Should students still study the canon?

With reports that literature is being squeezed out of English lessons, is reading a whole text an unaffordable luxury?
3rd October 2008, 1:00am


Should students still study the canon?

The teaching of the classic works of English literature should, it is often argued, not only be culturally edifying, but leave pupils eager for more. When best practised, it ought to render pupils like small orphans pleading for second helpings.

But grandiose claims, such as these, made for the status of literature in schools have little place among the test-driven realities of the 21st- century curriculum, according to Andrew Goodwyn, professor of education at Reading University, in a new research document released this week.

The traditional value and importance placed on teaching literature is unambiguously expressed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority website, which claims that: "In studying English . pupils learn to become enthusiastic and critical readers of stories, poetry and drama."

However, according to Professor Goodwyn, this is a statement worthy of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll: it is nonsense. The QCA's claims for the enduring benefit of studying literature are "grossly inflated", he says. One has only to look at the reading habits of adults to see that they are rarely "enthusiastic and critical readers" of literary fiction, poetry or drama, despite having studied English at school.

In fact, it is becoming increasingly difficult to teach literary enthusiasm, Professor Goodwyn says. Instead, a love of literature is forced to compete with other, more pressing classroom imperatives.

So the Department for Children, Schools and Families website refers to the need to achieve a balance "between providing classroom time to support the reading of longer texts and the imperative to secure progression".

This sentence, Professor Goodwyn believes, is "redolent with all the negative connotations of the last decade. Its utter banal simplicity smacks of endless unreachable targets, measured against standards and benchmarks."

Teachers, he believes, are under such pressure that they see reading and analysing an entire text as an unaffordable luxury. This then begs the question: why read an entire text, when an extract will do?

Bethan Marshall, senior lecturer in English education at King's College London, agrees that this is a problem. Like Professor Goodwyn, she is concerned that literature is being squeezed out of the English curriculum. She points out that the new single-award English GCSE is primarily language-based, and that separate GCSEs in language and literature will be taken only by the brightest pupils.

"The Government hasn't quite worked out why people read books," she says. "Yes, it's for enjoyment. But when you read lots and lots of books, you also develop a critical awareness that you can apply to any kind of text. You're used to analysing what you read."

And, Professor Goodwyn points out, studying fragmented extracts, rather than an entire text, is incompatible with the idea of readers who willingly and enthusiastically immerse themselves in literature.

"I would argue that becoming a `literary' reader must involve the experience of a longish literary text and reflection on that experience by the reader," he says. "I would also argue that . learners need this experience several times a year for several years."

Ian McNeilly, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, agrees. "The consequences of not reading the whole text are disastrous," he says. "You're not doing the individual or society any favours.

"But it's so difficult in the present circumstances because of the pressure of league tables."

Literary enthusiasm, he says, is unquantifiable, and therefore of little value in the intensely measured world of league tables: "It can be hard to justify it to the bean counters. They need to see something coming out of the sausage machine. But English is like life: it's wide-ranging."

And, Dr Marshall adds, the modern-day advantages of familiarity with the written word can be easily overlooked. "It's terribly important that children `get' what's written to them," she says. "Writing is so much a part of everyday life. Look at Facebook. When I was young, we'd pick up the phone to make plans. Now they write."

In fact, some literature advocates argue that literary pursuits should not be limited to English lessons. Nicholas Tucker, senior lecturer in culture at Sussex University, would like to see fiction incorporated into a range of academic subjects.

"There are some wonderful historical novels," he says. "You'd have thought they'd be great for history teachers. And there are dystopian novels, which can be very good for stimulating discussion.

"But books read for pleasure don't benefit from being tested afterwards. You need time to sort your thoughts out, especially when you're young. I think you should let children read a book, then have a discussion about the ideas it produces. Otherwise you risk making reading a burden, rather than a pleasure."

But extracts make sense now it's all about analysis

Peter Thomas, Former principal of GCSE English literature at AQA

If you want to keep literature as a subject that everyone does, you have to accept that not all kids can read a 350-page novel.

A* and A pupils will go away and read anything you ask them to read. But you can't motivate the Es and the Fs by asking them to go away and read the whole novel.

However, you might get their interest by asking them to read sections from the beginning, the middle and the end.

Dr Goodwyn is assuming that literary scholarship requires whole-textual understanding, and that looking at small samples of text is just mugging up.

But the skills required by GCSE are to do with reflective and responsive analytical reading. The kids have to have feelings about what they have read, as well as a perspective about how literature is to be judged.

When I was at school, they could test you on any passage from a text, so you had to read the whole thing in order not to be caught out. But we weren't reading a text from the point of view of responding and appreciating it. We were reading from the point of view of future recall.

Now exams are about appreciating a text. We're no longer testing memory of a whole text, and then saying, `You've suffered it and endured it. Have an O-level.'

I was motivated by good teaching, not by the assessment procedures.

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