The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0576 Monday, 1 March 2004
From: Al Magary <
Date: Sunday, 29 Feb 2004 16:21:52 -0800
Subject: Shakespeare, the Famous English Chunk Writer
Shakespeare cut down to size for GCSE students
By Julie Henry, Education Correspondent
Telegraph, Feb. 29, 2004
Teenagers are no longer having to read in full the plays or novels set
for their GCSE examinations, but rather study only extracts.
A three-year study of English lessons has discovered that pupils are
being taught just "fragments" of the works of literature, rather than
the whole text.
The study, by researchers from London University's institute of
education, concludes: "In many of the classrooms we looked at, anxiety
over examination failures led to to a severe fragmentation of texts -
that is, students get to know texts only as fragments."
Prof Gunthar Kress, the author of the report, said teachers had low
expectations of what their pupils could cope with and taught "chunks" of
books and plays to try to get them through GCSE course work and
"The lessons are not about what is important in terms of English culture
and tradition. They are about how pupils can get through the exam," he
said. "This worry about exams means some children are given a very
Prof Kress's report, called The Production of School English, was
commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council. Researchers
examined the lessons of nine teachers in three urban schools with
similar intakes. The classes were made up of 15 and 16-year-olds
preparing for GCSE English.
At one school, researchers sat in on a series of 12 lessons that were
supposed to cover Macbeth. In the first two sessions, the text of the
play was not even in the room. Researchers said:
"During these two lessons, the text to be studied . . . is not mentioned
until the end of lesson two and then only to indicate what the next
lesson will focus on."
Instead, pupils learnt about witchcraft and were asked to match five
pictures to five characteristics that "define" witches, such as "They
can fly through the air". In the second lesson, pupils were asked to
imagine what life was like in the early 1600s, when Shakespeare wrote
Lessons three to five looked at Act 1, scene 1 of the play. In lesson
six, pupils acted out the scene. It was not until the next two lessons
that pupils looked at the plot of the whole play, but this was done
through watching a film version rather than looking at the text. The
last four lessons focused on the planning and writing of GCSE course work.
The teacher told the researchers: "I don't know whether the pupils
actually understood the story so well, but then really, for what they
were actually being asked to do for their course work, they didn't
actually have to.
"It is a shame not to teach the whole play, but from past experience, I
know pupils actually find that really difficult."
Prof Kress said that the approach, while not used in every school, was a
distortion of what English teaching should be: "It is making English
more about the transmission of facts than the exploration of meaning. It
is a distortion of what the curriculum should be and of what is best for
Teaching of Shakespeare to younger pupils was also vulnerable because
schools were told in advance what scenes would be in the National
Curriculum Tests, the professor said.
Fourteen-year-olds across the country who are studying Macbeth were told
in January that the May test will concentrate on Act 1, scene 3 and Act
3, scene 1. Children reading Twelfth Night will answer questions on Act
2, scene 3 and Act 4, scene 2. Teenagers studying Henry V will be
examined on Act 3, scene 1 and Act 4, scene 7.
Prof Kress said: "In some schools, children study the set scene and that
is all that happens."
Traditionalists fear that the teaching of Shakespeare is likely to
deteriorate further next year because of changes to the English section
of the National Curriculum Tests...
[rest of story reviews the changes being made to the last-named tests.]
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