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February 11, 2019

How the English Literature GCSE text requirements alienate and disengage young people

How the English Literature GCSE text requirements alienate and disengage young people - Anna

The changes in the GCSE requirements for English, while challenging, go a long way in disengaging students and alienating them from the enjoyment of literature. The new English Literature syllabus focuses on ‘classic literature’ and ‘substantial whole texts in detail’, taken from the following categories:

  • Shakespeare
  • 19th century novel
  • Selection of poetry since 1789, including Romantic poetry
  • Fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards

Although elements of this specification can engage and certainly challenge students, this GCSE specification is creating issues in our society, specifically disengaging young people with reading and also creating dissent in classrooms, as often literature lessons do not inspire, and can be seen to be irrelevant by many young people.


Due to the language barrier in Shakespearean texts, some students (particularly low ability students) feel alienated and intimidated by the texts given to them. Considering the amount of time needed to unravel the archaic language in order for students to understand the stories fully, as well as the amount of analysis needed in order to prepare students for their exams, there is little time to allow students to take part in engaging activities in order to understand and analyse these texts. Most teachers do not include acting or directing, for instance, in their scheme of work as most time is given over to essay practice and quotation learning. Although Shakespeare remains relevant to student’s lives with highly relevant themes (Purewal, 2017), most teachers are under increasing pressure to deliver exam results so are unable to explore these themes in detail and how they relate to student’s lives.

19th century novel

Due to the language and style of most 19th century literature, students tend to find the novels tedious and strenuous. While there is significant merit in studying some 19th century literature, studying a whole text, and expecting students to be able to memorise quotations from this is disengaging to many students. Potentially, the study of such difficult and potentially alienating texts, with the added pressure of exams, will discourage young people from pursuing reading for pleasure. Although the department for education has cited reading for pleasure as being “more important for children’s education success than their families socio-economic status” (DofE, 2012, p. 3) schools are alienating young people from reading and subconsciously discouraging them from reading through the study of a range of disengaging texts.

Fiction or Drama

Although being the only real ‘modern’ area on the syllabus, most schools choose an older text. “An Inspector Calls” (1945) is one of the most engaging texts on the syllabus, similarly “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time” or “Blood Brothers” are more modern and engaging for young people, with themes and characters closer to their real lives. However, students see the play format as being closer to a film in nature, and while this may be enjoyable, is not encouraging students to read and engage in a variety of literature for their own pleasure as well as the widening of their own knowledge and vocabulary. Many children’s rivers of reading (Kibbler, 2018) end at school. If the GCSE specification was effective, then not only would teachers be able to support students in passing their exams, but also to develop a love of literature and learning.

Pressure of results

Due to both the pressure of results, and the pressure of Ofsted inspections, teachers appear to have become fairly monotonous in their teaching, having to stick to rigid and repetitive lesson plans with a focus on analysis and evaluation, purely with the aim of getting students to pass their exams than to create a love of literature reading and creating a rich culture in student’s cultural capital.

The new GCSE specification disengages students through a range of texts students struggle to understand, and the need to analyse destroys the enjoyment of these texts. As well as this, teachers do not have the time to explore different ways of learning due to the pressure from schools and the government to push students through their exams and achieve the results made. Instead of supporting a love of learning, the GCSE specification is destroying students love of stories interest in a range of different themes. Children instead turn to films, TV programmes and games to refresh and relax their minds instead of turning to books.


DofE. (2012). Research evidence on reading for pleasure. Educational standards research team.

Kibbler, K. (2018). Rivers of Reading. NATE: Teaching English, 53-57.

Purewal, S. (2017). Shakespeare in the Classroom: to be or not to be? . Warwick Journal of Education, 26-35.

July 02, 2018

National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) Conference 22–24 June, Aston University

National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) Conference 22-24 June, Aston University - Alison Morgan

Despite being a member of NATE for a few years, this was my first visit to the annual conference.

The opening keynote was by Debra Myhill, Professor of Education at Exeter University, whose research lies in the inter-relationship between metalinguistic understanding and writing. The title of her keynote was: Creative Knowing: Bringing Grammar in from the Cold. This was of interest to me for a variety of reasons: firstly, as a literature specialist, I have always felt that grammar teaching is challenging. It is relatively easy to engage students in literature through narrative and character but more challenging to find fun ways to teach the differences between a defining and non-defining relative clause. Secondly, as something of a grammar pedant, I am constantly dismayed by the low literacy levels of some trainee teachers and recognise the important of grammar teaching in schools. As the mantra goes, all teachers are teachers of English.

Myhill began by outlining how grammar itself is contested and often regarded as a ‘dirty word’ in English teaching, stifling creativity. According to one academic, grammar is the skunk at the garden party of the language arts. Despite the emphasis on grammar in KS2 SATS, there is no evidence to suggest that teaching and testing grammar makes better writers. It is one thing to identify an adverbial phrase but another thing entirely to use it effectively in an essay or short story. The knowledge and understanding of grammar, she argued, is to help learners understand both their own work and that of others. It is a resource for shaping and crafting meaning in a text; however, grammatical metalanguage is not always familiar to teachers and grammar itself is conceptually complex. Having learned grammar myself firstly through studying French and Latin at school and then through working as a TEFL teacher and teaching A-level English Language, I can attest to this and recognise in many trainee English teachers their wariness and lack of confidence in teaching grammar.

The issue is further compounded, Myhill went on to say, by the conflict between the prescriptive model of grammar as advocated by the DfE (courtesy of Michael Gove) and the descriptive model used by academics. In short, the debate is between whether grammar should be used to guide the accuracy of writing or to describe what has been written. Debra cited the work of the famous linguistics academic, Michael Halliday, whose theory of ‘functional grammar’ defined it as a meaning-making resource, a gateway to the study of discourse. I endorse his (and Myhill’s view) that grammatical knowledge should be about providing choice to a writer, a way of both choosing the most effective language and syntax for a piece of writing as well as identifying the reasons behind the choices made by others. The teaching of grammar should emerge through the study of literature or writing rather than a dry exercise in feature-spotting.

Overall, an engaging and illuminating lecture which provided an excellent start to a very good day.

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