a book merely grants portability. But a thoughtful app can open new inroads to explore the material, as well as ways to keep the material updated and fresh … By having the option to explore a book beyond the original text — by dint of videos, living links, and so on — it becomes a living, breathing, updating organism, just like the rest of our technology.

The Guardian, Mon 28 June 2010

According to a 2004 review of the impact of ICT on literacy in students, the “introduction of ICT into literature teaching improves motivation, but the duration of exposure to a technology can affect this. There may be a connection between de-motivation and the cognitive aspects of readers' engagement with digital texts.”

I wonder if the same is true six years on, when technology is even further ahead than it was in 2004, and we’re working with a generation of students who may have written a thousand emails but never handwritten a letter, and whose primary understanding is that of the screen rather than the page. Do they have more tolerance for sustained digital learning? Perhaps I’ll find out at NATE…


Tuesday, 15 June 2010

What's your favourite book?

Can I let you into a little secret? I don’t like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee. From reporting like this it would appear that I’m in the minority. I studied it at school and was never transported or uplifted by the story, as this article suggests you should be. To be fair, I didn’t develop a passion for many of the books that we studied (‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood is the only one). I did A-level English Literature and after that gave it up, tired of pulling apart a novel or poem rather than reading for enjoyment. Did I miss something? Is analysing a text and getting to know it thoroughly the only basis for truly appreciating a novel?

This author certainly seems to think that studying a set text can be the start of a life-long love of a book. I suppose I already read widely anyway so the books we studied at school were generally not introducing me to new authors. Looking at the new GCSE specifications, that doesn’t have to be the case. There is the potential (money and stock cupboards permitting) to study some books that are definitely not mainstream and the average student is unlikely to have read. It's interesting that some books crop up again and again at GCSE, clearly old favourites that stand the test of time and the analysis of 15 year olds. I studied 'Of Mice and Men' by John Steinbeck for GCSE and recently re-read it to help with the online resources we produced in Kerboodle! Have the added years and experience given me greater insight? I think I can create a better mental image of what's going on in the story, and feel sympathy for different characters. Perhaps I should re-read some of my other set texts, and give them another chance.

Most of us have a favourite book, but why? What is it about that book that you like so much? Mine is ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier. I love the mysteriousness that surrounds the storyteller, the intrigue of the tale and essentially sad ending. There’s nothing quite as disappointing as an author who chickens out at the last minute and finishes with a ‘happily ever after’ when it doesn’t fit the story. I’ve loved the book even more since staying at ‘Manderley’ on holiday last year and walking on the beach where Rebecca dies. I’m a sucker for anything that says ‘psychological’ in the blurb – I like a little bit of angst and quite a lot of thinking about it.

My sister-in-law cornered me on a recent visit and asked me to list my 20 favourite books, and I have to admit that I was stuck. I know what my favourite book is, but don’t have much of a list beyond that. We resorted to looking at the BBC’s Big Read list and talking through what might appeal to her. She does a lot of driving to and from work so I introduced her to Librivox, a website where books (generally those out of copyright) are read by enthusiastic amateurs. I’m currently working my way through by ‘Glimpses of the Moon’ by Edith Wharton as I do the ironing, and it’s a very respectable version.

And to finish with perhaps the most fundamental question of all, what is the point of reading novels? I once asked a 11 year old boy this question, and he answered that it gave you experience of places and people that you couldn’t or wouldn’t otherwise know about. I think he was wise beyond his years.

Friday, 21 May 2010


AQA GCSE Literature Online: Mister Pip and AQA GCSE Literature Online: Lord of the Flies are now fully live on kerboodle!

This concludes the AQA GCSE Literature Online seriesFollow this link to order the Evaluation Product for any of the six titles in the AQA GCSE Literature Online series.

Introducing Mister Pip and Martyn Pig

Having worked with English Language and Literature for many years and taught in HE, FE and briefly at key stage 3 as well, I have found it hugely rewarding to be working as the in-house Development Editor (DE) managing the final part of the journey from authoring to publication of NT’s new online GCSE Literature resources – all six of them! It has been busy, hectic at times, but as part of the process I reread Romeo and Juliet, An Inspector Calls, and Of Mice and Men, which I taught at GCSE level, Lord of the Flies, which I studied in the Danish translation when I was doing the equivalent of my GCSEs in Denmark, and An Inspector Calls, which was on my reading list at university (some years ago now). These are all really exciting texts to be reading, studying and teaching, and there have been days this year when work didn’t exactly feel like work because I was engaging with texts like these, primarily looking at them from the point of view of a DE, of course, but with the Teacher and Student peering over my shoulders (one at each) and commenting as I went along.

