Saturday, 26 April 2014

The class reader is dead, Jim.

When people read this, I am sure that I will be crossed off a few Christmas card lists. I think the class reader, as we know it, is dead. It wasn’t a prolonged, melodramatic death, but a quick, did that really happen, death. Yes, ‘Holes’ has found its final hole. ‘Skellig’ has finally met his Doctor Death. ‘Private Peaceful’ has finally found true peace. Mr Tom has said good night for the last time.  Before I lament the passing of such an established ingredient of English teaching. I need to explain what I mean. A class reader is a novel. Generally, these novels are modern. It is a novel that is used in lessons to teach aspects of English, and, usually, the students will be assessed on their understanding of the text or how the novel is written.  I was taught this way with novels at secondary school. We would read the novel and the teacher would think of some related activities borne out the text. We'd write a letter as one of the characters. We’d write a missing chapter.  

So, why do I think the humble class reader is dead? One reason I think this is the case is primary schools. The changes in primary schools means that schools are trying to push students with their reading and analysis. So texts regularly used in secondary schools are finding their way into primary classrooms. Often, I have students inform me that they did a text in Year 6. Don’t get me wrong: I am not angry with this. It makes sense. A natural progression of improving reading would be to choose tougher texts. That’s why primary schools look to texts taught in secondary schools as they have a certain kind of kudos. It motivates students knowing that they are reading / studying a book that Year 8s study.

The class reader is usually chosen with a mixed set class in mind. The success of some of the novels is that they work for a wide range of groups. The novel might have complex issues for able students, yet the novel is written in an accessible style for less able students. It is seen as a win win situation. Furthermore, we aim for books that will appeal to both boys and girls. Add to that, we look for a book that is pacey and will hook non-readers. We are, simply, asking too much from these books. Complex, yet easy. Boy friendly and girl friendly. Interesting plot as well written prose. In fact, we ask a lot of class readers and I argue that books used in class struggle to cover all these bases. You might be reading this and say ‘poppycock’ to all this, because you have the perfect book. I happy to be proven wrong, but, in my opinion, I think with our obsession on boy/girl friendly texts, accessibility and engaging the non-readers has meant that they quality of reading material student has dipped. All reading is good. But, maybe, we have sacrificed something along the way in the search for engagement.

I have novels that I adore teaching such as ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Lord of the Flies’ to name a few; but when I think of the other books I have taught, and especially KS3, I haven’t really enjoyed them. Why? Because, simply the texts do not naturally incline themselves for analysis by inexperienced readers. They do some subtle things and clever things with language, but they are at such a level that only a teacher can spot these clever things.  The patterns are vague. They are tenuous. I teach ‘Great Expectations’ and it is interesting to see how students react differently to Dickens’ writing to other writers’ work. They spot patterns, techniques and subtle shifts in Dickens. Sadly, this doesn’t happen as freely with class readers. Students find things watered down. A theme that is woven without a whole chapter in a Dickens novel is spread across a whole novel in a class reader. It is hard for students to see the patterns as they have to make connections between sporadic moments in the texts. It relies on students knowing the text on such a high level that it is akin to being the teacher.

Also, the style of the class reader hinders analysis in secondary schools - now, don’t do throwing the ‘Holes’ description at me. They normally feature a paragraph of setting description, a line of description for each character and then the rest of the writing is made up of feelings of the character and dialogue the characters say. This makes it all fast and pacey, but it means the analysis you can do is short and spread out. There are no long extracts to unpick and question. It is all nice bitesize blocks of things to analysis. Recently, I picked up a class reader to prepare for a lesson and I had no idea what to do. I looked at the text for inspiration. I looked again and again… and again. I struggled to find some language point about the chapter. This mental block is something I rarely experience with a classic text. Each page inspires or has some juicy nugget to discuss and explore. A class reader tends to have nuggets but they are so far apart in the text, or subtle. What I really want to say is: Right, we will read the whole book and only analyse the ending. I am not bothered about the stuff before it, so we will just read it and talk about the ending.  

Then, there is the overall assessment. Writing an essay on a modern class reader is tricky. I find that a lot of the time I am leading them directly to the ideas, rather than the students coming up with the ideas. Take a theme based essay. A theme in a classic text tends to be integral to the plot and everything in the text. A theme in some of the modern class readers is like a fart. You can smell it but you can’t judge the source of the smell easily. So, I might spend looking at courage in a novel. However, I have to tell them in a way what ways the writer shows courage. I’d rather have them tell me.

The class reader for me is dead. It has ceased to be. It no longer is.  How am I passing this sad loss? Well, I am thinking that as part of the curriculum changes in our department that we are going to do something with those class readers. I don’t want whole units of work around a class reader. I want the class readers to be read without the analysis focus. I want the reading for enjoyment to be promoted. A lot of these class readers are good reads. They should, in my opinion, be read and not analysed within an inch of their lives with vacuous comments. Theses books I want to be devoured and enjoyed, and maybe questioned. I want the downtime in a week to reading a few chapters a week of the book without the fear of some work, without the fear of some assessment on the horizon and without the navel gazing analysis that has taken place in the past. Then, we can spend time working with complex and challenging. The best work I get from students is with ‘Great Expectations’ and not with ‘Abomination’ by Robert Swindell.  

Modern class readers should be enjoyed.

Classic texts should be devoured.    

We are gathered here today to pay our respects to our dearly beloved class reader. It has now passed over to the other side. Let us sing hymn number 233.  

My condolences,  


P.S. No novels were harmed in the making of this blog.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe in secondary schools considering burials, they might prefer donation to a primary school, where class sets of books can be read and enjoyed laying the very basic groundwork for later devoured texts!


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