Blinkered view of the book world

English teachers are failing to read as widely as they used to and missing out on modern novels that their pupils might enjoy, according to the National Association for the Teaching of English.

Dr Elaine Millard, vice-chair of the subject association, said that staff were so busy focusing on set texts by prescribed authors, such as those included in recent reforms of the key stage 3 curriculum, that they had no time to catch up on contemporary literature. As a result, too many teachers foisted dated novels on their pupils.

Last month, The TES reported that teachers had decried the Government's decision to keep writers such as Austen and Dickens as "untouchables" on the curriculum for 11 to 14-year-olds. They argued that the books were a turn-off and would not be taught.

Dr Millard's research, which forms part of a follow-up to her 1997 book Differently Literate, suggests the list has had a corrosive effect on teachers' knowledge of their subject. "The aim (of the curriculum) is to jump through hoops. It makes it less likely that teachers themselves will read more. The result is I go into schools and see dusty books that were being taught in the 1970s and 1980s," she told The TES.

Alan Garner's Elidor, published in 1965, surfaced time and again, as did Betsy Byars' The Pinballs, a 1970s favourite about children in foster care, which was dismissed by today's Year 9 pupils as "sexist".

"Modern and engaging" works such as Deborah Ellis's The Breadwinner, about a girl living in Taliban-era Afghanistan, were being overlooked, said Dr Millard. "It's about finding books that engage with contemporary issues and interest pupils. Modern classics are important in achieving this involvement and teachers need knowledge of up-to-date writing for younger people. Sometimes when the children in my study talked about the books they were reading, it was with a sense of boredom," she said.

The tyranny of set texts had also squeezed out free reading time, in which pupils used to be left alone with books of their choosing, Dr Millard said.

"These lists divert teachers' attention from reading for pleasure. The result is less independent reading," she said.

Dr Bethan Marshall, a senior lecturer in education at King's College in London, said the overall number of books being taught was shrinking. "I used to teach half a dozen a year - now it's down to one," she said.

In October, teachers complained that pupils could obtain top grades at GCSE by reading extracts rather than entire books. A "paranoid" need to raise results was leading to staff concentrating on fragments rather than whole stories, they said.

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