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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Sport
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
News
Image from a flyer at the CPAC event where Nigel Farage will be speaking
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

WORLDbytes: Two-Day Intensive Camera training and Shoot: Saturday 7th & Sunday 8th March

expenses on shoots: WORLDbytes: Volunteering with a media based charity,for a ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 4 Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A school in Tameside is currently l...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teaching Assistant

£50 - £70 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind are currently looking for ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower