Katy Guest: Literacy is not reading. It's a form of mining

Related Topics

I recently had the opportunity, while dodging poshies at the Oxford/Cambridge boat race, to talk to a friend who studied science while I was an English student at university. He was one of those who delighted in telling me when we were both 21: "You'll never get a job reading books, you know." I now have a job reading books. My unfortunate friend is still working for a living.

Conversations like that remind me how lucky I am. But I wouldn't have been lucky had it not been for two deeply inspirational English teachers. This is why I want to weep when I read the comments of Dr Mary Bousted, a former English teacher, at last week's annual conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "My subject is no more," she said. "It has been replaced by a newcomer: literacy.

"What is the difference between English and literacy? Quite a lot, as it happens. Because literacy, as a subject, is based on the naming of parts. Children rarely read whole books; they read parts of books."

Gordon Brown has been called the most literate prime minister since Winston Churchill. The Bookstart programme, which he has championed since he was Chancellor, has been credited with helping millions of children to love books. When he appeared at last year's London Book Fair, he talked (with a charm and infectious enthusiasm that he has never managed to bring to his passion for post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory) about the books that inspired him in his childhood. So he should be ashamed that teachers now blame his government for the end of reading as fun.

According to Dr Bousted, what happens in schools now is a long way from inspiring a love of books. "Extracts are mined for adjectives, and adverbs, and active verbs, and nouns," she reported. "Where has the concept of pleasure gone?"

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families responded that Shakespeare is "prescribed" by the National Curriculum and that literature "from different cultures ... should be studied at Key Stages 2, 3 and 4". Perhaps the spokesman grew up in Blair's Britain, because those are not the words of someone who ever thought reading should be pleasurable.

It is easier for an English teacher to be inspirational than it is for many teachers in schools. There is a reason Robin Williams did not make a film called Dead Mathematicians Society. And the English teachers at my comprehensive were movie-perfect examples. They read me Hardy poems until I cried. They talked to me like grown-ups about literature. They helped me to apply for Cambridge when the headteacher said that I would never get in because I was "deviant". (I got in because I was deviant – duh.) They changed my life.

Mining extracts for adjectives and nouns can be fun too, of course. But only for a person who already loves language and literature. I hope that there are still people in schools like Robin Williams, my English teachers and Dr Bousted. Because not everyone can end up reading books for a living, unfortunately; but everyone should be given the opportunity to love books for life.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'