As someone who has taught literature at many levels for many years, and for whom literature is almost the breath of life, using the word ‘peril’ in connection with it seems odd even to me as I write this. Literature as peril?

The problem is one that has always been there but has grown dramatically in recent years. As a teenager, I was not engaged with classic books. I suffered from poor teaching. Dry texts, like Silas Marner, were no less dry after lessons; even Romeo and Juliet failed to engage me, the language was a distinct barrier, the film version uninspiring. As for The Canterbury Tales, the less said the better. It was only really poetry that made some impression on me back then, perhaps because some of the texts, such as John Betjeman’s musings on provincial England, were things I had experienced and could recognise. English Literature was my lowest grade at GCSE, but I was a bright, imaginative teenager. Something had clearly gone wrong.

It has continued to go wrong for others too. Teaching in schools, I have seen the boredom and despair brought on by A Christmas Carol, the battling with meaning in Macbeth, the bemusement in the face of an extract from Wordsworth’s The Prelude in the GCSE poetry anthology. Wordsworth, for me, is a near god, but hardly an individual whose perspective I would expect the average teenager to respond to or understand.

The problem comes from the enormous range in ability we currently encounter in teenagers in our schools. Working as a private tutor, I have seen young people respond critically to literature in a way that exceeds the work of some learners at university level; on the other hand, I have seen many in colleges for whom reading even one page of a book is like navigating a very tough piece of gym equipment for the first time: it seems too hard and insurmountable. I imagine they would see the benefit of persevering with the latter, but the former seems too often pointless and painful.

What should we do? One of the issues is the current 9-1 grading approach to English, where every learner studies the same material. This is good for students of higher ability but means that those of lower ability are more likely to feel demotivated. The recurrent complaints that GCSEs are too easy are, I think, unfounded: looking carefully at examination reports and marking criteria shows that expectations are high and performance high, at the upper levels. Many young people are certainly capable of thinking in a very sophisticated way.

But how do we engage the lower-ability learners? This article is not an attempt to offer solutions, for there are no easy ones. Of course, reading is good; of course, it should be encouraged. But perhaps it is time for more engagement with visual and other forms of narrative that reflect our age. I once taught a university course called Beyond Books, where students reflected critically on narrative, character and setting, among more complex things, in films and games. Could teenagers study and review stories through different media as a way into written narrative? It might expand their imaginations and allow them to develop critical skills in just the same way as studying literature.

The problem is also the choice of texts on the curriculum. No one wants to reject classics, or feel like they are dumbing down education, but surely a learner writing confidently about a thriller, war story, children’s or graphic novel will then be more likely to progress to something more traditional. They are less likely to see books as a mental assault course. There could be a way of offering texts like these for low-ability learners, retaining the classics for the higher levels.

Things are already changing. It has been reported that English Literature will no longer be compulsory at GCSE level in the near future, though extracts from classic texts will be included in English Language papers, as they are at present. Despite what I have written here, I do have mixed feelings about this; it as if we are pushing people to climb mountains, then saying exercise doesn’t matter. Instead, let’s not give up on books. Let’s be flexible and open, taking a greater interest in how young people see the very difficult world many of them live in. Let’s engage with them and give them something engaging to think about it. It isn’t lowering standards, just working around the problems.

And in the meantime, those who are flying high may even do so accompanied by Chaucer and Silas Marner.


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