Teaching literature for examinations…

June 8, 2014

Being mainly a post for UK readers, provoked by recent controversy over the literature content of GCSE specifications, and the desire of the Gove(rnment) to exclude some well-known and loved American literature texts from being taught…

It strikes me there are a number of issues. Firstly, logistical and practical: as an ex-Head of English I know there are stock cupboards up and down the land which will contain hundreds of copies of To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. These will now be redundant; major new and expensive purchases will be required in short order; money that might have been otherwise spent on broadening the choice of reading books throughout the school will now go to narrowing it. There will be little time to draw up and resource new teaching plans and work schemes, but hey, teachers are only working about sixty hours per week so there’s plenty of time for them to catch up.

Secondly, and far more seriously, there are paedagogical issues. The reasons the two texts mentioned above have been so popular are several: OMAM is brief and relatively straightforward to teach; in my experience it did not stretch the most able students enough, but it was accessible to the less able, and enabled them to engage with literature.

TKAM is a very well-loved novel, and rightly so. It’s complex enough to demand lots from the whole range of ability; it raised a wealth of relevant issues for teenagers to relate to, and it allows some serious analysis of how literature is created and how it works.

I always felt a teacher must teach texts s/he loved, in order, first of all to convey some of that love of literature to students: the next generation of readers. Obviously, when one is teaching for an examination, the love of literature cannot be the be all and the end all: students need the skills of literary analysis, to understand how language is used to create all kinds of effects, and how plot, narrative and character are sustained and developed.

I shuddered when I read the lists of texts that were being prescribed (and yes, whatever weasel words education secretaries and exam boards use, they are prescribing). Some are incredibly dry, some too long, some of no real connection to the world of a teenage student. Authors such as Hardy, Dickens and Austen are lengthy, use old-fashioned and more complex language codes and styles; they clearly have their place at higher levels or in life after study, but not in a classroom full of 14-16 year-olds. Does the Gove(rnment) actually want to kill off the study of literature in our schools? I think we should be told.

Finally, there are some broader issues. When I first began teaching, there was 100% coursework; no exam, but a required portfolio of essays covering a range of different aspects of literature. Literature is literature, so the skills being taught and assessed were the same, as were the standards. The problem was abuse of the system by a small number of teachers and students; instead of addressing, policing and correcting these abuses, the system was done away with. The students I taught in those long-gone days read, studied and wrote about a far wider range of literature than today’s students, hemmed in by exam specifications, are able to do.

I think the Education Secretary is not fit for purpose; nor are the exam boards and their new specifications. I despair for the current cohort of students and teachers; I’m glad I am retired, for I would not have the heart to inflict this sort of thing on my students or my teaching colleagues.

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