The slog of reading

Are we in danger of putting A-level students off literature for ever?

When my daughter finished A-levels in English, French and German she took a place at Manchester University to study French and found herself badly under-prepared for a course almost entirely based on literature.

She had studied no worthwhile literature in German or French. Her English course had covered Shakespeare, Chaucer's Prologue, The Handmaid's Tale, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Martin Amis's essays on America, the poetry of Tony Harrison and Simon Armitage, and two short stories.

I could not find fault with any of the texts individually but I wonder at the lack of balance which excludes any 17th- or 18th-century authors. Also, because of the coursework requirements of that particular syllabus, it seemed to me that much of what she covered was lacking depth.

I am head of English in a city comprehensive and for 10 years I have had the daunting but stimulating privilege of choosing texts for study at GCSE level, first when we had 100 per cent coursework, and recently because the syllabus we chose allows free choice of texts to be used in the exam room in response to generic questions. Coursework of 100 per cent has already gone and the new syllabuses come into force in 1998. The criticisms of these two options were twofold.

First, some teachers would take the easy option and study undemanding texts. This did happen, as my experience as a moderator for English literature showed me, but only occasionally, and it was nothing compared with the quality of most candidates' work.

Secondly, assessment procedures were not as rigorous as those for traditional examinations. This is nonsense, as any examiner will tell you.

But even to discuss English literature in these terms is to let the tail wag the dog. What is the real value of studying and reading literature? (I omit the limitation "English" deliberately.) Examinations have important, even essential functions - to parents, pupils, employers, government and schools - but of all subjects, surely literature should not merely to be studied in order to obtain a qualification?

Reading great literature should stimulate the desire to read more, to explore the human condition and learn from other people's experience, and to be entertained. Unfortunately, the slow, grinding, line-by-line approach that too many students suffer because of the nature of the examination turns so many of us into TV watchers by default. The texts we read at school should be - and should be shown to be - interesting and relevant. Issues of prejudice, gender, values of society, love, hate, violence and friendship are there in great literature; that's what makes them great! There must be flexibility so that the tastes, age and background of teacher and pupils can be allowed into the equation.

It is too tempting to know best, like parents who force-feed greens to their reluctant children. Patience pays off. When Pride and Prejudice was on the O-level syllabus I was delighted. After a term of study with bright, interested pupils I had turned them into surly and resentful automatons. I was sure the new television version - with Elizabeth Garvey and David Rentoul - would do the trick. We started watching it and after half an hour one of the girls said, "It's a comedy!" Now I read Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm, study them all, and let the students choose which to prepare for the examination.

A literature course should introduce students into their culture without too narrow a definition of that concept. Our course includes Chaucer, Shakespeare (two plays), Austen, the Romantics, the Brontes/ Hardy/George Eliot/Dickens, Browning/ Tennyson, War poetry, Lawrence, Shaw, Orwell, Golding and lots of modern writers. It also has American, Commonwealth and translated literature; who would want young people to be ignorant of Pushkin, Chekhov, Maupassant and Merimee? Biography and non-fiction, plus science fiction, are represented.

The danger is the lack of depth. By setting classes for GCSE we think we can prepare potential A-level candidates for further study, and we have often been praised for doing just that. But literature is for everyone. Only 5 per cent of our pupils study A-level literature and only 5 per cent of them, at most, go on to study literature at university. For the vast majority, then, literature should be a delight, not a slog

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Senior Research Fellow in Water and Resilient communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: Our team of leading academic...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£60 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Special Needs Teaching Assistants...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker