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What is turning students off studying English at A level?

Discussion in 'Education news' started by TES_Rosaline, Jul 31, 2019.

  1. TES_Rosaline

    TES_Rosaline Administrator Staff Member

    Children are turning their backs on studying great literature, according to a new study. How can we encourage students to discover the joys about reading literary classics and hone their debate skills in the classroom during lively discussions?
    One English teacher looks at how students can be tempted to continue to study the subject beyond their GCSE exam:

    ‘...The latest research from the Independent Schools Council paints a bleak picture, as applicants to study an English A level fell by 8.4 per cent last year, the largest decline in 17 years.

    But this will not surprise English teachers. A quick search on edu-Twitter turns up hundreds of threads of teachers who are concerned about the fall in students taking up their beloved subject.

    With the government ploughing millions into boosting the number of students taking Stem subjects, it is up to us to buck this trend; we need to unite to reinvigorate students’ passion for English.

    But many fear that it is the rigidity and dullness of Michael Gove’s 2015 GCSE spec that is putting students off...'

    Haili Hughes is an English teacher at Saddleworth School in Oldham, Greater Manchester.


    What are your views about the issue? Have your students enjoyed studying the subject at A level? What are your students’ common concerns/criticisms about the subject? Is there too much content to cram at GCSE that it turns children off studying the subject further? Are the text choices and language questions at the heart of the problem? Would it help including more modern texts at A level? What do you think needs to be done to stop the downward trend?
  2. Easyasabc

    Easyasabc Occasional commenter

    Creative subjects have been dwindling for some time such as Music and Drama. English involves creativity, independent opinions and evaluation. And Gove with his Gradgrind approach of 'facts, facts, facts' has killed the notion that being creative, unique and emotionally responsive is a good thing.

    League Tables come into it too. Lets face it - the popular BTEC qualifications still also allow a 'resit' opportunity with the best grade counting. And that is huge. A Level English sounds tougher. And AS qualification rules are not the same as BTECs.

    Enjoying learning isn't it seems to me what Gove wants. And neither is individuality.
  3. peter12171

    peter12171 Star commenter

    I think it has been going on longer than that. For years there has been too much focus, especially in KS4, on a narrow band of key texts. Students don’t get the chance to explore enough of the great classic literature, focussing on a vey narrow selection. In addition, students are trained to over-analyse texts. Sometimes we need to read something just because it is an enjoyable read, not because of any deep, meaningful subtext to it.
  4. Clive_Candy

    Clive_Candy Occasional commenter

    When many students' only experience of the novel in Years 10 and 11 is wading through Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is it any wonder they're not inspired to take Eng lit at A-level?
    Jamvic likes this.
  5. Doitforfree

    Doitforfree Star commenter

    I loved English but it was in spite of rather than because of the study we did at school. I hated English literature O' level. I certainly didn't want to spend another two years doing more of the same.
  6. Dodros

    Dodros Star commenter

    I sat A-level English Literature twice at my North of England boys' grammar school during the 1960s. The first time round I achieved a low grade, which I mainly attribute to the lack of guidance given on how to construct an acceptable piece of literary criticism. The choice of novel was also lamentable, considering the all-male learning context, Jane Austen's "Emma", as was the choice of poetry, Wordsworth's self-regarding "Prelude". The following year I retook the exam and passed with flying colours on a diet including D. H. Lawrence's "Sons and Lovers" (still one of my favourite novels because the protagonist and son of a miner Paul Morel actually worked for his living) and John Keats' great romantic poetry, a man who died too young. My improved performance was also down to having a different teacher, who spelled out exactly what the expectations were for A-level English Lit responses and provided model answers as examples.

