Smooth ramps, adequate comprehension, and bumpy roads

I am exercised, at the moment, by Ofsted’s research review on English. I am exercised by this in many ways, but I’m just going to focus on one of them here. It’s the metaphor of the ‘smooth ramp’ as a way of articulating progress in reading, with the curriculum being designed to ensure that ‘each text bootstraps the language and knowledge needed for the next’. It’s a model derived most clearly from the work of E.D. Hirsch, in which teaching – and therefore also learning – follows a well-ordered sequence. Everything that students need to know in order to understand a text is taught carefully and explicitly, and attention is paid to the texts that students encounter as they make their way through their education: ‘An effective English curriculum will explicitly identify what it is that pupils need to learn in order to understand progressively more complex texts.’

Dentdale, photo taken by me, 2019

I’ve been teaching English for over twenty-five years now, and the thing I find simultaneously most frustrating but also most rewarding about the subject is its messiness, its porousness, the fuzziness of its edges. Students don’t only ‘do’ English in school. Their work in English will draw on, and be influenced by, all the many areas of life in which they speak and read and listen and write, by the narratives they engage with (not only in books, but on screen, in films and on television and, increasingly, in computer games) and the stories they themselves tell. Take writing, for instance. Behind the very narrow pieces of writing on which my current GCSE students will be assessed in their exams there lies a vast hinterland of written texts, only some of them produced in school and read by teachers: fanfiction, blog posts, contributions to forum threads, reviews, song lyrics, stories. Not all of these texts will ever be read by anyone. Some of them are highly ephemeral. But all of them are important, because they are all part of who my students are as writers, as people who use the written word to engage with the world beyond themselves.

We sometimes try to make links between English and other subjects – History being the most obvious one, because of the literacy demands it makes of students – but actually, I’d argue that English shares more similarities with PE. We want students to exercise in their spare time, because exercise is a good thing, just as we want students to read in their spare time, because reading is a good thing. We lament the fact that we live in a society that presents young people with easier and more attractive options than exercise and reading as ways of spending their free time. We recognise that there are barriers that prevent some young people from exercising and reading as much as we (and often they themselves) would like them to. We also recognise that young people who exercise more and read more outside of school perform better in PE and English within school. We note that young people who are encouraged to exercise and read – by parents and other adults who guide them, take them to sports clubs and fixtures and libraries and bookshops, talk to them and provide support – receive an unfair advantage. But in the end, we have to accept that we cannot control how much our students exercise outside of school, or how much (and what) they read, however much we might wish it otherwise.

I’m not sure I can stretch this analogy much further. One key difference, of course, is that English is a core subject that carries extremely high stakes at GCSE for individual students, as well as their teachers and schools. Another is that English also relies, to a large but largely unexplored extent, on students’ emotional maturity. This is why the Ofsted research report’s definition of the ‘components of comprehension’ is far too narrow. According to Ofsted, comprehension depends on students’ knowledge of vocabulary, context, narrative structure and syntax. But – as we all know – it also depends on far much more than this: on imaginative engagement, empathy, a willingness to enter the worlds of characters whose lives might be very different from one’s own. Students don’t just draw on what they’ve been taught, on what has been presented to them in a carefully-structured and sequenced manner, in order to make sense of texts. They draw on their own lived experiences, on events that we as their teachers might be privy to or might not. They visualise settings and characters in particular ways and build interpretations that are shaped by their world-views, in a manner that has long been acknowledged by reader-response criticism. The Ofsted report mentions that ‘through reading itself, pupils can find out about the world beyond their own experience’. But there is no mention of what students bring to reading from their own experience. Or how they share these experiences with others: my teaching of Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Pike’ to Year Eight, earlier this year, was made all the richer as a result of one boy’s account of pike fishing at night with his dad and his uncle, how unnerving it was and how every sound resonated through the darkness.

The failure of the ‘smooth ramp’ model of the curriculum is that it doesn’t take account of all these complexities. For one thing, they can’t be planned for: you can’t include a student with a penchant for fishing as an essential resource on your curriculum map. They also rely so much on the parts of students’ lives that take place outside of school, not only their reading and viewing and interacting with other people but also their thinking and daydreaming. This means that reading – understanding texts and making sense of them – isn’t a neat and tidy process at all. If there’s one thing I can say about my life as a reader, it’s that it’s been incredibly messy. It’s included periods of rapid progress, like when I discovered the Brontës the summer after my GCSEs, and times that were relatively fallow, when I devoured horse and pony books and teen fiction because I didn’t know what else to read. It has twists and turns, and huge variations in complexity, because I am a great advocate of comfort-reading as an antidote to stress. It’s also contained moments when I’ve encountered texts that were within my intellectual comprehension but very definitely beyond my emotional reach. I remember, at the age of eleven, reading a novel that featured the death of a main character, and how unsettling I found it. This wasn’t because of the way the death itself was described, but because the central character’s reflections on what this meant for her own life – her recognition of her own mortality, and that of the people she loved – made me think about my own world in a similar way. It was a reminder that everything – including me – would come to an end, and that, at eleven, was a big thing to get to grips with. I remember putting the book away in a cupboard where I wouldn’t have to see it. I didn’t return to it for several years, and only then with a sense of trepidation. No pre-teaching in the world, no comprehension activities or vocabulary exercises, would have helped me.

And in any case, those activities wouldn’t have happened, because this was a book I read on my own, at home. It was part of my own world and not something I talked to anyone else about. Because this is another thing about reading. In school, it is part of the curriculum, but outside, it’s often deeply personal and private. Sometimes, as teachers, we try to gain access to this private world. We want students to keep reading journals and write up their thoughts; we ask them what they’re reading and what they think of it. They might, occasionally, want to answer. But I can remember being thirteen or fourteen, and immersed in books that I wouldn’t have wanted to discuss with my English teacher in a million years. The thoughts and feelings I had about them were often so complicated and half-formed that I’d have hated feel compelled to share them. Leave me alone, I’d have thought. It’s none of your business what I’m reading.

So the idea of a ‘smooth ramp’ to an ‘adequate comprehension’ seems to me to be deeply unsatisfactory, an attempt to simplify and rationalise a complex process that replies, in part, on things that are beyond the teacher’s control. In a discussion on the work of Arthur N. Applebee on the English and Media Centre website, Barbara Bleiman refers to Applebee’s belief that ‘some of the seemingly neat and tidy models don’t necessarily succeed in offering the more complex learning that really constitutes knowledge in the subject’. As English teachers, we can structure and shape our students’ journeys through the texts they encounter in school. We can offer them signposts and instructions; sometimes we can metaphorically hold their hands. But we can’t control every aspect of the journey they make as readers, and nor should we try to.

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