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The power of literature: Why literature teaching is about emancipation and social justice

Andy Goodwyn

This blog considers something that we all share – memories of reading literature – but its purpose is to promote and defend the place of egalitarian approaches to literature teaching in contemporary schooling. In England we insist that students engage with literature until the age of 16, and we expect almost all children to sit an examination of their literary knowledge. There is a longstanding debate about whether the intention or goal of such study is to develop appreciative readers who have been taught to recognise ‘the finest works in the language’, or to develop as lifelong readers who simply value and enjoy reading all kinds of texts. Ask English teachers and they will argue that, ideally, they strive to ensure that their students enjoy a comprehensive experience of literature that encompasses a wide range of texts, including many texts from a range of different cultures both written in English and in translation (Goodwyn 2011). There have been periods in which this was possible – notably 1984–1992 (Goodwyn 2010). However, recent changes to GCSE literature, including the reintroduction of exclusive terminal examinations, means that the current model of literature study for 16-year-olds resembles very closely the grammar school examination of the 1950s, with an emphasis on ‘the classics of exclusively English literature’ that is truly shocking in its narrow conceptualisation. What kinds of memories are our students forging of reading literature in schools in 2018? In contrast, a recent seminar in the BERA English in education special interest group’s series examined powerful memories of really inclusive literary experiences.

What can memories of reading at school tell us about teaching with novels today?

Dr John Gordon of UEA considered the question, What can memories of reading at school tell us about teaching with novels today? His research in this area investigates approaches to literary study outlined in his book, Teaching English in Secondary Schools (SAGE 2015), and develops his interest in the distinctive features of collective literary study and discussion also explored in A Pedagogy of Poetry (UCL Institute of Educatoin 2014).

Everyone remembers ‘reading round the class’, an approach used for decades without a great deal of accounts of its efficacy, or recent research on classroom talk for learning. As community and online book groups thrive, literary study in education is in a transitional state. Erratic GCSE English literature results, the persistent gender gap whereby boys underachieve, the rise of the ‘knowledge-based curriculum’ , and declining take-up of the specialism at A-level all suggest that the conventions of teaching for literary study deserve close attention.

John’s findings arise from the project ‘Literature’s Lasting Impression’, which surveyed adults about their lasting memories of reading novels in school, interviewed students and teachers currently engaged in the process, and examined distinctive yet related reading practices in informal book groups and in primary, secondary and higher education. What aspects of shared novel-reading at school had lasting impact? How is that impact shaped by relationships between choice of study text, teaching style and organisation of reading?

‘What aspects of shared novel-reading at school had lasting impact? How is that impact shaped by relationships between choice of study text, teaching style and organisation of reading?’

Research into reading often focusses on individuals and their capacity to comprehend texts. While these are important to teachers of literature, classroom approaches entail guiding responses to novels that are elaborated collectively – the interplay and culmination of many individual responses across a classroom. The ongoing research seeks to better understand effective literary teaching through analysis of these discussions, examining exchanges in terms of the rationale teachers give for their approach, and in light of the impact that students, readers and the public describe when they consider shared novel-reading at its most powerful.

John is currently building an account of the underappreciated skill of teachers of literature when they present texts to their classes. This is a subject-specific expertise built around the interplay of talk and text, creating a unique narrative experience for students distinct from individual encounters with novels in print alone. The most distinctive dimension is the additional narrative work introduced by teachers, often combining and guiding students’ analytic orientation to texts at the same time. If you are interested in further exploring this area and its impact on students’ learning, whether in school or through initial teacher education, contact

Looking ahead

This research shows how expert literature teaching continues despite the high-stakes testing regime, and how this mode of teaching benefits the learning of all students. Further research will be very welcome and valuable – not least because it can demonstrate the importance of a democratic and egalitarian conceptualisation of literary reading, rather than an elitist, passively appreciative model as currently demanded in GCSE literature examinations.


Goodwyn A (2012) ‘The Status of Literature: English teaching and the condition of literature teaching in schools’, English in Education 3(2): 212–227

Goodwyn A (2010) ‘The Status of Literature in a National Curriculum: a Case Study of England ’, English in Australia 45(1): 18–28