No need to read books

13th October 2006 at 01:00
Pupils can now gain top-grade GCSEs simply on a diet of extracts

Pupils can achieve A*s in English and English literature GCSEs, and top marks in key stage 3 tests, without reading a book from cover to cover, a new paper says.

Many teachers, short of time and under pressure to improve results, are abandoning whole novels and plays, the authors say.

Anthony Farrell, head of English at St Ives school, Cornwall, and Professor David Jesson, of York university, make the claims in a paper which also shows that one in six primary pupils gets higher key stage 2 test results than teachers predict.

For next year's English tests for 14-year-olds, the only literature test is two or three extracts from Much Ado About Nothing from acts one and two.

John Gallagher, head of English at Stratford-upon-Avon girls' grammar, said: "I would be surprised if many schools read much beyond the first two acts."

The most popular English literature GCSE assigns only 10 per cent to a coursework assignment based on a novel. For English language, the figure is only 5 per cent.

Mr Farrell said teachers were looking at these percentages and decided it was not worth teaching whole books, but offering extracts instead. The AQA board had encouraged this approach in guidance to teachers, he said.

Mr Gallagher said many schools only taught extracts. He said: "I'm sure some classes, in some schools, think that Romeo and Juliet ends happily ever after."

Mr Farrell and Professor Jesson say the national strategies have encouraged this approach, emphasising the teaching of extracts in primary and secondary schools at the expense of reading for pleasure.

Teachers spoken to by The TES this week backed this view.

Bethan Marshall, senior English lecturer at King's college, London, said:

"In primaries, children used to have story time when they read books for the sheer pleasure of it. That has gone by the board."

Anne Barnes, education officer at the National Literacy Association, said:

"You never get the whole room reaching a cliffhanger, desperate to find out what's happening next in a story. There's no time for that."

Mr Farrell said teachers should not be blamed. They were under pressure from the "paranoid" need to raise results, although important aspects of the subject, such as lengthy reading, were not tested so the results were unreliable.

Independent thinking was being stifled by teachers, under pressure to raise scores, telling pupils what to write through detailed essay plans, or "scaffolding", he said.

The paper shows how 100,000 pupils, or one in six, achieved higher results in last year's English key stage 2 tests than their teacher assessment scores. And nearly half of pupils' key stage 3 English results differed from their teacher's judgment.

A national strategies spokeswoman said they had not endorsed an English curriculum where children do not have to read a complete novel.

An AQA spokeswoman said its syllabus stipulated that the prose coursework should be based on a "substantial text". Teachers could concentrate on specific chapters of a novel, but pupils had to relate them to the work as a whole.

The paper is available from

Full report, 10; leader 20

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