Avoid the off-putting language of literary criticism, says Martin Reynolds, and nurture children's natural responses.
Twenty years ago, I was studying William Golding's Lord of the Flies as one of my set texts for O-level English literature. I recall being deeply moved by many events in the book; I remember a sense of injustice at Piggy's cruel death and an emotional affinity with Simon, the silent prophet-figure whom nobody understood. I also remember the remoteness of my English master who slashed red Biro-strokes through my attempts at an essay. How could my heart-felt feelings be treated in this manner? I felt.
Twenty years on I am on the other side of the desk, so to speak. I have taught this book many times and, I suppose, made the same demands of my students as my English teacher made of me. Except for me there is a difference.
When the GCSE was introduced 10 years ago to replace O-levels and CSEs, we saw a movement away from the literary essay as the sole touchstone of performance. For the first time, it seemed to me, validity was being accorded to what was termed "personal response". Pupils of all abilities were introduced to "good" books and were given scope to respond. out of this climate emerged the "empathy assignment". So, rather than "Discuss the character of Macbeth in act one" we were getting "Imagine you are Macbeth. Write four diary entries in different points in the first act". Arguably, in terms of assessment, these two tasks are assessing different things. However, what was becoming clear was that whereas the first task reduced many modest ability children to scratching a few ideas on a blank page, the second task seemed to give them a chance to write at greater length and with some degree of insight.
What intrigues me now, 10 years on from GCSE, is how the old expectations have crept back into the new national curriculum order for English. Some would say they never really went away and that's where my observations on teaching this aspect of English come in.
Putting students' written responses to literature on one side, I feel that my verbal questioning and explanations are restricted by a framework and language that is unfamiliar to most pupils. It is the language of conjecture and intellectual debate and pupils, it seems, must learn it to progress. Often my questions are framed in that language ("So Sarah, what do you think the themes of the novel are?"). If I try to avoid overt references to themes and pose the question in "easier" language, it still does not often seem to help. ("So Sarah, what's the book about?" or "What do you think the writer is trying to get at here? " ) .
The problem is partly in the language of ideas and partly in the pre-determined framework of response that such language implies. The problem with pre-GCSE days was the presumption that if pupils could not master the language of literary appreciation then they had nothing worthwhile to say.
In my own teaching, I have been looking at different ways of tackling this problem. Yes, I am still fired by a desire to bring children to a deeper appreciation of literature but my starting point is the recognition that they already have responses and insights which must be given scope for expression. An essay or teacher-led discussion cannot always tap into this. So, back to Sarah. When asked to re-design a front cover to the novel we were studying in a way that might make people stop and think, she came up with something which showed she had some implicit grasp of the book's apparent themes.
I have found there are many pupils like Sarah whose levels of critical appreciation are already there but which our national assessment system does well in hammering on the head. I am constantly trying to find new ways of getting to what I believe is already present even if in an inarticulate form. Take the feature of structure, for example. When I talk to classes about the structure of a novel I can see them, before long, switching off! Yet if I talk about the structure of a James Bond film or a comic strip I get all the answers: "Why do we have the helicopter chase at the start BEFORE we are told what his next mission is?" "Because it's exciting Sir." "Which bits do you like the best?" "The action and when he gets his new gadgets." "Why is that good?" "Because you wonder how he's going to use them." And so on . . .
Yet such discussions can get quite deep into techniques of editing, flicking from scene to scene, keeping plots on the boil, and all the rest. The transition then from talking about films to talking about books is much smoother.
Ten years ago the new GCSE seemed to encourage a stack of new ways into texts, new channels through which children could respond. I fear that with some of the more recent changes in English there is a danger of losing that spirit. It is for teachers, I believe, to seize the opportunity now, to develop new methods of exposing and nurturing the layers of critical appreciation already alive in our children.
Martin Reynolds is head of English at a comprehensive school in St Helens.