Concern over close reading

25th May 2012 at 01:00

I found myself last year in the happy position of returning to the Higher English classroom for the first time in a decade; as a headteacher, I only have time to teach one class a year, and for many years that has been Advanced Higher.

In many respects, the return to Higher has been a great pleasure. However, two sessions in, I feel called upon to express my anxiety over the content of some questions in the "Close Reading" section - and, indeed, some of the answers suggested by the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

This is an exam of extreme national importance - a baseline qualification for all sorts of things, many beyond the humanities. With university places at a deeply competitive level, candidates in, say, medicine or PE teaching - who are otherwise very well equipped - may find themselves at the mercy of the English examiner. So it is incumbent upon those who set it - and those responsible for its revision - to ensure every part of the exam has relevance and intellectual credibility.

No one can doubt the importance of assessing "Reading for Understanding". However, the historical emphasis on questions of style, which account for up to 50 per cent of the Close Reading mark (20 per cent of the total), has little relevance to any further study and often bears very little intellectual scrutiny.

Prospective students of English are not helped by these questions - there is no articulation with the vast majority of university courses in English. The quality of the pieces under examination - generally, rather worthy, journalistic feature articles - do not merit the level of analysis the questions invite and, hence, lead to some truly specious answers in the answering schemes. Such exercises encourage contrived, drilled, formulaic responses which may lead to "well-taught" children getting the right answer without knowing why.

In short, the Scottish tradition of ensuring that all Higher candidates know 99 ways to skin a sentence needs fundamental reappraisal. Now.

I earnestly hope that those in a position of power with regard to the new Higher will take on seriously the challenge of producing an exam which can enhance students' genuine appreciation of fiction and non-fiction and provide them with the communication skills they need for success in the 21st century. Nothing in the 2012 paper suggests that such changes are in the air.

Cameron Wyllie, head of senior school, George Heriot's School, Edinburgh.

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