Friday, 23 December 2011

Learning to read

When asked what the study of English Literature is all about I generally answer that it involves learning to read. This is possibly not the best answer to recruit potential A level students but it is, I believe, completely true. Most people's initial reaction to this statement is that they had learned to read by the time they were five years old, so what am I on about. However reading is in fact a very dynamic and continually developing skill. Reading a text is not a mechanical process like scanning a document into a computer's memory but involves a complex interaction between the reader and the text, involving memory, imagination, analytical skill and empathy. There are texts that I have read dozens of time but would still be happy to read again- not out of nostalgia but because I know that there is more I could get out of reading them and thinking about them.

I find it useful to illustrate the process of reading with a diagram, as follows:
In this case, the reader is me. Note that my reading of this text will not be identical to yours, or to any other reader's. I bring my own imagination, previous experiences, thought processes, prejudices and assumptions to the process and they will be unique to me. Note also that on first coming across the text my reading would have been quite limited, maybe even distorted. The process of studying literature is about developing area C of the diagram- through thinking about the text, rereading the text, considering other people's readings of the text, rereading the text, thinking about it some more, rereading it... You get the picture.

This diagram is useful because it illustrates some of the potential pitfalls facing students of literature. A common error (particularly common when I was at school) is to move C too far towards B and away from A. This is where the reader works at the text but without engaging with it or thinking about it: they do not put anything of themselves into the reading. A student might be able to recount the plot of a novel flawlessly, even quote at length from a poem, but they have not engaged with it. If a child has learned a great poem off by heart and can recite it, but has absolutely no idea what it means, is it in any meaningful way a great poem for them?

At the opposite extreme the reading can move all the way over to A, almost losing its connection with B. This is where a student becomes intensely emotionally involved in an idea of what the text is about, which is based on a partial or superficial reading of it. Involvement in the text is a good thing and activities that encourage this involvement, like getting students to write Lady Macbeth's diary, were an excellent counter to the sort of sterile regurgitation encouraged by the first error. The problem is where this approach encourages students to develop their own version of the text with little or no reference to the original, so that we find in Lady Macbeth's diary that she had been conducting an illicit affair with King Duncan.

Each of these errors does at least involve the reader making some effort to develop a reading of the text. The worst error for me, and one that modern exam-pressured English Literature teaching seems very prone to, is where that process disappears altogether and the "reader" simply adopts wholesale a reading of the text from their teacher, a commercial study guide, Wikipedia or some impressive sounding but fundamentally vapid essay downloaded form the internet.

All of the above will of course present a reading of the text, and one would hope that all are informed by thought and by good knowledge of the text. They are all potentially of great value to the student if, and only if, they use them to develop their own reading further. If they listen to what the teacher has to say, read the resource, think about it and crucially go back to the text to test out their changed reading then all well and good. If on the other hand they simply adopt this other reading (let's make it a new balloon called "D" in the diagram) then we have a disaster. There is no connection between the reader A and the new reading D, and if there was a strong connection between the text B and the new reading D then the reader knows nothing of it.

Yet this is precisely what generations of students are being encouraged to do. When studying poetry they are given the impression that the most important aspect of the poem is the annotations the teacher has put up on the board for them to copy down. If a student misses a lesson then so long as they have copied down the annotations they'll be fine. When it comes to revision, many students spend more time revising the explanatory notes about a poem than rereading it for themselves. How through these activities are they developing their own reading of the texts they study?

Of course I understand that students need help and guidance to develop their reading of difficult texts. There is nothing wrong with teachers annotating texts with a class and obviously they want and need to give students input into shades of meaning they might miss, or literary techniques they might not be aware of. However central to the whole process should be the students' development of their own reading of the texts.

Fortunately there is one simple way that this can be improved: students need to spend more time actually reading the texts for themselves. Whenever it comes to revision time and students (or more likely their parents) ask me what is the best thing they can do to revise for a literature exam I always ask them how often they have actually read the text. If the answer is less than three (and it so often is) then I tell them that their first priority should be to read the text again. And then possibly another time. If I, as an English graduate and a teacher for over twenty years, do not believe I can develop a full reading of any complex text in less than three readings, then why should they?


  1. I can relate to this one.

    Perhaps the teacher who can communicate their love of the text itself is what is ideally needed. I still remember in 6th year studying the metaphysical poets with a new (to me) teacher and being utterly bowled over and sucked in by her passion for the works. No chore then to read and re-read...

  2. Love of the text on the part of the teacher is potentially hugely beneficial but can be dangerous too. If the effect of it is to send the students back to the text with renewed enthusiasm then it is the greatest gift a teacher can give. If on the other hand it serves to intimidate the students and lead them to dismiss their tentative initial readings as worthless in the face of the teacher's superior appreciation of the brilliance of the text, then beware.