Mark my words: close reading really is a rubbish instrument of assessment

9th September 2011 at 01:00
Exam questions are harder to understand than the novels and poems themselves

I loved English at school. I have friends who are English teachers. I own lots of books, most of which I have read. The majority of them don't have pictures in them, except on the front cover. English is great. Everyone should study English. Everybody should be encouraged to appreciate books, poems and plays. Are you getting the theme here? Gregor is positive about English and English teachers.

Explain, in the above passage, why the author lapses into the third person in the final sentence. Explain, in the following statement, how the writer conveys rage and bewilderment: WHAT THE **** IS THE POINT OF CLOSE READING, AS FEATURED IN ENGLISH EXAMS? I.A. Richards, Gustave Lanson, (yes, you're right, I looked you up on Wikipedia), I don't blame you.

I can see why, at a certain level, it might be instructive to clinically dissect a passage, but to use this as an instrument of assessment designed to measure one's ability to communicate in or appreciate the English language . come on, be serious.

Scientists get stick for ruining beauty by explaining phenomena such as rainbows in terms of equations. It is probably simplistic to claim that Keats was being anti-science when he wrote about unweaving rainbows in Lamia. The problem isn't with science explaining things - it's in the belief that there is nothing more to a rainbow than equations.

This is one of my objections to close reading. It suggests that there is no more to a piece of writing than a manipulation of words - let's call them X, Y and Z, designed to provoke a predetermined response in the reader. X + Y + Z = Q, where Q is the desired reaction. Since a lot of smart kids experience P, P + Q or 3P + Q squared, they tend - rightly - to question the whole process of analysis.

In studies of plays, novels and poems taking place over several sessions, English teachers can explain to pupils the context of a piece and why there is an accepted interpretation, but this cannot happen in close reading. Worse, conscientious English teachers have to spend hours explaining what close-reading questions mean.

Pupils are taught how to interpret questions rather than the passages themselves. Frankly, the time would be just as well spent getting them to roll up their trouser legs and chant at goats - so ritualistic does it become.

Is this just another ill-considered rant? Let's do an experiment. If you are reading TESS, you presumably have a good-to-high standard of literacy. Go and try a close-reading passage. Did you do well? If not, is it because you are not good at English, or because it's a rubbish instrument of assessment?

Gregor Steele, Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre.

Gregor Steele, according to his Higher results, is better at English than physics.

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