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

books-open-on-table

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.

Advertisements

Renewing acquaintance with James Britton

Britton-books

Last Saturday, the London Association for the Teaching of English ran a day conference at the Institute of Education on the work and legacy of James Britton.    Some of the large gathering had known and worked with Britton; others had had only recently completed training in the institution where his ideas had influenced the practice of generations of English teachers. Others, myself included, had less direct knowledge of the man and the institution.

In the keynote session of the conference, Tony Burgess reflected on Britton’s life and ideas, while Myra Barrs explained how Britton had influenced her work as a teacher and adviser. Britton had been the forming hand behind both LATE and NATE, and the ‘shuttle’ between classroom and theory that he practised remains a key principle. He accepted the intrinsic interest and importance of children’s language, and the quotations from children that feature so frequently in Britton’s work are not just illustrations of his thinking but part of the thinking. His ideas have had a profound effect on educational theory and practice – in Canada as much as in the UK – and are still influential despite the current regime of reaction and quantification

Britton believed that understanding the relationship between language and thought was key to understanding how children gain language fluency. In chapter 2 of Language and Learning (1970), he used the work of Luria and Vygotsky, then little known in the UK, to examine the development of thought and language. He saw language as a means of building up a representation of the world. An inward running commentary on experience that operates alongside social speech becomes internal speech: a retrospect that enables a prospect. Speech thus precedes writing, and children’s written language develops from and alongside their talking.

Priorities for the classroom follow this view of language. Britton insisted that language in the classroom should be used for real purposes, one of the most important of which is listening. Myra Barrs recalled that Britton had been a modest speaker and active listener: his colleagues remarked on his intent yet warm attention on the speaker and his encouraging: “Go on.”

Britton developed the concept of the Participant and Spectator roles of language: the speaker/thinker acts on the world by means of the representation and acts on the representation itself. From this point of view, literature does not occupy a different realm from other language; expressive and poetic writing and reading are natural functions of the spectator role. The concept of the spectator role thus brings literature into touch with processes in the everyday life of young people.

As Viv Ellis has written, Britton was ‘the exemplary academic educationist: once a teacher, always fully engaged with the work of school teaching and motivated by educational questions; hugely supportive of the profession developing its own leadership (through subject associations, for example); … Britton shows the way you might, as someone who works in a university Education department, do good work in every sense’.   In the final session of the conference, Simon Clements and Douglas Barnes, both of whom had worked with James Britton, spoke. According to Douglas Barnes, one learned from Britton how to be a person as well as a teacher. Could there be a better account of the legacy of a seminal figure in the study of language and the teaching of English?

 

This post is taken from an article to be published in Teaching English

Integrating English Language and Literature

Folger_1A linguist deaf to the poetic functions of language and a literary scholar indifferent to linguistics are equally flagrant anachronisms.        Roman Jakobson (1960)

by Marcello Giovanelli

Despite the fact that these words were spoken over fifty years ago, it is curious that ‘English Language’ and ‘English Literature’ are largely still viewed as discrete subjects.  Even when they are studied together, they seem to be part of a combined course, part ‘lit’ and part ‘lang’, rather than a fully integrated one. Whilst the growth of A level English Language over the last twenty years, with its emphasis on providing students with a practical and rigorous toolkit for a systematic analysis of texts,  points towards the value of language-based textual work, all too often responses in literary studies ignore the essence of literature itself: language.  Instead, the direction and focus are geared towards biography, historical context, and fantastical speculation about what authors might or might not have thought, felt and said. The worst kind of criticism is either rooted in vague impressionistic language or else relies on verbose rhetoric. For students this can have the unfortunate consequence that ‘Literature’ becomes difficult to access without resorting to impressionism of their own or else relying on what critics or teachers say that texts ‘mean’. The literary text remains somehow ‘special’, and uniquely creative in comparison to mundane ‘everyday language’.

