English literature courses have become exercises in box-ticking that leave no room to appreciate the “real meat” of a text, says former English teacher Susan Elkin
English literature is about reading. And thinking. Then you reflect, discuss, re-read and perhaps consider some views about the text from elsewhere. You can’t do it by numbers and there’s no formula. Jane Austen, JB Priestley, Shakespeare and Wilfred Owen all died in happy ignorance of assessment objectives.
Once upon a time, English literature examiners and schools preparing candidates for exams understood all this. Questions were quite open-ended, with scope for intelligent, well-informed responses even at GCSE level. We showed our candidates that there was no single “correct” answer and encouraged them to read the text thoroughly and thoughtfully – as well as seeing it as part of a lifelong reading journey of exploration which should and would lead to other reading, both directly related and tangential. I used to spend at least one lesson a week discussing wider reading with as much enthusiasm and passion as I could muster. A good teacher is a fearless and open-minded advocate for his or her subject.
Today, the subject seems to be focused entirely on a distracting box-ticking exercise: “Have I mentioned context? Oh good, that’s AO3 done”. Candidates are trained to think like literary circus lions listlessly hopping though utterly pointless hoops. We used to despair if a student said “Do we need this for the exam?” Now it’s common for a GCSE or A-level course to begin by issuing the students with a list of the assessment objectives relating to the written examination two years later. “Teaching to the test” is a polite expression for such hideously reductive teaching.
Examination boards often publish study guides to support this formulaic cramming. Commercial publishers are at it too – producing little books focused on which exam board assesses which objective and offering specimen essays with faux examiner’s comments. The relentless emphasis on ticking every miserable little box distracts from engaging with the real meat of Lord of the Flies or A Christmas Carol. I have actually written five of these study guides myself, having accepted the contracts before I realised just how shamefully anti-educational it all is. There will not be a sixth.
The main purpose of an English literature course should be the development of thoughtful readers. Death by assessment objective is not part of the deal. English teachers should be sharing love of novels, plays and poetry and introducing new ideas regularly alongside the in-depth studying of set texts. You know you’re succeeding when a student arrives at the lesson clutching a copy of something that isn’t on the examination specification, but which you discussed in class last week.
Of course we all want students to pass their exams. For the record, mine always did, usually with high grades. But examinations – especially in a marvellously eclectic, mind-expanding subject like English literature – are definitely not the totality of education. They should be simply the punctuation mark at the end of two years’ study and learning, not the driving force of every lesson.
Susan Elkin taught English for 36 years before becoming a journalist and author.