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Intriguing texts

Christine Counsell argues for the excitement and challenge of teaching with longer written resources

Whoever had the mad idea that the shorter the extract, the tinier the gobbet, the easier it is for the pupil to read? How on earth did we end up assuming that the "lower-attainer" is helped by reading the short bits? I can see the logic: short words, easy words, fewer words makes pupil less likely to give up. And, up to a point, with many pupils, it is a logic we've all wisely applied.

However, I am starting to wonder if this was one of the biggest wrong turnings we ever made. Shorter texts are not easier. They are harder - unnecessarily and unhelpfully harder. If I only have five lines, how can I possibly live inside the story, feel the tension, sniff out the agenda, smell the atmosphere, get pounded by the rhythm of the argument, be persuaded by clever mixing of facts, laugh at the tone, get cross at the assumptions or even feel the shape of the thing sufficient to structure some new knowledge in my own head?

All the things that make a text a text have been taken away. We're just left with words. This is part of the problem behind the view that words should always be easy, short and few. It is based on the mistaken view that if only pupils could read the words, they could read the text. This has never been the case, as English teachers have always told us. Pupils spend an awful lot of time in school reading words without ever reading a text.

But give me 25 lines and we can do it. I can hear it long enough to find its rhythm. I can see it long enough to paint it in my head. It's already easier. Except that it's not really "easier" so much, as more challenging, but with some means of access to that challenge.

Some exceptional practice is now emerging among inspired secondary history teachers using lengthy, demanding, intriguing texts - and they are having the nerve to do so with the "bottom set". When I see this work, I am in no doubt whatsoever that the "extended writing" revolution seen by history teachers in the 1990s will only be complete when the "extended reading" revolution finishes it off.

It was in a "death to the gobbet" revolutionary sort of mood that I decided, as editor of the journal Teaching History, to build an edition around classroom use of longer extracts and whole texts. I found no shortage of material. Our best secondary history teachers are experimenting with it everywhere.

And this isn't just a history thing. Text is crucial in history partly because history teachers must shift pupils away from unhelpful, pre-evidential concepts, such as "information", through to ideas about evidence, which make pupils approach text differently and interrogate it better. But enjoyment of text plays a part in all subjects, even where it is not the primary object of study. This has implications for sharing of pedagogy. Key principles are worth sharing across subjects. Myra Barrs and Valerie Cork's inspirational study of literature use at key stage 2 has had a profound effect on my work with pupils and teachers in the secondary history classroom. Barrs and Cork explain how teachers drew out the "tune on the page".

Pupils with English as an additional language in Year 5 found precision and control in their writing through the remembered rhythms of complex sentences and artful repetition. These principles from primary English are relevant to many subjects in the secondary curriculum, especially in the important techniques surrounding reading aloud to pupils - and reading aloud well.

If it is exhilarating seeing "bottom set" Year 8 enjoy a Thomas Hardy short story in a history lesson, this is not just because it expands pupils'

concept of historical evidence. Once achieved, engagement with such a text bestows other gifts. Concentration, curiosity, imagination and knowledge retention are priceless byproducts. Perhaps we should think of teaching as selfeffacement. Our job is to get the pupil more interested in the text than in us.

In the end, it is text that conquers. Whether it's 20 lines of Pliny the Younger or 30 lines of Arundhati Roy calmly explaining how nuclear holocaust will happen in India, once our text has caught pupils by the scruff of their curiosity, they are powerless to resist.

If the so-called "lower-attainers" are not to stay "lower-attainers" and are to finally take on the rest of the world in argument and debate, then there is no alternative to getting them reading. It is every teacher's business.

The June 2003 edition ofTeaching History's "Reading History, Edition 111" is available from the Historical Association Tel: 020 7820 5983

The Reader in the Writer: Links Between the Study of Literature and Writing Development at Key Stage 2 by Myra Barrs and Valerie Cork is available from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, pound;16.50. Tel: 020 7401 33823

Christine Counsell is editor of Teaching History

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