Getting the reading habit


It is vital that students gain the reading habit during their younger and teenage years, but schools can only do so much argues our headteacher diarist – parents also need to play their part.

What to write about? Having just returned to school after the half-term break, I was working through my emails when I came across a reminder that this column was due.

There is a lot going on at the moment, with the exam season coming to an end and minds turning towards the next school year. 

However, nothing immediately came to mind. Then, not for the first time, salvation appeared in the form of the ever-reliable Mr Gove. This time, it was his apparent “banning” of classic American novels, such as Of Mice and Men and To Kill A Mockingbird from the GCSE English literature syllabus.

Of course, Mr Gove argues that he is trying to broaden the syllabus rather than restrict it. As usual, it is difficult to get to the bottom of exactly what is proposed through the filter of the press reports and, to be honest, that is not what interests me about the row. 

No, what interests me is that there was a row in the first place – and the extent of the press coverage it has generated.

Surely one of the main purposes of GCSE English literature is to give students the chance to study one or more books in detail. In doing this, they will be reading books in a different, probably more in-depth way than perhaps they would when reading for pleasure at home. And this is surely the point. 

Part of the reason for studying English literature at GCSE is to learn something about how novels, plays and poetry are structured and to have the opportunity to really think about a book or books. By doing this, students can gain a level of understanding which will stand them in good stead for a lifetime of reading.

It follows from the above, that which particular books are studied at GCSE is perhaps less important than how they are taught and studied. Clearly there needs to be a broad range of titles and, for practical reasons, specific titles need to be specified in the syllabus. However, does it really matter if Of Mice and Men or To Kill A Mockingbird no longer makes the cut? 

Certainly, if you read some of the press coverage, there is a view that Mr Gove is narrowing the definition of “English” literature by removing American “English” literature from the syllabus. I also get the impression that there is a perception among some commentators that if a particular book is removed from the list, then no child is ever going to read that book. There is also the usual suggestion that schools are not doing enough to encourage children to read (the implication being that removing a couple of American classics from the syllabus is evidence of this). 

As a headteacher I am only too familiar with this notion that a school is expected to fulfil every type of role in bringing up children. However, when it comes to instilling a love of reading in a child, I have to draw the line. 

This is simply one thing that cannot be “taught” – it is acquired through the process of reading itself and this process has to begin at home, more often than not through parents reading aloud to their children and then encouraging them to read by themselves for pleasure.

By the time children start studying GCSE English literature it is too late. There will be some children who “read” and some who do not. For those in the former category, GCSE English literature will hopefully expose them to new authors and, as I suggest above, ways of reading a text which will hopefully prove useful as they continue to expand their reading. For those students who do not “read”, I think that it is unfortunately highly unlikely that they will suddenly develop the habit based on studying one or two books at GCSE.

  • Diary of a headteacher is written anonymously and in rotation by three practising headteachers from schools across the country.


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