Over the last fifteen years or so of English teaching, I’ve read my fair share of analytical responses to literature. I have just over a hundred, year 10 mock papers sat in a box, calling to me to befriend them so that they can be marked this weekend. They will all be my friends by Tuesday once they’re marked – not quite so much on Sunday or Monday whilst I’m marking them though.
Amongst these papers there will likely appear the phrase “this makes the reader want to read on.” It is a phrase which I have seen many times before and it is a phrase which I will not befriend.
Yesterday on Twitter, I posted the following: “Seriously, who has ever told a child that a writer does something to make the reader want to read on? Where does that come from?” The initial response was, as I’d expected. A number of other English teachers retweeted what I’d written, presumably as they felt the same frustration I did. Then came a challenge.
Some people began to question whether I was suggesting it was a stupid way to respond to a text. It was claimed that writers, with some exceptions, do write with the intention of their readers continuing through their texts til they finish them. Writers, they argued, have commercial interests in their texts being read to the end.
This is true to an extent. There are relatively few writers, I’d expect, who would want their books, articles or poems to sit in the bargain bucket gathering dust and decreasing in value. So, why does the phrase “makes us want to read on” bug me so much?
- It is banal.
- If the texts we are putting in front of our students are more than mere clickbait, then there is so much more that could be said about them.
- It doesn’t take much to extend students’ thinking and the expression of children who say or write this as a response. It just requires one more question; some time to think and some time to write or rewrite. Why does it make you want to read on? How does it get you to read on? What does it make you feel or think that makes you want to continue feeling that way? All kinds of question.
- Modelling how to enhance analytical writing from this point is not difficult and will help students to see there is so much more to say.
- A child who struggles to express much more than this as a response to literature is more likely to struggle to craft their writing effectively.
My frustration at the statement was, therefore, a frustration at a system which has allowed too many of our students to reach the age of sixteen, unable or unwilling to respond to literature in a way that sees beyond its commercial quality. There is beauty, ugliness, peculiarity, familiarity, truth, illusion, fear, contentment, tragedy, comedy and a whole spectrum of other emotions, sensations, traditions and thoughts to be found in literature. Supporting children to move beyond the banal should help them to see much of this.