    I was fortunate to have had the right English Lit teacher and the right set books at the right time. It can't always be guaranteed when it comes to this subject.
    agathamorse likes this.
  7. slstrong123

    slstrong123 New commenter

    My son is studying English Literature A level. He has found it tough because of the concentration on feminism in literature. Perhaps a broader curriculum/choice of texts might encourage more boys to study it?
    agathamorse, lanokia and Dodros like this.
  8. englishtt06

    englishtt06 Occasional commenter

    A couple of years ago I attended a HoD CPD for English: some of the (many) depressing anecdotes there was one school where the students were doing Jekyll and Hyde EVERY year (Y7 onwards) so they could nail it in Year 11 (woebetide they change the syllabus in that time) but then, the HoD had only been teaching four years and was the most experienced teacher in that department!; and another school who entered students for Lit but didn't teach them the spec (yes, in the new GCSEs) because of game-playing Progress 8. My partner recently did a PGCE in geography and, in one of his training schools, they were explicitly covering GCSE exam questions in Year 7 (every year group, actually: the starter was a review of the previous exam question, then the lesson would be another exam question). I've noticed a few of my younger teaching colleagues (in English) analyse a text to absolute death.... I understand the impulse - we are so results driven...not just us, but students and parents, too: put simply, ask any parent which they would prefer, 'Excellent result or an enjoyment of the subject?' (I'm very much of the opinion that the two are definitely not mutually exclusive but it takes trust and expertise to let go and be more creative and engaging in your teaching.) Fortunately, I work in an extremely supportive school and I try to get them just to relax and enjoy a text with the students (not to abandon analysis completely, but to make sure the dog wags the tail rather than vice-versa!).

    In terms of A Level, we've seen a pleasing uptake; that may well be due to a lack of obsession with weighing the pigs. However, that said, students do struggle with our subject because it requires a wide contextual knowledge and for students to be well-read - something we try to encourage from KS3 onwards but it takes time for such an approach to embed. Our history department get their A Level students to do an exam question EVERY WEEK but the students love history.... so, go figure! If I draw on my own experience, I did German GCSE back in '93 and I remember that we were taught to pass: - rote learning. It meant I couldn't actually really converse in German (unless the native speaker stuck to the script I had memorised from GCSE) and, when I moved to the A Level college, the teacher spoke only in German in lesson and I had to drop the subject after a few weeks. An excellent result on paper but not useful for me in life.

    The current A Level isn't bad but certainly there isn't the breadth from when I did A Level; but that really was a different world (almost thirty years ago!) - I love reading (always have done) and, unknowingly, knew a lot about the world (I read the newspaper my parents brought; I watched the news everyday with my parents - like almost everyone, we only had one TV - and, not just that, but choice was obviously very limited so we would watch World in Action, Spitting Image etc. for want of choice. Every journey we listened to the news on the radio in the car etc.).
  9. Clive_Candy

    Clive_Candy Occasional commenter

    Absolutely, it's the cultural capital required.
    steely1 and katykook like this.
  10. blue451

    blue451 Lead commenter

    I have a young relative part way through GCSEs. As a child he was an enthusiasic reader but SATS spoiled some of that.
    He is now very scathing of the way English Lit is taught, complains about lesson after lesson spent practising "10-markers", says it's all very formulaic with PEE and other stuff I can't remember.

    I feel very sad, I know the teacher is probably doing a great job but there's something about the system that is sucking the joy out of learning and, in his case, reading. He is very unlikely to opt for English post-16.
    Jamvic and agathamorse like this.
  11. MrMedia

    MrMedia Star commenter

    The article captures it well. The grammar in Year 6, the exam teaching in KS3, the tedious Govian restrictions on text choice at KS4 and the overemphasis on exam skills in a huge closed book exam. Why would you choose English?

    Let’s all have another clap for Michael Gove. The man who did more to ruin education than any other education secretary in history.
  12. maggie m

    maggie m Senior commenter

    I love reading, always have, but didn't enjoy English Literature O level.Never got the point of picking a text to bits surely books are for reading and enjoying. I passed but never considered A level (then I did prefer science.) We read far more books than pupils seem to now. My last form did nothing but Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde., to be honest they should have been able to recite the book by the end of year 11.. I remember reading the Hobbit, Lord of the Flies, David Copperfield, the Great Gatsby, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, Animal Farm, Mill on the Floss, several Shakespeare plays, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Hardy and lots by George Bernard Shaw.
  13. phlogiston

    phlogiston Star commenter

    I know exam technique needs practice, but am I the only one who finds the focus on the number of marks rather than the topic of the question very dispiriting?
    Jamvic, Susanne12345 and agathamorse like this.
  14. Dodros

    Dodros Star commenter

    I remember somebody somewhere making the point that "English Literature" was all about reading for enjoyment, while "English Lit" was all about mastering exam technique. They were very different beasts indeed.