An integrated approach: stylistics
An integrated approach to studying literature gives priority to language, encourages close reading, helps to avoid superficial, impressionistic comments, and is inherently democratic in that with practice everyone can develop skills and respond to literary texts in meaningful ways. In higher education, the explicit application of linguistic knowledge and models in the service of literary criticism is known as stylistics (see Simpson 2004 for an overview).  Its principles of being clear, transparent and focused on how particular language choices give rise to particular effects are extremely useful as a working model for students of all ages. As an example, look at the first line of Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘A working party’, published in 1917.

Three hours ago he blundered up the trench

There’s plenty of subtle and sophisticated work that students can do with this line simply by asking questions about language, as a way of developing their skills at literary criticism. Here are four such questions.

[1] The poem begins with the adverbial ‘three hours ago’, placed at the front of the clause. This emphasises a time shift – the narrated events at the start of the poem happen three hours before the recounting time of the poem. Why is this important? What would be the effect if this were at the end of the clause?
[2] The soldier is referred to using the third person pronoun ‘he’. Why not use a proper noun or an extended noun phrase such as ‘the young/old/tired soldier’? The use of the pronoun reduces the referent (the soldier) to the smallest, depersonalised lexical unit. However, ‘he’ (and other such pronouns) tends to be used when readers are able to access the intended referent without any difficulty: i.e. they know who ‘he’ is. When they can’t, we tend to use more specific terms such as common and proper nouns.  So here, we have the paradox of an expression that both depersonalises and emphasises closeness. Why?
[3] ‘blundered’ suggests movement but of an awkward kind; ‘up’ is a preposition that suggests a certain kind of orientation (vertical rather than horizontal). Why not ‘along the trench’? How does this preposition fit with the meaning of ‘blundered’?
[4] Sassoon uses ‘the trench’ rather than ‘a trench’. As with ‘he’, ‘the’ tends to be used when the addressee/listener knows the referent or is in its vicinity. So overall what is the significance of the use of the definite article? Would it matter if it were ‘a trench’?

These questions promote thinking about how key aspects of style are important in the act of literary interpretation. Indeed, the fact that these features are significant is in itself a type of emphatic patterning known as foregrounding. The act of interpretation also provides a motivation for teaching linguistic models and ideas in their own right. The examples above offer ways in to enquiry and learning about syntax, the pronoun system, semantics, prepositions and the motivation for using definite or indefinite articles. They involve students exploring language features, asking questions about prominent patterns and choices, and considering the likely effect of alternative ones (for a detailed exploration of the benefits of textual
intervention see Pope 1995; and also Madden 2006, and Queneau 2009).

Creativity in non-literary texts
Very briefly, I’d like to show how an integrated approach also provides novel ways of looking at non-literary texts. A fully integrated ‘English’ denies sole privilege to literary discourse, and sees an inherent value and creativity in everyday language (for detailed discussion of this idea see Carter 2004). An interesting example for students would be to look a phenomenon such as metaphor that might be thought of simply as a literary trope, and explore its pervasiveness and importance in non-literary discourse. Here are two such texts: the first is from an interview with George Osborne (the current UK Chancellor of the Exchequer) on the BBC website; the second is part of a conversation between two year 11 (age 16) students about a forthcoming GCSE (national) examination.

[1]
Britain is moving from rescue to recovery. But while the British economy is
leaving intensive care; now we need to secure that recovery.
[2]
Akbar: so what you gonna revise for
Jack: well (.) Slim will come up (.) that’s what Mr Jones reckons
Akbar: yeah (.) he thinks it will be there (.) I bet he’s not right though
Jack: but (.) but I’m not going to risk it this year if it is there
Akbar: how would he know (1) he’s just guessing

Metaphor works by mapping attributes from one concrete area of knowledge to another that is more abstract (see Lakoff and Johnson 1980). In the first example, two metaphors are evident: the personification of the economy as a hospital patient; and the idea of a journey (moving/leaving from one place to another). Exploring why these metaphors were chosen in this example of political discourse can be just as intellectually demanding and satisfying as looking at metaphor in literary texts. Equally, in the second example, students can explore how the speakers co-construct an entire dialogue built around the metaphor ‘life is a gamble’. Both texts show the inherent creativity in seemingly everyday discourse.

