Teaching to ensure literature’s lasting impression

by Dr John Gordon

21 Jun 2018

Most people have memories of reading round the class. Image credit: Phil Boorman / Getty Images.

 Most people have memories of reading round the class. Image credit: Phil Boorman / Getty Images.

The first strand of my project investigating shared novel reading surveyed adults about their most vivid memories of reading novels together in school. The second strand entailed observation and recordings of teaching, later transcribed and discussed with teachers.

A lasting impact on enjoyment of reading

It is quite rare for education research interested in current teaching practices to consider the long-term impact of those approaches on learners. Where the focus is on reading, however, it is particularly important. What happens in school, and how students experience novels in the classroom, could have a lasting impact on their enjoyment of reading. While many adults enjoy ‘reading for pleasure’, there are many who do not share the habit – and often their experience at school is a cause. In my survey of the public, I was interested to find out what people of all ages could tell us about the value of reading in class. I hoped their insights might help guarantee shared reading as an enjoyable, powerful and enriching experience. They might also inform our approach to   curriculum design around reading, and to examination requirements. 

My daily work involves guiding beginning teachers of English to gain Qualified Teacher Status and, for their students, to help them become inspiring and incisive in their classroom role. This research offers findings and resources that can help beginning teachers to understand the subtle machinery of excellent teaching around literature. Looking at transcripts of classroom discussion affords close attention to language – the object and medium of English teaching – and helps us see precisely how teachers guide and frame students’ encounters with the narratives novels present.

Unique storytelling by teachers to shape student experience and serve educational goals

Looking at the transcripts myself, I have been fascinated by the unique and unusual storytelling work that teachers do themselves, an extra layer beyond the narrative presented in the literary ‘set text’ that students encounter. Teachers make judgements about how much of the story to read, when to pause, when to question. They break off reading to offer asides, repeat quotations and emphasise certain details. Usually this happens during students’ first experience of the novel – it is a special presentation that extends across many lessons and which involves the whole class. It seems teachers create an experience of each novel’s story that is very different from simply reading a novel alone on the bus or sitting at home. Teachers create unique experiences of ‘set texts’ which, at their best, absorb and entertain students while also prompting their careful reflection and analysis of the literary work.

The creative work of teachers in presenting novels therefore has a dual purpose, first to shape student encounters with the novel for its own sake, offering an experience of story, stimulating empathy with characters and vivifying their world. These can be educational in the most holistic and direct way. Additionally, teachers shape encounters with texts to serve very specific educational goals. These might be linked to learning objectives about understanding characterisation, or how an author builds tension across a couple of chapters in a novel. Often, of course, these goals relate to formal assessment, to assignments and examinations. 

Literature teachers play an important part in influencing students to become lifelong readers. Image credit: Hero Images / Getty images.

Literature teachers play an important part in influencing students to become lifelong readers. Image credit: Hero Images / Getty images.

The importance of the nuanced expertise of literature teachers

Survey findings and interviews with current students suggest that where these purposes are not in balance, and especially if the powerful experience of story is diminished at the expense of analysis, their experience of reading novels in school is at best uninspiring and at worst damaging. At a time in education debate when the craft of teaching is downplayed and even denied, when the idea of the knowledge-based curriculum is particularly influential, this research asserts the nuanced expertise and judgement needed to teach literature to make a lasting impression. I’ve called it Pedagogic Literary Narration and believe it’s what the very best teachers of literature do every day to offer their students powerful experiences of story, and to begin their story as lifelong readers.

Dr John Gordon is a Reader in Education in the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia.

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