    Sadly, this may be the nature of any academic subject once the plunge into abstract thought begins. I loved Physics during the first three years of secondary school when it was all about appreciating the enjoyment and wonder generated by simple experiments. Then the practical experiments ceased altogether and the subject descended into a desert of abstraction as it changed into a branch of Applied Mathematics requiring "control of variables" and complex calculations. I never reached O-level in the subject, not only because of the drift in content but also because the teacher allocated to my Physics class for Arts students clearly wanted to be elsewhere and thought that getting his students to copy screeds of unexplained information from the blackboard fulfilled his job description. A perfect storm. This was the early 1960s, of course, and I hope things have changed for the better in the meantime.
    Last edited: Aug 2, 2019
  15. peter12171

    peter12171 Star commenter

  16. BillyBobJoe

    BillyBobJoe Established commenter

    That is... remarkably close to an argument I had with my English teacher. I recall also quoting Tolkien's foreword to Lord of the Rings in which he stated outright that there were no hidden meanings in his work. My loathing of studying English seems at odds with my voracious reading until you realise that there is no work of literature that cannot be ruined by analysis in an English lesson.
  17. Dodros

    Dodros Star commenter

    The image above is just an object lesson about the importance of provenance or context before rushing to judgement when examining a primary source. "The curtains were blue" is a sentence plucked out of the ether without any supporting information to reveal whether it's a police report, a piece of advertising copy, a line from a poem, a newspaper article or any other literary or non-literary text type for that matter. If you asked the author what (s)he meant by his/her sentence, (s)he would likely refer to what (s)he wrote before and after the sentence to substantiate what (s)he claimed (s)he meant when (s)he wrote it. As for the English teacher's thoughts about what the author meant, we don't have any rationale for coming to the judgement (s)he makes. Whoever made up the graphic has delivered the verdicts without even presenting the defence and prosecution counsel's arguments prior to the verdict, let alone the cross-examination of witnesses. Nor are we privy to the jury's deliberations before they reached the verdict they did.

    The designer of the graphic is also guilty of oversimplifying the process of reading, which is not just a matter of pouring text unfiltered through the funnel of the eyes into the brain. The study of texts, particularly literary ones whose authors agree have multilayered meanings, is a multisensory experience for the reader, engaging the emotions as well as the intellect, and therefore open to breadth of interpretation.

    This isn't just a matter for critics or historians of literature. An artefact plundered from the ground by a treasure hunter with a metal detector but no interest in its historical background, someone, say, who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, will leave the same object virtually useless in the hands of an archeologist who is trying to date it and assess its significance against the culture and technology of the different age when it was made.
    lanokia and steely1 like this.
  18. peter12171

    peter12171 Star commenter

    I don’t entirely disagree, @Dodros, but it does show that there can be too much analysis of a text. When that happens, we run the risk of turning children away from great literature.
    Jamvic and agathamorse like this.
  19. markuss

    markuss Occasional commenter

    Ah! But there's more to the blue curtains. "Curtains" means death, doesn't it?
    "Oh, doc, I'm a suicidal pair of curtains. I am so, so blue."
    Doctor: "Well, pull yourself together, then."
    alex_teccy, agathamorse and katykook like this.
  20. Skeoch

    Skeoch Lead commenter

    In the old days when the exams began in mid to late June and there was time between Easter and the exams, one colleague always chose a set book for his A Level class that he'd never read himself, and only began teaching it after Easter. His teaching was fresh and exciting, his results were good and he encouraged many to go on to university to study English.
    Judging by some commentators on here, he'd be fired instantly today!
    agathamorse and katykook like this.

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