Prisoners to the literary tick-box

13th October 2006 at 01:00
Congratulations to Anthony Farrell, the English teacher who told The TES this week that pupils can get an A* in GCSE English literature without reading a book or play from cover to cover. Indeed, they can go through their whole time at school without reading a complete work of literature.

National tests and exams require no more than an acquaintance with extracts and snippets.

Mr Farrell will have none of it. He expects even his lower-ability pupils to study whole books and is prepared to risk their grades and his reputation. But other teachers, pressed for time and eyeing the league tables, are understandably less bold. Why cajole an unwilling class of 14-year-olds into reading the whole of Romeo and Juliet when it will make little or no difference to the marks by which their education is measured? Why bother with a whole book when half of one will do?

The dangerous message is that books are about grammar, technique and getting the answer right, rather than reading for pleasure. In the 1980s, traditionalists worried that teachers had too much freedom to teach what they chose and that classic authors were being marginalised in favour of more fashionable alternatives. Chuck Berry's autobiography featured on one exam board's list. Now we are worrying that pupils are not reading any books at all.

A balance can be struck. Teachers need more time and leeway to teach the books they enjoy. Fewer tests would help. Fourteen-year-olds would be much better off reading a book they like - in or out of the literary canon - than cramming in snippets for which they and their teachers have little enthusiasm but which will score marks in the national tests.

Teaching English in the age of email and text messages is a challenge.

English teachers, as Mr Farrell shows, can rise to it but they need and deserve encouragement. At present, they are prisoners of a system which is based on ticking the right boxes rather than helping pupils to enjoy books.

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