This university semester one of us (Jess Mason – @DrofletJess) has been running a third year undergraduate module at the University of Sheffield called Language and Literature in the Classroom: you can see live tweets from the lectures at @EGH324. The module is a research-driven exploration of current issues and debates in English education. For their first assignments, students wrote research essays about a topic of their choosing related to English education. The students were able to include critical personal reflections of their own experiences of studying English, both at school and university. Over the next few weeks, with the students’ consent, we’d like to share some of these essays with you on this blog. We think that the research-driven, thoughtful and honest reflections of these students, many of whom will embark of teacher-training themselves next year, offer an insight into the views and experiences of our current students, and future teachers, too valuable not to share.
Here is the first: a fantastic reflection on studying fiction, by final year Language and Literature student, Kathryn Jamshidi (@KathrynJamshidi)
‘You’re an English student who doesn’t read?’: An exploration of how assessment-driven literary study does not require students to read in order to succeed.
Success in literature studies and a love of reading are widely accepted as synonymous. However the assessment objectives that currently drive many GCSE and A-Level literature courses do not require students to actually read the set texts, in order to succeed. I carried the subject to degree level whilst also carrying a secret; I had no interest in reading. This experience left me questioning the purpose of literary study if it was not to enjoy reading. Through a discussion of current research, I will examine the way in which the assessment-driven nature of literary study can discourage reading for pleasure whilst still enabling students to succeed.
Whilst growing up, I devoured a whole host of young adult fiction (YAF) without a second thought as to whether my reading experiences were valid. Upon starting my English GCSE I was predicted an A* and encouraged to pursue the subject to A-Level; but if I was to achieve this success, there was the daunting demand for me to start reading ‘proper’ fiction. Although I was never explicitly informed of what constitutes ‘proper’ fiction, it was safe to assume that J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter was no longer an option. As a class, we studied the likes of William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller and Mary Shelley. Gone were the warm and familiar confines of Rowling’s Wizarding World, replaced by uninviting tales of centuries past. Reading for pleasure had been replaced by the pressure to read in order to keep up appearances. As a high-achieving English student, I should enjoy Shelley and Nabokov; but if this was how reading had to be, then I was not a reader. This feeling only intensified the further I got in my education. It is one thing to sit amongst a group of fellow sixteen year-olds, the majority of whom are also baffled by Shakespeare’s prose. It is something else to sit in a university seminar and discover that many of your peers have read, and enjoyed, the entire reading list whilst your copies of the set texts remain untouched. Ultimately, I was a fraud; an English student who did not read. The texts that I was supposed to read did not appeal to me, and the ones that I wanted to read seemed invalid. This leaves me questioning the assessment regime: if it is possible to pursue English to degree level without reading the texts on which assessments are based, what is the real purpose of literary study?
‘Doing’ a book
A description of the study of literature, which addresses this question, can be found in an observation made by a student teacher. When asked during her PGCE programme to discuss the status of literature in education, she answered:
‘sometimes you get the impression from the teachers that ‘‘we’ve got to do this book’’. It’s not that ‘‘we are going to read this book’’ it’s ‘‘we are going to do this book’’ […] ‘‘learn it for the exam and then we will never touch it again’’’
(Goodwyn 2012: 222).
These thoughts were echoed by experienced teachers; frustrated by the way meeting assessment goals has dominated the study of literature, they felt there was no opportunity to study texts in real depth. There was a strong consensus amongst these teachers that an analytical response to a text is valued more highly than a personal one by the assessment criteria (Goodwyn 2012). The concept of ‘doing’ or ‘learning’ a book is a very honest account of literature studies. Students are often told of key themes, plot points and character traits before having laid eyes on the book; they are then directed towards certain passages and encouraged to find particular meanings in them. This has been defined as manufactured reading, where students are not offered the opportunity to experience and interpret the text for themselves as they would do in an authentic reading experience (Giovanelli and Mason 2015: 42).
What are we assessing?
