Today's pupils don't 'get' half the allusions in the literature they are taught. What should we do?

This correspondent asked if other teachers found the same and, if so, whether texts should be dumbed down to reflect the world that pupils understand.

The answer to the first question is: yes, definitely. All teachers are finding that pupils have narrowing frames of reference. Hilary Moriarty, head of Bedgebury School, an independent boarding school in Kent, says that in her English classes she has had to explain ventriloquist's dummies and football pools, and that this year's A-level pupils were taxed by having to comment on a Stephen Spender poem about an aerodrome. They didn't know the word, and its romantic associations meant nothing them. "They could work out what it was because of all the aeroplanes flying around, but it isn't exactly Go or easyJet, is it?"

But the answer cannot be to dumb down. Education is about expanding horizons, and an English syllabus based around the knowledge held by teenagers would be a pitiful thing. In fact, since our system favours a tick-box approach to literature, and since pupils and teachers alike are judged on exam results, the only possible course for a diligent teacher is to assume that pupils know nothing, and to painstakingly explain every allusion in their set texts that comes along.

But let no one think this is good English teaching. "It's grind, not pleasure," says Moriarty. "We need to open the doors and let them breathe. But the answer doesn't lie with us. We only do what the exam boards tell us. If they say teach these six poems, then we will teach them until they think these are the only six poems in the world!"

Readers' advice

Schoolchildren always were ignorant. Teachers are the source of knowledge about the outside world. I remember an English teacher telling us about what keening meant, a history teacher telling us about dating the beautiful and marrying the rich, a chemistry teacher on the dangers of carrying trays of food at sea and a physics teacher on the joys of Scotch.

Cole Davis London NW2

Your job as a teacher is to provide access to knowledge, directly and indirectly. Make your classroom a haven of knowledge: decorate your walls with quotes from literature or important references as well as a world map and a list of important figureheads. Allow your students to move away from the lesson plan briefly with open debates about topical subjects and leave newspapers lying around.

Natalie Jordan, Essex

I've seen pupils suffer through Jacobean plays and expire from boredom as they flog through 19th-century novels. These are children who have been reared on a sound-bite culture of advertising breaks and music videos. Reading any book is torture to them, and this goes for all abilities. Although these classics obviously have relevance to their lives, they find reading them so painful they aren't willing to be patient enough to see it. There is an urgent need for examining bodies to set more up-to-the-minute literature, which really draws children in.

Max Longmore, Derbyshire

Next quandary

Getting my 13-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter to school on time is becoming more and more of a nightmare. Every day this school year has started with me shouting at them. If things stay the same next September, I feel I'll go mad. What can I do?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 11 July, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to h.wilce@btinternet.com. Please include your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack

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