Conclusion
The kind of work I have been describing is as easy to promote with younger students at Key Stage 3 as it is at A level. Indeed, one of the challenges of the future seems to me to offer students of all ages opportunities to engage in integrated work that can support rigorous, systematic and transparent analysis as a way of developing skills in areas of knowledge that might be seen as traditionally either more ‘literary’ or ‘linguistic’ in focus. This type of ‘language and literature’ work naturally resists a crude compartmentalisation of the subject, and instead sees the value in an integrated ‘English’.

References
Carter, R. (2004) Language and Creativity: The Art of Common Talk, London: Routledge.
Jakobson, R. (1960) ‘Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics’ in T. Sebeok (ed.) Style in Language, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp 350-70.
Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Madden, M. (2006) 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, London: Jonathan Cape.
Pope, R. (1995) Textual Intervention: Creative and Critical Strategies for Literary Studies, London: Routledge
Queneau, R. (2009) (3rd edition) Exercises in Style (translated by Barbara Wright), Richmond: OneWorld Classics.
Simpson, P. (2004) Stylistics: A Resource Book for Students, London: Routledge

This article was first published in The Voice (2013)

Discovering Literature – digital resources for Romantics and Victorians

atkinson john augustus costumes B20090 71

by Moyra Beverton

Resources for learning have a different meaning since the digital revolution, which has to some extent democratised access. Teachers and students can now explore whole archives of text, sound, image and moving image.

Some digitised archives stand out because of a concerted effort to focus on learning. The British Library has collaborated with educators to make their items both accessible and useable.   Resources are organised in collections and some offer teachers’ notes for guidance.

The Discovering Literature website, aimed at KS4 & KS5, initially focuses on the Romantics and Victorians. Teachers can weave their own path through the plethora of original manuscripts, recordings, articles and artefacts or can take inspiration from the materials on offer for each author and theme. These materials can be used in diverse ways, for example to stretch and challenge the more able, perhaps by clustering activities; as directed work for background research; as a stimulus for speaking and listening assessment, whilst sharing discoveries; or for co-creation of new writing.

Most importantly, students can be guided to wider reading, given enough direction for independent research and sufficient confidence to bring discoveries back to learning in the classroom.

atkinson john augustus costumes B20090 51

In making my contribution to the teaching materials, I wanted to address certain issues that have arisen over recent years, as well as current topics such as independent learning, critical thinking and peer- or self-assessment. Anyone who has ever had to tackle issues of inclusivity, differentiation, wider reading, independent learning or accessibility to resources beyond their budget will find a reservoir of materials to suit their needs and save time, as well as a means of teaching their students the rudiments of research practice.

atkinson john augustus costumes B20090 64

With the current need to plan work on 19th century literature, opportunities for accessible, independent work can seem remote. Many students could struggle to access the unfamiliar texts; however through the Discovering Literature website they could also begin to contextualise a novel and its writer, for example investigating status and gender. Examples below are from the Teacher Notes for Persuasion:

  • Before examining The Navy List* in some detail, attribute names to students e.g. Charles, William, Edmund etc. Ask them to notice how often their name crops up in the lists. This would work well as a paired learning activity. Which person with their name is earning the most/least?
  • Which names from The Navy List are still in use today? Students could research today’s most popular names* and compare which ones have fallen into disuse, have stayed popular and/or have had a resurgence. This could lead to a discussion on the impact of names on context and vice versa.

Following on from this, the teacher could select a passage that is focused on an aspect of life in the navy and, through close reading, discuss the writer’s connection, motivation or stimulus for using this context. In this way students can contribute their opinion based on their research, thereby increasing their connection to the text, motivating them to read on in pursuit of the narrative or writer’s intentions.

The teacher’s planning for critical analysis remains within familiar territory, yet with little further effort from the teacher or department, the students have had the opportunity to increase their engagement. In addition students can use the website routinely for independent study, either guided by the teacher or making self-selections in pursuit of their own interests.

atkinson john augustus costumes B20090 69

* links to suggested external websites are included in the teachers’ notes.