Too many students don't read widely enough to make a successful leap to A-level studies, argues Brendan Mulcahy
Why don't sixth-formers read? More worryingly, why don't sixth-formers studying A-level English literature read? These are not fanciful questions, but are borne out by my experience teaching in grammar schools in Sutton and Buckinghamshire, and in one of Surrey's most academically successful comprehensives. Students in a Year 13 class I inherited - all having attained A or B in their AS-level - had not read a single Jane Austen title between them.
In a letter to the Guardian last year, about Radio 4's Woman's Hour's Watershed fiction project, a teacher regretted "how narrowly most people read once the compulsion to do so has ceased".
The first five "life-changing" novels thrown up by Watershed were either set texts, such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, or popular coursework choices like The Women's Room by Marilyn French. The teacher had polled her A-level English group on their favourite reading and every student opted for Harry Potter.
Hogwarts to Hamlet: that's quite a jump they're making. My own experience shows this to be nearer the norm than the exception. Wonderful books, such as Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Jennifer Donnelly's A Gathering Light, and DBC Pierre's fizzing Booker winner, Vernon God Little, have barely reached a readership that should lap them up. Capable would-be undergraduates in English find themselves finessing their UCAS statements to disguise their lack of breadth.
Why are we not producing more adroit, wide-ranging readers among our students? Philip Pullman contends that the "mechanistic" national literacy strategy has had a baneful effect on reading for pleasure. English schemes of work, which have diminished the role of the class novel, have something to answer for.
A related problem was identified at a seminar I attended at the University of Westminster last summer, when one lecturer claimed that students on his contemporary fiction course were unable to manage the demands of a book-a-week schedule. It's hardly surprising. Accustomed to sustained attention to one or two texts at a time on an A-level course, students lack the stamina and ability to change their reading pace when they encounter a constantly changing array of texts. To compound their difficulties, a course on modern fiction will not have the safety net of plentiful critical commentary.
In their defence, these are the most over-examined sixth-formers in the 50-year history of A-levels. With exams to sit in January as well as in summer, they are on the treadmill from the start of Year 12.
I have just finished teaching a collection of 42 poems in a term to one class. Superb students, keen and diligent, but with a wide spread of ability, they found coming to terms with so many poems a considerable challenge. Would not 20 be a more sensible number in the time available, enabling close analysis while leaving students time for wider reading rather than more of the same?
I think there are two problems here. First, sixth-formers are not reading widely enough, leaving them with isolated pockets of literary knowledge and a particularly gaping ignorance of what is being written now (contrast their minutely tuned knowledge of contemporary music). Second, many students read in a leaden-footed way, making no adjustment to reading tempo, irrespective of material and reason for reading.
There are moves to address these issues. Since attending a course last year, Putting Literature Back into Literacy, I have devised one-day workshops - Read Eclectic - to encourage breadth and reading efficiency in sixth-formers who may have lost the reading habit coming through the pressure-cooker GCSE years.
The target audience is English A-level candidates, though all students who want to become better readers will benefit. The focus is on contemporary fiction. In the course of the day students are immersed in a plethora of examples from the novel in English in the past 25 years, from Margaret Atwood to Barbara Trapido, Ian McEwan to Philip Roth, John Carey to JM Coetzee. They are advised to create their own libraries and to buy books from charity shops, where for the cost of a full-price DVD they could acquire a title by each of the above-named authors and still have something left for a healthy McMeal. They are encouraged to familiarise themselves with the literary pages in the quality press and to share their views on the forum pages of www.readeclectic.com (to be relaunch soon).
The section on reading efficiency concentrates less on the mechanics of speed-reading, more on showing students how to manage their reading. Many students are daunted by books. Fearing they will not have time to finish, they never start. Critical factors are purpose, concentration, decision-making and confidence. Consider this example: on a recent edition of A Good Read on Radio 4, historian Andrew Roberts assessed John Buchan's The Thirty Nine Steps in this way: "under 150 pages... you can read it in a couple of hours." His host, Sue McGregor, exclaimed, "You must be a very quick reader." Not quick - decisive! Slow-motion escapism is all very well but there are a lot of books out there. In the afternoon session, students work in groups as high-speed Booker-style judges, putting their new-found decisiveness to the test.
We are in a potentially golden age for reading but the list of rival attractions is growing all the time. In the US, a study for the National Endowment for the Arts reported last July that 51 per cent of Americans never open a book. In the nation which sets the agenda for the world in so many ways, that is a chilling statistic. We are honour-bound to show our students the wealth of literature available to them and to equip them with the means to share in that wealth in every way we can.