When there is a heavy focus on assessment in the classroom, such manufactured readings likely occur because assessment objectives give little weight to personal response. They instead highlight the importance of perception and assuredness; students responding with conviction and showing depth of understanding (AQA 2015). Therefore it is possible for students to satisfy the top end of the marking criteria by simply relaying their teacher’s understanding of the text in an assured tone. Goodwyn’s (2012) findings demonstrate the pertinence of this issue, as teachers both new and experienced believe that pressure to meet assessment objectives depletes the opportunity for thorough engagement with texts. Moreover recent findings show that, out of the 703 children studied, only 17% of 15 to 17 year-olds were frequent readers. When compared to the 54% of 6 to 8 year-olds that read for fun 5 to 7 days a week, a clear decline in reading can be seen with age (Scholastic 2015). It is easy to see why this decline might occur when manufactured readings teach students to ‘do’, and the concept of reading thus becomes alienated.
Students’ frustration at these manufactured readings, and the subsequent lack of enjoyment they get from the set texts, is evident in a set of interviews with A-Level students. One student stated that thinking about the hidden meanings of a book can kill it, whilst another noted that parts of the book did not always mean, to her, what she was told they meant (Nightingale 2011). These students, who have chosen to study literature, are left feeling dissatisfied as they perceive that they cannot fulfil their desire to respond personally to texts. Moreover they cannot fully enjoy their reading experience when there is the imposition of a need to find a ‘hidden meaning’. These sentiments reflect those of the teachers who proposed that the assessment criterion prioritises analytical responses over personal ones (Goodwyn 2012). An ethnographic study of 10 year-olds established that students fulfilled the reading comprehension criteria, specified by the National Curriculum, whilst discussing an episode of Eastenders (Maybin 2013). These findings demonstrate that children naturally perform competent analysis when they engage with content for pleasure. It can therefore be assumed that 16 year-olds, who have been deemed old enough to choose which subjects they study, can also perform appropriate analysis and decide what their response to a text is instead of accepting the one provided by the teacher.
It is evident that the assessment criterion does not require students to enjoy reading, as manufactured reading experiences dominate the classroom. However the importance of reading for pleasure has been widely documented. More time spent reading has a positive effect on academic achievement across subjects and specifically on reading achievement, which encompasses students’ ability to evaluate and analyse texts (Sullivan and Brown 2013; Taylor, Frye and Maruyama 1990).
It has also been recognized that emotional receptions and cognitive operations such as identifying with a protagonist or daydreaming about a plot are ways of coping with daily life or distancing oneself from negative life experiences
(Charlton, Pette and Burbaum 2004).
Reading for pleasure is therefore beneficial to both academic and personal life. Crucially these studies do not note the benefits of one type of fiction over another; hence reading any fiction is beneficial. Literary study primarily focuses on only the set texts, which are usually considered classics. Limiting the literature that is offered in classrooms to these canonical texts can lead students to infer that other types of literature, such as YAF, do not hold value. This is potentially another contributing factor to the decline in reading for pleasure seen in 15 to 17 year-olds. When combined with the manufactured readings taking place in the classroom, this can leave students with few pleasurable, authentic reading experiences despite the importance of these experiences for increasing reading achievement.
The importance of enjoyment
With a wealth of research demonstrating the importance of reading for pleasure, and that students’ ability to provide personal and critical responses increases when they do so, it is evident that more pleasurable reading experiences need to be injected in to the classroom. In order for students to escape manufactured readings, they need to be given an element of choice:
79% of 15 to 17 year-olds said that their favourite books were those which they have chosen to read themselves
Therefore if students were able to choose which texts they discussed in their assessments, their reading experiences of those texts would be more pleasurable. For example if the set text is Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (1960), students could be given the choice of other texts such as Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses (2001). Both present themes of racial prejudice, social injustice and bravery; the difference is that To Kill A Mockingbird is considered an ‘important’ text whilst Noughts & Crosses falls under the category of YAF. Placing emphasis on such ‘important’ texts in the classroom appeals to the ‘cultural heritage’ view of English education, which states that the texts which are regarded as the finest in the language are the ones that schools have a responsibility to share with students (DES 1989: 60). Giving students a choice of both classics and more contemporary pieces would impress upon them that all genres have value and encourage them to read any fiction that appeals to them for pleasure, thus increasing their time spent reading. Moreover some students might find the themes and issues tackled in classic literature more accessible in contemporary texts. Stover (2001: 119-120) notes that YAF conveys issues and themes representative of the society in which it was written and can assist readers in understanding how to deal with such issues. Thus if given the option to be assessed on something other than the set text, some students might better understand the themes presented and in turn provide original responses rather than relaying their teacher’s response.
What then, is the purpose of literary study?
