I’ve always chosen books with a rich vocabulary and subtle meanings that lend themselves to discussion. I’ve rarely taught books that were written more recently than the 1960s. In making my selections from department cupboards over the years, I’ve seen raised eyebrows as colleagues ask how the pupils will ‘cope’ with such material. Apparently young people coped with it in previous decades, but now we shouldn’t be expecting them to; better serve up some poorly punctuated pap about boy wizards instead.
Later in the year, colleagues notice that these supposedly incapable children are in fact enjoying the classic book I chose. They can’t understand how such a thing could be achieved. But the answer is very simple: I read it to them, and we discuss it. Thus we enjoy a rich experience all together as a class, and they have no trouble understanding the text’s meaning, or discussing its finer points.
I’ve been criticised in the past for doing too much reading aloud, on the basis that anyone could do it. But not all readings are alike. A reading that brings the text to life, punctuated with brief explanations of key words and discussions of issues arising, is an experience which enriches vocabulary, builds awareness of literary structure, and is just magical anyway, because everyone likes stories, even when they’re fifteen and it’s a warm Friday afternoon.
I’ve often asked myself why on earth an English teacher would avoid doing such an obvious thing, and one that is both enjoyable and educational. Could it be that they have swallowed the idea that it is somehow invalid to build understanding in a way which makes the teacher the centre of attention? Do they think of interpretation as a private activity, instead of a communal building of meaning under the guidance of an expert?
If anyone reading this is still burdened by solipsistic notions of textual interpretation, I urge you to drop them, cry ‘free at last!’ and start enjoying great books with your classes. And I’m addressing primary school teachers too.