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Today is:

Louise Poulson, The English Curriculum in Schools, Cassell, 11.99 & Michael Fleming and David Stevens, English Teaching in the Secondary School, David Fulton Publishers, 15

What is English teaching like here at the end of the twentieth century?  Louise Poulson's book might have been called 'How we got where we are today'. It is an overview of the English curriculum in which the author emphasises many of the tensions within the subject, and the loony controversies - coursework versus exam; literature versus language, and so on.

As with all such books written from the sanctuary of university education departments, there's a certain relish for the profession's scraps with government - for example, the skirmish over KS3 testing. Those of us at the sharp end found the process less whimsical.

But this is nevertheless a substantial book, skilfully illuminating key areas of English - a canter though the history, the political spats; assessment; English in primary and secondary schools. It's an account which would help any budding English teacher or new entrant to get her bearings.

For me, the best part is the final chapter, "Beyond Controversy", which explores where English may be heading, with an agenda for a more balanced attitude to the way we define literacy. I'd have liked more of this. Just as information and communications technology is likely to transform the learning process throughout schools, so English cannot hope to remain the same. The implications of this will be profound.

English in the Secondary School is much more of a practical guide, a really well-judged blend of good practice, sound theory and new ideas. I've been teaching English for twelve or so years and found much here that I'm going to try out. The tone is authoritative and never patronising, drawing on examples from the best practitioners, with useful reading lists. If I was starting from scratch as an English teacher, this is the book I'd want.

One important quibble, however, about both books. They focus on teaching. Here at the fag-end of the twentieth century, teaching isn't the real issue. It's learning. And the correlation between teaching and learning isn't always as inevitable as we might hope.

Learning needs to be at the heart of the English agenda because teaching follows from it. Without a clear framework for the way children acquire and then develop language, for the way reading and writing skills develop, an account of conceptual progress - without these, teachers can get locked in approaches which are not effective.

That hardcore of Year 11 students who leave school - scandalously - still unable to write in complete sentences are testament to the fact that teaching doesn't automatically lead to learning. If we're really going to make a difference to students' lives in a new century, we'll need to abandon some of the teaching models inherited from the 19th century and look afresh at how children learn.

That's what our English teachers of the future need to be talking about now. These two books will provide them with excellent starting-points for some lively debate.

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