What is ‘reading’? Why do we read? How do we read?

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I’ve always been fascinated by the process of reading and interpetation.   Why do we choose certain ‘texts’, be these printed, on screen, verbal, visual or in some other mode?     How do we make sense of the words on the page, the pixels on the screen, the signifiers of the environment?   After teaching in a large rural school for a number of years, I embarked on a study of the reading and media practices of the students in my tutor group (home class) as they moved from early secondary to later secondary years and took their GCSE (age 16) examinations.   I was interested in their everyday practices rarher than merely in what they read in and for school.   The work, Grounded Literacy, took me nine years and I learned a lot from doing it: not only about the youngsters I had taught, but also, of course, about reader response theory, object relations theory and reception theory within cultural and media studies, a combination of approaches which formed the epistemological basis of my work.

 

I’m thinking about these issues again, partly because Reader Response and English Education is the theme of the 2018 special issue of English in Education, to be edited by Marcello Giovanelli and Jessica Mason.  I was also struck by a recent blog post by kirstwrites, Three books which got me thinking.   She writes:

I don’t read as much as I should (unless scrolling through Twitter counts?) so it has been a real pleasure to spend the last week staying in a house with a well stocked bookcase and a wood burning stove. After days spent on family walks kicking through autumn leaves, settling down for an evening’s reading in front of the fire has been pure bliss.

I’ve managed to polish off three books in the space of a week (what? I’m an English graduate, reading fast is my only skill) and I want to try and write some kind of review of them. On the surface, they are all totally disconnected. But by the time I’d read all three I was sensing a thread of connection between them all, and it’s this connection that I want to tease out.

She goes on to explain how she found connected meaning in three apparently unrelated books: David Temple’s Above and Below the Limestone: the pits and people of Easington District, an account of how the coal mining industry developed and declined over two centuries in County Durham; Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; and Bruce Springsteen’s newly released autobiography Born to Run.  As I commented, I’m sure that Bradbury would have approved the way her post demonstrates the power of “ordinary” books to help us think.

The Politics of English …

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… is the correct title for the current (Spring 2016) special issue of English in Education.   In producing the print edition, the publishers accidentally transposed the title Assessment and Learning from the proposed 2017 special issue.   The online version has the correct title, and print subscribers will receive a postal note from the publishers.

So how does the special issue view the current politics of English?  In his editorial, Ken Jones writes:

The articles in this special issue register the effects of … the ways in which English, through a thirty-year process of cumulative change, has come to be regulated and redefined. They examine some of the intellectual justifications put forward by advocates of change. They track its effects on teachers’ sense of the possibilities of English. Without hyperbole, they consider alternatives.

Simon Gibbons’ article focuses on the ways in which teachers have internalised the requirements of policy in their own sense of what it means to be a good English teacher. Andrew McCallum studies the teaching of English in a state secondary school and a private school.  He argues that, in the first school, where creativity is seen not as integral to English but as conditional upon the prior mastery of something uncreative, a skills focused curriculum produces a drastic narrowing of the learning experience.  This experience is captured by Michael Rosen in his poem ‘Bear Grylls’, which the author has allowed us to reprint for the special issue from his latest collection.

Drawing on  a comparative study of teaching Romen and Juliet in London and Palestine, Monica Brady and John Yandell insist that ‘classrooms are places where meanings are made, not merely transmitted’.  In similar vein, Karen Daniels, in her article on Early Years education, argues that English – or ‘literacy’ – is a site where students develop ‘repertoires for meaning-making’.    These micro-practices of English teaching are not insulated from the political, as they are enabled and constrained by the wider, ‘macro’ social practices of policy-makers and social movements.  Howard Ryan and Debra Goodman consider these in their account of the ‘whole language’ movement in the United States.  As Ken Jones concludes, to make significant changes to the present state of English requires looking beyond the micro-politics of the classroom.

 

How was it for you?

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Human beings are given to looking back at supposedly better times than the present. In The City and the Country, Raymond Williams examines nostalgic discourses about social change and suggests that that memories of better days usually refer to a period thirty or more years in the past. But I’ve never felt this way about education. The schools and colleges where I’ve taught during the last thirty years offered a better experience to both students and teachers than the institutions of the 1960s and early 70s, where corporal punishment was a normal feature of everyday life and most students left at 15 or 16 with no qualifications.

And yet – thirty years ago, the political-educational culture was very different to what obtains today. Teachers educated in recent years must find it hard to imagine a time when schooling and assessment were not subject to endless political influence and change. When NATE started in 1963, the consensus about educational reform was such that the Minister for Education wrote an article in one of the first issues of English in Education. Responding to the Black Papers on Education of the early seventies, the Bullock Report of 1975, A Language for Life, stated that there was little substance in the view that “large numbers of schools are promoting creativity at the expense of basic skills”. And yet the Report’s acceptance of a binary opposition between “skills” and “creativity”, a conceptual dichotomy still routinely deployed, arguably set the scene for the landscape of today, where SPAG assessment is seen as a fundamental marker of competence in English and creative writing at A level is under threat.

Over more than fifty years, English in Education has offered critical research and opinion on the “basics” of English in Scotland_Road_playschools – the teaching of reading, writing, speaking and listening. Reading through the collected volumes to prepare our reflective paper on the first fifty years of the journal (published in the September 2014 issue, 48:3) Sarah Wilkin and I became aware of what Margaret McCullagh, an MA student at King’s College, London, calls the “turbulent and challenging” history of English teaching over those years. Perhaps the English in Education archive can mobilise our collective memory at a crucial time in English education.

If you are one of those teachers whose experience, like mine, approaches the number of years that NATE and its journal have flourished, we’d like to hear from you.  Margaret McCullagh (maggiermccullagh@gmail.com) is writing a dissertation on older English teachers’ perceptions of their work.  She wants to interview a number of English teachers aged 55 and over who have spent most of their working lives in the UK educational system.  Those who have retired within the last five years are equally welcome to participate.  She hopes to elicit a picture of what these teachers believe promotes self-efficacy in English teaching – and what hinders it. If you fit this profile, and can help by participating in an audio-taped interview of up to an hour, at a time and place convenient to you, with any travel expenses paid, please get in touch with Margaret at maggiermccullagh@gmail.com.