As it stands, it is possible to succeed in the subject without reading for pleasure or engaging with set texts. With students largely producing the same interpretations of the same texts every year, it could be viewed as little more than a vehicle to attain a qualification whilst reaffirming the belief that certain texts are more valid than others in the process. This is a problem that is grounded in much research; reading for pleasure declines greatly once children reach GCSE age, in line with increased exposure to manufactured readings and the inference that the set texts hold more value than others. However it has also been proven that children can produce suitable analysis of texts when they are engaging with them for pleasure, and their skills to do so develop as their time spent reading increases. Moreover reading for pleasure has been linked to academic achievement across subjects, and has been identified as a strategy for coping with life experiences. Therefore the purpose of literary study should be to encourage students to read for both their cognitive and personal development; so that they can better understand the world, culture and society which they live in. In order for literary study to achieve this, the focus needs to shift from meeting assessment objectives. Encouraging reading, and discussions about what has been read, should be the primary focus. This can be achieved through simply giving students an element of choice. Offering students only a handful of classics, which are presented through manufactured readings, distorts the concepts of literature and reading. If students were offered books from a range of genres and periods alongside the set text, they could engage in authentic reading experiences outside the classroom. Lessons could then delve in to common themes, looking at how different authors have presented them and how this relates to the novels’ wider contexts and students’ own lives.
The re-awakened reader
Now in the final year of my degree, I have started to read for pleasure again. Across the modules I have studied, I have engaged in countless discussions about texts from various genres and periods; I have also studied a range of texts, including YAF, during formal assessments. Exposure to such an array of texts, at a high level of education, helped to rid my previous assumption that canonical literature was the only sort of literature that held any real value. The focus of these modules was never to ‘do’ one book for the purpose of one assessment. Instead I often had the opportunity to be assessed on books with which I had previously had an authentic reading experience, thus allowing me to revisit them through a critical and analytical lens. Contact hours were therefore free to be spent developing analytical skills and comparing reading experiences. This study of literature is notably different to the study of literature at GCSE and A Level, and presents a framework which could be used to ease the frustration of students and teachers who feel that the imposition of the assessment regime impacts on their reading experiences. Whilst assessment objectives which focus on assured analytical responses dominate the classroom, time spent reading is diminishing. This allows students to achieve highly regardless of whether or not they have read the set texts. Reading has been proven to be important for many aspects of life; where manufactured readings distance students from the concept of reading, they lose out on all the benefits of reading for pleasure. By opening up the study of literature to a greater variety of texts, students could maintain pleasure in reading which itself is a catalyst for achievement. Encouraging reading for both cognitive and personal development would then be both the focus and purpose of literary study.
AQA (2015) AS and A-Level English Literature A: Assessment Resources http://www.aqa.org.uk/subjects/english/as-and-a-level/english-literature-a-7711-7712/assessment-resources [accessed 2nd November 2016]
Charlton, M., C. Pette and C. Burbaum (2004) ‘Reading strategies in everyday life: Different ways of reading a novel which make a distinction’, Poetics Today, 25: 241-263
DES (1989) English for Ages 5 to 16 (The Cox Report) London: HMSO http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/cox1989/cox89.html [accessed 5th November 2016]
Giovanelli, M. and Mason, J. (2015) ‘’Well I don’t feel that’: Schemas, worlds and authentic reading in the classroom’, English in Education, 49(1): 41-55
Goodwyn, A. (2012) ‘The Status of Literature: English teaching and the condition of literature teaching in schools’, English in Education, 46: 212-227
Maybin, J. (2013) ‘What counts as reading? PIRLS, Eastenders and The Man on the Flying Trapeze’, Literacy, 47: 59-66
Nightingale, P. (2011) ‘Now you see me, now you don’t: From reader to student and back again in A-Level English Literature’, English in Education, 45: 146-160
Scholastic (2015) Kids & Family Reading Report London: Scholastic https://www.scholastic.co.uk/readingreport [accessed 4th November 2015]
Stover, L. T. (2001) ‘The place of young adult literature in secondary reading programs’ In: Ericson, B. (eds.) Teaching Reading in High School English Classes Illinois: NCTE pp. 115-138
Sullivan, A. and M. Brown (2013) ‘Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading’, CLS Working Paper 2013/10, London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies
Taylor, B. M., B. J. Frye and G. M. Maruyama (1990) ‘Time spent reading and reading growth’, American Educational Research Journal, 27: 351-362