Teaching English Literature – Pupils don’t need to share what they’re reading

Two girls peeking over books, representing teaching English Literature

Our teaching of literature should leverage teens’ love of narrative, says Carol Atherton – but we don’t need to see what they’re reading…

Carol Atherton
by Carol Atherton

When I started teaching English Literature 28 years ago, teachers had considerably more freedom of choice over the texts we taught. This was especially the case at GCSE, owing to the coursework component in place at the time.

The ways in which students could respond to those texts were also much more wide-ranging compared to now.

Instead of teachers limited them to traditional literary essays, they were able to engage with texts more creatively. They thought about the ways in which an actor could represent a character in a play, or how to direct a scene.

There were opportunities for students to write into texts. For example, they might take a single character and explore their background and motivations more deeply.

Teaching English Literature could even involve asking students to write a follow-up chapter. For instance, they might imagine the conversation between Jack and Ralph during their voyage home after the events of Lord of the Flies.

Teaching English Literature

In their exams, we require students to produce literary essays. We give them a very limited range of other forms to write in beyond that.

Realistically, though, how many of our students will go on to become literary critics and produce that kind of writing in their working lives? Very few.

There are many more aptitudes we could be asking KS4 students to demonstrate with the texts we set, even given the limitations of the exam room.

Many of these would prepare them far better for the types of writing they will find themselves having to do in their lives beyond school.

Things are admittedly different at KS3, where there remains some scope to set students more wide-ranging English activities.

In my experience, many will respond to them creatively and articulately up until Y9. So why don’t we channel some of that energy into the exams they’ll take at KS4?

Teaching exam craft

I, and many others teaching English Literature feel strongly that English at KS4 is now as much about teaching exam craft as it is about teaching the subject itself.

Students can end up spending more time focused on how to get their answer to a level 5 from a level 4, rather than engaging with the ideas that drive the text.

These are ideas that could fire their imaginations, stay with them and even inform their futures, long after that difference between a level 4 and level 5 has become irrelevant.

Changing things for the better will involve making changes within the exams themselves. We can’t necessarily return to the days of coursework. Nor would I want to see us go back to the models of controlled assessment that used to form part of the GCSE. This took up huge amounts of teaching time.

If, however, we required students to attempt at least one traditional literary essay and at least one creative task in the exam, maybe then we could restore that sense of breadth to KS4 that we’ve lost.

Making reading ‘available’

Various groups within the wider English subject community are currently discussing these issues. Robert Eaglestone at Royal Holloway has chaired a working group looking at potential modifications to the curriculum.

The English & Media Centre has a very interesting series of blog posts on its website. These explore how to broaden the range of ways in which students can respond to texts. This way, the assessment process can become more than a narrow exercise centred on the ticking off of objectives.

We need to further discuss the shape that these initiatives and others should take. However, it’s a conversation that we’re starting to have.

In tandem with the latter-day narrowing of teacher flexibility and the texts pupils are given, we’ve also seen an urgent pursuit of ‘reading for pleasure’.

I’d agree that schools need to make reading as ‘available’ as possible. Investment in school libraries continues to be crucial.

I also recognise the efforts of some schools – mine included – to embed reading within tutor periods and have students listen to skilled readers reading out loud.

It’s an approach that’s been especially valuable for children who haven’t necessarily been read to by their parents. It provides an experience that’s both educational and emotional.

Many schools are working hard to instil a love of reading in their students, but without any clear parallels in other subjects.

We want students to do well in other disciplines. However, there somehow isn’t the same imperative to give students a ‘love’ of, say, maths or science. It’s a responsibility that seems quite unique to those teaching English Literature.

Private and personal

That’s partly down to the complexity of reading itself. This can extend into areas of students’ lives and experiences well outside of school.

At the same time, we have to recognise that they’re their own people. There will be texts, works and creations that our students love passionately, which we know nothing about – and which we can’t necessarily assume we have the right to access.

I’ve always struggled with the idea that students should keep a record of their reading to share with their teachers. I hated being asked to do so as a teenager myself. There were books I wanted to read, and didn’t necessarily want my English teachers to know what they were. Those books were for me.

“There were books I wanted to read, and didn’t necessarily want my English teachers to know what they were”

We should always allow our students those areas of their private and personal lives outside of their school experience. This is unless they specifically want to share them with us.

Whatever these books might be, they’ll still inform our students’ ability to read and follow narrative, and to engage with characters and situations beyond their own lives.

They might even be more challenging, in some ways, than the books they actually read in school. It’s just that for whatever reason – and these reasons might be deeply complex – they don’t want to tell us about them.

Reading for purpose

There are parallels here with PE. We want students to exercise outside of school. However, we don’t expect them to log all the physical activity they undertake outside of PE lessons and share it with their teachers.

We also need to think more broadly about ‘reading’ itself. I personally like the idea of replacing ‘reading for pleasure’ with ‘reading for purpose’.

This is about getting students to think critically about the places they’re getting their narrative fixes from. This might be graphic novels, film, television, gaming or any other media they happen to be consuming.

Given the many different ways in which they can now consume narratives, students are often capable of producing a highly sophisticated analysis of a film, television show or video game.

Many will already possess a set of analytical skills they can then apply to different forms of narrative – if they’re given opportunities to do so.

Putting it into practice

If we were to replace a school-based ‘reading for pleasure’ initiative with one centred on ‘reading for purpose’, what might that look like?

  • A ‘reading for purpose’ programme would be best delivered via structured reading in form times. This would be underpinned by the notion that every teacher should be a teacher of reading.
  • Embedded in all subjects would be an encouragement for students to think about the type of reading they’re engaged in – whether they’re seeking information, nuance, or subtext – while being alert to examples of bias.
  • Schools should foster a form of thinking around reading that considers how characters and individuals are represented in texts. This could be literary texts, historical sources, or even the kinds of factual writing students might encounter in subjects like geography.
  • There would be broad thinking around different types of reading. Reading for pleasure and the joy of playing with words can be part of that. But so too can reading for the purpose of engaging with the world, via the multitudes of texts they’ll encounter in school and the media they’ll consume in their personal lives.

Carol Atherton is a head of English at a secondary school in Lincolnshire. She tweets as @CarolAtherton8. Her book, Reading Lessons, is available now (Penguin, £18.99)

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