Monday, 24 July 2006

What is taught, or not taught

Most of what follows here is based on a press release sent out last Friday. It gives an outline of my opinions on how classic literature is taught (or not taught) in English schools.

Because I am posting it, it seems inappropriate that it should be in the third person, so I have tweaked it a little.

Thanks for the emails so far received, incidentally (by way of which are all more or less in tune, which is heartening and disappointing at the same time, because I was hoping to engage in a little back-and-forth.

For the benefit of a couple of American correspondents, I must state that I know precious little about the curriculum in the high schools there, so I’ll leave it up to the locals to find similarities and differences and to pass judgement.

Please note the sentence - This is often in spite of the best efforts of teachers. I happen to know some excellent ones, who find ways round officially prescribed practices and who plant seeds.

I am aware that in the last couple of years, a number of well-informed teachers and advisers have deplored the lack of real “opportunities for extended reading” in the curriculum, so there are moves to correct imbalances, but this usually involves currently-practising authors like David Almond, whose brilliant novel Clay features strongly in the Carnegie Shadowing Project .

This is a nationwide reading challenge where students read five books that have been on the shortlist for the Carnegie medal. The official website is at

So, I think that:

Young people are given insufficient time in the classroom for in-depth study of texts. This is often in spite of the best efforts of teachers.

Many more people are drawn towards the Brontës by forces outside schools, for example by new adaptations of novels like Jane Eyre by the BBC.

A series of Government initiatives in schools - with the admirable objective of improving standards of literacy - has led to a situation in which love of reading and literature generally is being rather neglected in favour of a rigid 'framework' approach.

For at least the last decade the definition of English as a subject has been increasingly prescribed. The emphasis on capital L Literacy is becoming a significant encroachment on English as a creative and humanistic domain, because it does not appear to give more than a token acknowledgement for the value of literature.

I believe in the sharing of 'real' texts, whether described as classic or popular. This enables personal growth and the study of literature to come together. This sharing - through reading, creative writing and improvised drama - was the feature of the Brontë children's early educational experiences which led to the great works which followed later.

The forces which drove them in a nineteenth century parsonage are universal, and can be harnessed in many other environments including that of a twenty-first century classroom.

Currently-prescribed practices in the official literacy strategy require pupils to focus on fragments of text, seldom on whole texts which might elicit a 'whole' response. This discourages the formation of a profound personal relationship with a work of literature.

The best teaching is based on the stimulation of the imagination, of course, and teachers can get plenty of advice on that from the Parsonage, which is rapidly developing into a regional centre for the Arts.

Richard Wilcocks
Chairman of Council

1 comment:

Brontëana said...

Firstly, I would like to congratulate you on your election. I have been meaning to send an email to you. (Diane Benn sent me the press release and I devoted a post to it on Bronteana). Also I have not had the time to follow up on the Canadian Bronte Society contact you sent to me. I'm in the throes of preparing for grad school at the moment.

This will also be 'in tune' I'm afraid. Although I do not understand what you mean by the 'official literary strategy' focusing on fragments. Could you clarify this?

I think your approach is an interesting one. And I feel that it has a lot of potential. I have very little praise for my own Canadian education, which also seemed limited to bare literacy for the most part. In Ontario we used to have an extra year which was optional. In that year we had two English classes: one for literature and one for creative writing. I think by combining the two along the lines you suggest would bring about some interesting results!

This school also is peculiar because it doubles as an arts academy (drama, dance, visual arts, and music). Drama was regularly introduced into French lessons with improv assignments and scenes written by the students. I don't remember the other arts being applied in the same way to English classes... Unless you count poetry readings under 'drama.'