“There is a correlation between the richness of the reading environment in which readers live and the richness of their talk about what they’ve read.” (Chambers 1996)
On Wednesday I attended an inspiring SATE seminar by Professor Sue Ellis. This seminar explored how success in literacy and language can improve the wellbeing of young people.
We are all aware that our pupils come from a diverse variety of backgrounds and often have unequal childhoods. Some are read to (and read) from a young age and others will only experience books for the first time at primary school. This results in some advancing way ahead of their peers as they already have experience with reading books and thinking about how they relate to their own life. We all have a different life and a different sense of self: that is what makes us interesting. This means that we apply what we know from our own experiences to the books we read and to the things we write. Just as going to different places and hearing different music enhances our life experience; so do books.
By reading, or being read to, we develop our own reading identity. We do the same with music and films. A horror film will be some peoples’ worst nightmare, however others will enjoy the scenes of darkness and the moments of suspense. I have a friend who suffers from anxiety and would never go on a roller coaster, but loves the adrenaline rush from a scary film. For her, the roller coaster would be a loss of self control, but a film is not real and can be stopped at any time. She made this decision based on the experiences she has had; resulting in it contributing to her identity. We do the same with books. We will read things based on what we know we like and from recommendations from others. If we have no interest in Science Fiction we are unlikely to jump at the chance of reading War of the Worlds and the same applies to children.
Pupils will see reading as a task if they are told what to read or if they are told to read a book from every genre in the library. Rather than fostering a love of books it can be a competition to read a book as quickly as possible in order to reach that genre ‘finish line’. We have to ask ourselves if this is leading pupils to develop their own reading identity or if it is hindering a potential love of books that pupils will develop a strong personal response to.
Sue discussed Reader-Response theory in the seminar and it got me thinking about the way we approach texts as English teachers. Pupils in my classes have recently started responding to statements rather than questions due to the unconscious bias that we can create through questioning. When we ask a question we always have an answer in our head and we wait with anticipation for a pupil to mind read (or get lucky) our ‘ideal’ answer. This can lead us to skim over some interesting contributions from other pupils because we are so focused on our own interpretation. Rather than telling pupils ‘that’s not quite right’ and moving on, we should be exploring their thoughts and ideas: how did they get to that response?
Reader-Response theory involves pupils thinking about their own views of a text. It allows pupils to explore what they like and dislike about a text as well as what they find puzzling. Pupils will also make connections with their own life and their experiences so far: does the text make them think of anything or remind them of something they have read before? This theory, in practice, allows pupils to have their own opinion. It is important to remember that everyone has something to contribute: we can learn a lot from pupils’ views. I have previously noticed a change in my senior pupils’ responses, when asked to give a personal view, and I was now inspired to see what kind of responses a film and a play would evoke.
I provided both classes with sheets as a focus for their responses. Pupils wrote down notes as the film was on and then, after 20 minutes of the film, individually responded to each statement. I decided to let pupils independently respond first in order develop their on response and reduce the chance of peer influence/someone taking a free ride. Pupils then shared their ideas with their group and the responses were thought provoking and, of course, suited to the individual and their own view.
It was interesting to hear about the way that the pupils related to the characters. One girl related to Katniss because she played archery and found to difficult to trust people. Another pupil stated that they struggled to relate to any of the characters because of the environment the characters were in and stated that the threat of death would change them as a person and they wouldn’t know how to react.
It was also interesting to hear what pupils would change about the film if they were the director. Some of the pupils stated that they would save a man who is killed to add drama but also because they didn’t want him to die. However another pupil stated that as a director you would have to think about what would have the biggest impact on the audience rather than simply finding it sad that someone is killed.
Pupils also discussed some of the techniques in the film and whether they liked them or did not. This is where reader-response theory works well because the pupils are not only discussing elements of media, but how the techniques relate to them. One pupil stated that although they didn’t like the dark and dull colours, they thought they were worked well at showing the poverty within the scene. Another pupil said that they liked the difference in costume between those from the Capitol and those from district 12 as it made it clear who was who and showed who had more money/belongings. A few pupils also said they liked the use of the sad music as it helped show how the characters were feeling in the scenes.
It was fascinating to hear the responses from pupils and how their responses developed as they discussed their views as a group. They were more willing to contribute as this was about their view and opinion rather than finding the ‘right answer’.
I also used this theory with my Higher English class. We are studying the play ‘Men Should Weep’ and have already been having discussions, through statements, about the play in general and character relationships. However, we hadn’t discussed their own personal view of the play yet and how it related to their lives, so I decided to try this out.
It was great to that some pupils enjoyed the use of the Scot’s language as it helped them to gain a better understanding of the characters and understand the setting of the play. A pupil also commented on the dialect helping to show the differences between characters and this lead to an interesting discussion on the importance of voice within a play. It was also interesting to see that one pupil felt the conflicts within the relationships helped to show the poverty that the characters were experiencing: would they be reacting in the same way if they had enough food and personal space?
Pupils also discussed the character that they felt they related most to. One pupil stated that they felt like they understood Jenny’s reaction to situations as they have had difficulty with their family and independence in the past. Another pupil stated that they related most to the young children in the play as they still see themselves as childish and immature and ‘looking in’ on the issues with families.
Overall these were very beneficial lessons and it is definitely something that I will use in the future. As secondary teachers there can be a pressure to get through what the pupils need to know, however I have found that giving them a chance to put across their personal opinion and interpretation helps deepen their understanding of the texts. We must remember that all pupils have something to contribute and we can all learn from their contributions.
Brooks W, Brown S (2012) ‘Towards a Culturally Situated Reader-Response Theory’ Children’s Literature in Education (43)
Chambers, A (1996) Tell me: Children, Reading and Talk. Stenhouse Publishers
Chambers, A (1996) The Reading Environment: How Adults Help Children Enjoy Books. Stenhouse Publishers