In the process, I also read Martyn Pig by Kevin Brooks and Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. Both are new additions to the reading list for AQA GCSE English Literature and both are compelling reading in their own right. Being very familiar with the other four texts, I have to admit that I did not have particularly high expectations of the ‘MPs’ (as we ended up referring to them in-house to avoid the curious new combinations of ‘Mister Pig’ and ‘Martyn Pip’), but my hesitation didn’t last long and I have been singing their praises at any given (and not so given) opportunity for the last couple of months, which may be why Emma has asked me to enthuse about the merits of these two titles as very worthy additions to students’ reading lists in their GCSE years.
Preamble over, Mister Pip and Martyn Pig are, in my humble opinion, great stories, controversial and challenging in many ways, but there is nothing in them that is beyond GCSE students at all. In fact, both deal with extremely topical issues and one of the advantages in comparison to Lord of the Flies and Of Mice and Men is that the MPs are both contemporary novels.

Martyn Pig relates the events of one week in the life of the first person narrator, Martyn Pig, a disaffected youth who lives with his drunken and abusive father on an estate somewhere in England. Into the mix Kevin Brooks brings an accident which may or may not be murder but which needs to be covered up, the significant sum of £30,000, a love interest in the form of Martyn’s friend and aspiring actress Alex, her boyfriend Dean (the archetypal antagonist and rival), an unsuspecting aunt Jean, and Detective Inspector Samuel Breece. The story is like a murder mystery in reverse. Contrary to traditional detective stories, Martyn Pig is not about solving the murder but about hiding the truth. At first glance the genre and subject matter of the novel might suggest that there would not be enough in there to challenge higher tier students, but I would have to disagree with this view and think the novel would work equally well with higher and foundation tier students. The first person narrative forces students to make a clear distinction between the narrator and the author. Complex literary concepts such as the reliable narrator and the suspension of disbelief are central to the story and would lend themselves more to higher tier students. There is plenty to delve into in terms of plot, structure, use of language and literary techniques. In addition there is ample scope for exploring the history and development of the genre, which in itself is not uninteresting, and the adaptation to film and television series. The novel is ripe with social and moral questions and dilemmas which could be explored in group or class discussions. Equally, foundation level students would not be lost with this novel. Brooks uses Martyn’s narrative voice and use of language to make this a very accessible read in many ways, but he manages to do this without losing sight of the more sophisticated aspects of language, genre, and plot which higher tier students can explore in more detail.

Like Martyn Pig, Mister Pip has a first person narrator but here the similarities end. Mister Pip is a completely different novel in terms of style and genre. The novel is set in Bougainville, a tropical island in the South Pacific, during the civil war which saw the islanders cut off from the main land Papua New Guinea and Australia. Matilda is a young girl who lives on the island with her mother. They were about to join her father in Australia when the embargo was put in place and instead of a happy family reunion, Matilda experiences the horrors of civil war. Her only source of knowledge and inspiration is the self-appointed teacher, Mr Watts, who is the only white person on the island. Mr Watts is not a real teacher and his method of teaching is unusual to say the least. He reads Dickens’ Great Expectations to his students and invites the adults in the community into the classroom to teach the children about the local history, folklore and myths of the island. It is a beautifully written novel, ‘poetic, heartbreaking, surprising’, as Isabel Allende has commented. The result is a novel that will work well with both foundation and higher level students. As with Martyn Pig, Matilda’s first person narrative voice and use of language makes the novel an accessible read, but this does not detract from the complexity of the creative and literary skill involved in creating this piece of work which will appeal more to higher tier students.

From a teaching point of view, I like the idea of working with novels that combine accessibility with a good degree of complexity. These novels would enable me to teach across the whole ability range which I have always thought was an exciting prospect, allowing for a greater degree of peer learning through listening to and communicating ideas at all levels, which I think is a great way to teach language and literature.

But don’t just take my word for it. Read the novels, explore the online resources on kerboodle!, and see for yourself.

~ Maggie