Curriculum - English literature - To read or not to read

1st May 2009 at 01:00
Some things are better in full: football matches, films, boxes of chocolates. So when it comes to literature, why are teachers dealing with extracts rather than complete books? Vicki Shiel reports

When English teacher Ian McNeilly was asked to get the lowest-ability group in the year interested in studying Macbeth, he introduced the play to the class - mostly boys - by asking them about their favourite films. "Whether they chose action-packed Arnold Schwarzenegger films, Saving Private Ryan or The Fast and the Furious, I'd always be able to make some link to Macbeth, be it treachery, betrayal or women," he explains. "I asked them what they liked about the film and then pointed out that most of those themes would be covered in the play we were about to study." He went on to read Macbeth with the class from cover to cover.

Like most teachers, Mr McNeilly, who is also director at the National Association for the Teaching of English, believes reading the whole work is the only way to ensure it has been fully understood. But not every teacher agrees - children's laureate Michael Rosen was recently incensed when his daughter brought home a worksheet from school asking her to read an extract from the Greek myth Perseus and the Gorgon and then answer 20 questions on it. He slammed schools for teaching "literacy without books". At GCSE and A-level, says Mr McNeilly, it's simply not achievable. "There's no way you can adequately prepare pupils by teaching just extracts. On an English literature GCSE paper, you could be asked about any aspect of a book - to give an overview of a character, for example. The type of question you get will often ask how typical one extract is of the rest of the book, so teaching just the key extracts would be a big risk. If anyone teaches in that manner, I'd say they're doing a disservice to their pupils. You might focus on key extracts, but you must also ensure that pupils read the full text."

Mr McNeilly now teaches at an independent girls' school in Sheffield, where he admits pupils tend to be hardworking and do the home reading he sets. But for many teachers - those charged with teaching less enthusiastic and lower-ability pupils for example - the temptation to prioritise pupils' success in exams over encouraging a fuller appreciation of the subject, as well as the need to meet targets, can be too much.

Although he teaches most books from cover to cover, highlighting key scenes and extracts, English secondary supply teacher Dan Clay believes that an increasingly target-driven culture in education has caused a growing trend to teach only the key sections of texts to ensure exam success.

"Schools need to get good results, departments need to get good results and individual teachers need to get good results. Teachers will do what is needed to get through the work as quickly as possible in as much depth as possible, but the goal will always be getting as many pupils above the C grade as possible too," he says.

Alison Smith, an English teacher at Ulverston Victoria High School in Cumbria, has seen little evidence of teachers covering just the key sections for exams. But she acknowledges that they are adept at focusing on what exam boards want. "When I was at school, I never once saw a mark scheme, nor was I told what the assessment objectives were. I spend a lot of my time going through these things with my pupils, as do most of the teachers I know. I think we're all a lot more aware of what's needed where and are better at, dare I say it, teaching to the test."

But she says a key part of what she does is teach her pupils to appreciate literature and language. "I don't think that you can really test holistic knowledge in a meaningful way in an exam situation."

She also admits it's possible for students to pass exams having only studied the key sections. "An A-level student of mine who didn't bother to read the whole novel got lucky with a question on an early chapter. But as you need to be able to draw threads through the novels to answer the questions, I wouldn't be happy not looking at the whole text."

Is teaching extracts always a bad thing? The choice is often a tough one for teachers who have to balance giving pupils a holistic grounding while improving their life chances by ensuring they know how to do as well as possible in exams.

When teaching a bottom set class, Mr Clay says he is less inclined to study the whole book. "As long as pupils know the plot, understand it and can place any scene in context within it, that can suffice." A simple way to do this, he adds, is to watch a film of the book and then do plot activities.

Teachers also tend to look at extracts with a class when looking at wider reading texts. This is expected to include some full texts but also extracts to provide context for the area of literature being studied.

According to Gareth Calway, an A-level English examiner and former English teacher, it's clear when a candidate, or even an entire class, has only studied extracts of wider reading texts - something he notes each year when marking papers.

Teaching extracts from a range of wider reading texts aims to broaden pupils' horizons, which is a good thing, he acknowledges. If pupils don't refer to other texts they lose marks. But teachers who concentrate too much on hitting as many references as possible to cover the key sections of the books fail to provide their charges with an accurate context, he says.

Exam board AQA says that its specifications indicate that where textual study is required texts must be "substantial and diverse". It adds: "In the case of prose and drama, there is no explicit statement that they should be whole texts, but our guidance to teachers indicates that they should be, because that is what our assessment will encompass."

It insists that candidates will not be able to gain higher marks unless they can demonstrate understanding at this level.

But it's easy to see why some teachers do it. "As a teacher you're responsible for your pupils' life chances and can't impede their success in exams," says Mr McNeilly. "So most teachers try to teach books properly but - under pressure - focus on the key parts. If it's a question of a child getting into university, teachers have a right to do everything possible to get pupils through the exams." The problem is evident throughout the curriculum. "I write textbooks for key stage 3, so I'm aware of the pressure to do things in a bitty way, and that's where the rot starts."

It leads to a mechanical reading of literature, rather than a critical or sensitive appreciation, Mr McNeilly says.

A spokesperson for Ofqual insists it does not endorse the teaching of choice extracts in a bid to get the desired grades. "The majority of teachers administer the system in the best interests of learners. They are professionals and share a responsibility for making sure that their use of the qualification and exam system supports good education."

Dr Viv Ellis, lecturer in education studies and tutor for English education at the University of Oxford, believes changes are needed. "Teaching to the test is and will continue to be a perennial problem, as teachers want to do the best by their pupils by preparing them for high- stakes tests."

Teaching literature in secondary schools needs to make sense to students, so that they see texts as meaningful. They need to know that openness to interpretation and alternative views make it interesting, he says.

He adds: "Reading literature can make a difference to young people, but increasingly what goes on in literature teaching in schools makes sense only in relation to exam results.

"The flourishing of young adult literature, fanzines, fan fiction, role- playing and so on suggests that young people are seeking an imaginative, textual life and English teachers should have the capacity and expertise to guide them."


- AQA English Literature

A paper on Victorian Literature, January 2009.

This paper gave students an extract from Nathaniel Hawthorne's memoir Our Old Home, published in 1863. The extract describes the poverty he saw in the working-class districts of the city of Liverpool. Referring to their wider reading across prose, poetry and drama, candidates were asked:

Q. How does the writer present his thoughts and feelings about aspects of Victorian life?

Q. How is the extract similar to and different from your wider reading in Victorian literature?

According to Gareth Calway, English A-level examiner and NATE consultant, the exam forces teachers to encourage superficial wider reading. "If students were prepared by their teachers to discuss the comparisons with, for example, an extract known as "The Rally" from Tess of the d'Urbervilles, where Tess is happy, despite her life being very hard indeed, this would be regarded and rewarded as a successful contextualisation. But there is no hint in this extract that this is an untypical passage from the Thomas Hardy novel. The students are supposedly getting the context of the period. But what they often learn is the passage in misleading isolation."


- Exploring Literature by Steven Croft and Helen Cross. Resource aimed at A-level English literature candidates, but also useful for teachers.

- Shakespeare for all ages and stages by the DCSFNational Strategies.

- Shakespeare: The basics, second edition by Sean McEvoy. Suitable for teachers of GCSE and A-level.

- Rethinking English in Schools: A new and constructive stage by Viv Ellis, Carol Fox and Brian Street.;;

Related content:

Reading skills KS4


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