The A to Z of English

1st December 2006 at 00:00
Students have to be taught basic analytical skills when starting first-year courses at university

University english departments are facing a "litany of problems" when school leavers start their first-year courses.

Scott Hames of Stirling University made the claim at a conference organised by the English Subject Centre in the city. "Our first-year students seem pretty unfamiliar with the idea of active, participative learning," he said. "This is central to what English is about."

He expressed concern about students' ability to research a topic, finding widespread "information harvesting or balancing of received views" in place of rigorous analysis. Students would often cut and paste information indiscriminately from sources of varying reliability.

Dr Hames said he had also encountered "hostility" to poetry, which students often viewed as "arcane word puzzles".

Suzanne Trill of Edinburgh University said it was forced to develop an introductory course that took students through the basics of form, essay-writing and analysis. The aim was to ensure that "everybody is reading from the same page, that they have the same basic analytical skills."

Professor John Corbett of Glasgow University said children were suffering from a lack of opportunities to study English language at school. "Students from England are so far ahead," he said. "Scottish students come to me innocent of the subject."

Professor Ben Knights of the English Subject Centre said: "One of the tragedies from the late Eighties to the recent present has been that the community of those that teach in schools and those in universities has been riven apart."

But Professor Ruth Evans of Stirling University said they should concentrate on young people's strengths "rather than talk of a deficit".

"For example, they're very successful at reading the media and very sophisticated readers of something like The Lord of the Rings - the film.

We have to draw on that and accept that a lot of the things they're doing in the digital age involve watching films."

Larry Flanagan, principal teacher of English at Hillhead High in Glasgow, believes pupils with an Advanced Higher in English, which has a strong focus on literature, are better prepared for studying English at university than those who only have a Higher.

He said English teachers were concerned that the Higher course was driven by the assessment regime, which focused on close reading and critical essay skills. "With critical essay skills, teachers teach the text in a way that universities would not."

But Mr Flanagan said he did not believe today's students were any less prepared for university than they were 15 to 20 years ago.

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