Reading, understanding the context and the barriers we face.

The new GCSE English Literature specification is refreshing, but tough. We’ve chosen AQA but I spent many months looking at WJEC, OCR and Edexcel specifications, so I think I’m right in saying that they are all rigorous when it comes to the assessment of contextual understanding.

I want to start with a short anecdote about the Deaf community. I have many Deaf friends (the capitalisation is important), I can sign and I have taught many Deaf students over the years. The Deaf community face daily challenges when it comes to understanding what is going on in the world. This is not due to any cognitive impairment on their part, but simply because they miss out on all the bits and pieces that hearing people pick up. A Deaf friend explained it to me like this – ‘you hear gossip when you’re standing near somebody. I have to be told something explicitly. You might be able to listen to the radio in a café and get the latest news. I don’t even know there’s a radio! Somebody might be talking about a celebrity or politics in the queue at Tesco and you overhear it. I miss out on all of that.’ I’ll move on now, but the relevance of this will become clear soon.

I recently read a brilliant blog post of David Didau: “5 things every new (secondary) teacher should know about reading” and one part of it really struck me. The notion that comprehension depends on general knowledge. It may sound obvious – in fact, it definitely does sound obvious to me, but that doesn’t mean that we naturally transfer this appreciation of the obvious into our teaching. Didau says that ‘understanding what you read depends on how much you know about the subject you’re reading about.’ This links almost directly to AQA’s English Literature AO3: show understanding of the relationships between texts and the contexts in which they were written. The specifics of AQA’s explanation of context includes the following detail:

…the contexts may also relate to the context within which the text is set: location, social structures and features, cultural contexts, and periods in time. Context, where relevant, may also apply to literary contexts such as genres, and also the contexts in which texts are engaged with by different audiences, taking the reader outside the text in order to inform understanding of the meanings being conveyed. Acknowledgement of the universality of a literary text is an integral part of relating to it contextually. (underlining my own)

This is quite an extensive descriptor at GCSE level – not insurmountable – but some schools face challenges to this.

The barrier to successful teaching of AO3 I face is that most of our students come from families who have a very different knowledge set and cultural understanding than the ones assessed in the English Literature examination. I am not saying that it’s the parents’ job to teach these things – far from it – but I am conscious that some students do not have years of contextual drip-feeding at home. Our students don’t go home to parents who have read the books that they’re required to read. They don’t go home to parents who have the contextual knowledge to have easy and open discussions about some of the elements which are useful to the study of Stevenson, Shakespeare or even Priestley. In itself, that’s not a problem, but it becomes a problem when you’re starting from scratch in the delivery of a level 2 course. With most GCSE subjects, there is an assumption that the students have some of the fundamentals of the subject before they start the course (e.g. MFL, maths, science etc.). While we’re starting with the premise that (most) of our students are literate, we take for granted their contextual knowledge that many of them do not possess. At a parents’ evening last year, a dad told me that he didn’t realise that Dickens was an author – he thought it was ‘just an expression, like, ‘what the Dickens?’’. Another mum, longer ago, about her son: ‘he hates Shakespeare and I hates Shakespeare. We’re both crap at it’. Juxtapose this with other schools and the challenge is highlighted. In my training year (2003), I taught at a school where philosophy was discussed around most dinner tables and parents tended to be professors at the University of Bristol. When it comes to the acquired knowledge needed for English Literature, some of our students have a similar experience to those in the Deaf community. They haven’t had the opportunity to acquire a contextual knowledge base over the years.

It’s my (our) responsibility to ensure we’re equipping our students with the knowledge they need to access the top grades in the Literature course. We can’t (and don’t need to) try to compensate for their different cultural knowledge bases just because they don’t fit in with AO3 (context). We start to teach such things lower down the school and I’m liaising with local primaries to see if we can start even younger. However, when it comes to the GCSEs, I have started to teach each text using an analysis pyramid. This is it (below), totally stripped down and without any of the additional notes that I’d use with each part of the analysis. The point of it is that you can’t analyse one part of the play without an understanding of everything that comes beneath it. So, in order to undertake effective word-level analysis, with successful incorporation of AO3,  students need to first have a strong grasp of all the foundations underneath it. It works well for starting the teaching of structure too, as parts of the pyramid can be further divided and/or annotated. I know this is crude – I’m still honing it – but I use it every lesson as a guide for my own teaching and my students use it when analysing. Hopefully, over time, the systematic use of this will help students to develop confidence with the contextual understanding needed for English Literature. Your comments would be welcome.