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Help pupils make sense of literature

English A-levels are too prescriptive, narrow and out-of-date, says teaching association. Joseph Lee reports

English teachers are calling for literary theory to be taught at A-level because the exams are not preparing pupils for university studies.

Questions about the nature and purpose of literature should join practical criticism and Shakespeare in the curriculum, says the National Association for the Teaching of English's post-16 committee.

Its wide-ranging report, Text: Message - the future of A-level English, criticises existing exams as prescriptive and out-of-date.

The report comes as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority launches its own public review of the English curriculum for all pupils on Wednesday. The QCA will examine all aspects of English teaching over the next 15 years.

Gary Snapper, who is on the NATE committee, said: "More and more university departments recognise that students are not ready for literary theory when they arrive. Often, it is pushed back to the second year while they attempt to fill in the gaps." Approaches such as deconstruction, structuralism and post-colonialism could be one element in broadening the curriculum.

Students would not be asked to wade through pages of dense, philosophical prose, he said, but they should be encouraged to think about the ideas that are commonplace in universities.

"A lot of teachers feel constrained by the prescriptiveness of A-level," Mr Snapper said. "What students can write about in exams is limited to the text itself, rather than broader ideas."

The committee proposes students should study more works in less detail, as well as introducing literature in translation to broaden students'

knowledge of foreign cultures. Its report also proposes merging elements of the English language and literature courses.

Professor John Kerrigan, chairman of the English faculty at Cambridge university, said students would benefit from relating texts to larger social and conceptual contexts.

But he said there was a risk that schools would pick up on approaches which are regarded as dated in universities, where the theory revolution had mostly ended by the late 1980s. He said: "Be careful not to drive English studies backwards into the future.

"In my experience, what university teachers of English tend to complain about is the declining ability of young people to make sense of a page, to read it, not their lack of appetite for theory."

PRIMARY FORUM 24

joseph.lee@tes.co.uk

LITERARY THEORY UNPICKED

Deconstruction: the theory devised by Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher, of unpicking the way text is put together to reveal its hidden meanings.

Structuralism: the analysis of formal structures, often the influences of society over which the writer has no control, on the text.

Post-colonialism: the study of the lasting effects of colonial rule on literature in former British colonies.

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