A closed book

19th September 2014 at 01:00

I am not well read. I would love to have had a romantic youth lost in words and inspired by fearless literary heroines. Instead, I had a drunken youth lost in discos and inspired by Cagney amp; Lacey. My closest connection to the greats was the summer I spent pulling pints at the pub where Branwell Bront got plastered while his sisters were up at the vicarage, elbow deep in ink.

As a slow reader, embarking on a difficult novel has always been a huge commitment. That said, Lynda La Plante and Patricia Cornwell are both guilty of giving me restless nights. Short chapters, simple language and a plot that whips past, sticking two fingers up to reality. That's all I require in my fiction. Also murder. Plenty of murder.

You would think that not being well read would be a bit of a drawback in my role as an English teacher - albeit one who teaches literacy rather than literature - but it hadn't come up until recently.

I teach functional skills English from entry level 1 (those who find literacy extremely challenging) to level 2 (around a GCSE grade C). I love functional skills as a qualification; if taught with care, it provides an opportunity to tailor the curriculum to the specific vocational, social and motivational needs of the learners. However, because an increased number of students are now required to improve their English and maths, many functional skills teachers will be let loose on the GCSE curriculum.

As a part-timer, I wasn't required to attend our mandatory GCSE enhancement training. But fear of missing out and a rumour that there would be free sandwiches meant I pitched up anyway. Were I expected to teach GCSE, this two-day course would have been like popping on armbands as a tsunami approached, but luckily (for my students and my employers) I am not. Although I can ably rip a text apart and understand how it works, I hadn't read any of the works that were discussed - not a whiff of Of Mice and Men, nor A Taste of Honey. Some of my colleagues were shocked at my admission, one fellow English teacher telling me that she had "always taken me for a reader".

This made me dwell on what is implied by the description "well read". I wonder if it is sometimes mistaken for having a broad frame of reference, being interested in worlds outside your own or even just seen as a metaphor for "academic"? If that is the case, then how important is it to have ploughed through a well respected hardback? Of course, the counterargument is that many of these books carry so much weight because they're brilliant. Gripping stories, complex characters and language that transcends the ordinary.

Having gained much of my Dickens education through Kermit the Frog and my Austen via Gwyneth Paltrow, my fear that I have missed out is almost certainly justified. I love the power that words hold and have made a living from them in one way or another for the past 20 years, so I think it's probably time I had a crack at something difficult. I shall start with books on the GCSE curriculum - you never know when they might come in handy.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. Find her on Twitter @MrsSarahSimons


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