On the rare occasion that the staff in our English department surface from their marking pile long enough to enjoy a cup of tea together, I’ll ask everybody what they’re reading. The answer is usually the same: nothing.
Teachers only read the bits of books they have to teach – and even then it’s often one chapter ahead of their students. If there’s a bit of a text they don’t understand or think is boring, they just remove it from the photocopied version before class. It means that teachers are effectively editing texts, and some are not familiar with reading entire books.
I know for a fact that several of my colleagues have never read anything by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen or the Brontës, and nothing longer than 600 pages that isn’t by JK Rowling.
I mourned the loss of Of Mice and Men from the GCSE syllabus, and why? Because it was a safe text – one that every English teacher could teach standing on their head, metaphorically speaking. But its removal revealed the gap in our subject knowledge. How many other 20th-century novels do we have resources for and experience of? God help us if the government ever removes An Inspector Calls or Animal Farm.
While English teachers must be graduates, they don’t necessarily need a degree in English literature. Journalism, media studies, drama and American studies are now widely accepted as a higher level qualifications for PGCE applicants to teach English. I’m not suggesting these degrees are less worthy than English literature, but how many whole texts do these courses require their undergraduates to read? Even in my own English literature degree, we were often only given a booklet of chapters and extracts.
In every school I’ve taught at, English departments refuse to use their meagre budgets on new texts, opting for photocopies of extracts from novels and plays instead. We don’t read entire novels at all any more until students reach GCSE, at which point they react with utter horror. The prospect of suddenly having to read a whole book is quite daunting.
This hesitancy to invest in new books is partly due to the way the students treat them. They throw them, draw in them, tear pages out – so the school won’t and often can’t afford to replace them.
But it is also partly to do with attitudes to reading from adults. In one school, I was questioned by management as to why I was attempting to read whole chapters of a classic with an A-level group instead of using a DVD and extracts. At another school, library lessons were cancelled and branded “a waste of curriculum time”. Students had been spending most of this lesson reading for pleasure, as well as completing projects based on the library’s wealth of non-fiction texts. Once they were locked out of their library lessons, well over 2,000 books were left to gather dust. The librarian was made redundant.
There is also the issue of time – or lack of it. Time to choose a novel, time to discuss it, time to actually sit down and take pleasure in a narrative and its characters. On average, I’d estimate that my colleagues and I are working on marking and preparation about 60 hours a week. Most of us also have families and spouses, who have to fight for our attention.
But reading is important. It increases our vocabulary, helps us reflect, builds our empathy, and improves concentration, focus and memory. It can reduce stress. I find few activities more relaxing than reading – and yet I confess I don’t have the time for it that I use
Every few years schools will push a literacy drive. They’ll try the Accelerated Reader programme, reading passports (pdf), and even sponsored readathons. But how teachers act matters, too. As the University of Coventry (pdf), in alliance with the Book Trust, states: “Teachers have been shown to have a big impact on children and thus it is imperative that they model the behaviours they want to encourage.”
English teachers are too bogged down by workload to take pleasure in what often brought us into our job – a love of literature. But if we aren’t reading, how can we encourage our students to?