Early teaching of GCSE English 'deters reading'

Pisa results show a drop in teenagers reading for enjoyment – and it is being blamed on GCSE content being taught early

Catherine Lough

Schools with poorer intakes are much less likely to have access to a library, research reveals

The "bleeding down"  of GCSE English teaching into lower year groups is deterring students from reading for pleasure, according to a subject expert.

The warning comes after a little-reported finding in last week's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results revealed a steep fall in the proportion of  English teenagers who read for pleasure.

In the Pisa research, nearly half – 48 per cent – of English 15-year-olds reported they did not read for enjoyment, compared with an average of 42 per cent of pupils across the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Related: Schools dropping A-level English 'due to boring GCSE'

Opinion: ‘It’s everyone’s job to encourage reading for pleasure’

Exclusive: Only a quarter of pupils get recommended reading for pleasure time

Just 26 per cent of English students reported reading for more than half an hour per day for pleasure, compared with 34 per cent across the OECD (see graph, below).

And the proportion of students who said they read for pleasure in England had declined more rapidly than the OECD average since 2009, by nine percentage points compared with five percentage points on average across the OECD.

England's overall reading scores in Pisa improved slightly, with the country placed 13th in the 2018 results – up from 17th in 2015.

'The impact of GCSE reforms'

Rachel Roberts, from the National Association for the Teaching of English, told teachers at a recent event in London that the “bleeding down” of GCSE English into the earlier years of secondary schooling was responsible for a decline in pupils reading for pleasure.

Ms Roberts, a PGCE secondary English tutor at the University of Reading, said: “At key stage 3, there’s considerable evidence of the bleeding down of GCSE into earlier years, where GCSE texts are taught lower down the school as a way of getting through content, as well as including GCSE-style questions for Year 7.”

A new, "more rigorous" GCSE English syllabus was introduced in 2015 as part of reforms brought in by former education secretary Michael Gove.

The revised English literature GCSE is based entirely on a linear, end-of-course closed-book exam. Students need to write critically about a Shakespeare text, a 19th-century novel and poetry from memory, while the reformed English language GCSE requires students to analyse unseen passages from the 19th century.

The Department for Education's position is that the revised GCSEs prepare students for the world of work and were implemented after a long and careful process of reform. 

But Ms Roberts said the changes had restricted the type of texts being taught to younger students, putting them off reading – a change that she felt had fed into the Pisa results.

She said: "Because of the nature of the current GCSE syllabus, which heavily emphasises classics and linear exams, that has had an impact on how pupils view reading, as well as how English is taught lower down in the school.

"It's also had an impact at key stage 3, affecting the choice of texts taught lower down the school, that are quite Victorian, squeezing out more diverse or young-adult fiction."

And she said the Pisa findings that English students found it hard to distinguish between fact and fiction could partly be attributed to a lack of contemporary media texts being taught in the revised English language GCSE.

Fewer students 'reading for pleasure'

"That element of teaching about media texts does not feature at all in the GCSE – there might be a probable link with pupils' inability to tell the difference between fact and fiction," she said.

"When they are taught non-fiction, it is from the 19th century, which has no connection with the kind of texts pupils read online."

Percentage of pupils who say they read for enjoyment

Source: Pisa 2018

But there was a significant reduction in English pupils reading newspapers and magazines.

Just 18 per cent of English pupils reported reading newspapers several times a month voluntarily, compared with 60 per cent in 2009, while 10 per cent reported reading magazines in 2018 compared with 60 per cent in 2009.

This echoed patterns across the OECD, but the decline was more pronounced for England.


Source: Pisa 2018

The Department for Education has been approached for comment.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

Latest stories

Ministers seem to think schools are wasting money - in fact, schools are experts in cutting costs, says James Bowen

Why international teachers should receive financial CPD

There's a lot to learn working in another country - not least the financial situation and how to use your money wisely, which is why perhaps a CPD session or two would be a worthwhile investment
David Keating 30 Jul 2021