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Bridging the gap: from GCSE to AS.

The assumption from those not involved with English teaching is that all students who choose to study AS English Literature or English Language & Literature are avid readers. But practitioners know this is definitely not the case. The reality is that students have very different motives for taking English. While you will discover some keen readers in your AS English group, a substantial minority will be those who ask 'Will I have to do a lot of reading?'

As part of the interviewing team in a large sixth form college, interviewing 20 or 30 prospective English students each year, we came to recognise the following as typical responses to the question 'Why do you want to take English?'

* 'I like writing stories.'

* 'I want to do Law/Media/Theatre Studies and I think it goes well with it.'

* 'I need a fourth AS subject and there isn't anything else I'm particularly good at.'

When prospective English students are asked about their reading habits, even those committed to the subject tend to say 'I used to like reading but I haven't done much since I started GCSEs.'

Students stop reading for pleasure for many reasons. For some reading is squeezed out by the demands of GCSE courses or a developing social life. Others find it difficult to make the transition from teen reading to more challenging adult fiction, and this can be a great leap for those who stopped reading at 14 or 15.

As every English teacher knows, if students are to get the best out of an advanced level course we need to:

* get them reading with enjoyment

* get them back into sustained reading

* get them involved in communal reading

* get them to talk about their reading and to respond to other people's suggestions and ideas.


The very beginning of the AS course is the obvious time. Nobody chooses to join a course with the intention of doing it badly, so we need to engage students' interest and energies while they are keen to learn and to establish themselves as members of a new group. To hook them on literature, re-kindle the interest they had in reading before GCSE, get them to commit to reading and set good analytical reading habits, we need to catch them early.

The ideal time is immediately post-GCSE to get them reading over the Summer break, but, if this is not possible, then early in September while class 'identity' is still being established. If you are in a school, prospective AS students will no doubt be required to attend some lessons, and if you are in a college there may be an opportunity to organise a 'taster' lesson as part of an induction course. Whenever it takes place, this first lesson is crucial. When students meet as a group for the first time, most teachers will plan 'ice-breaking' activities, so why not make the introduction to reading part of these?

The premise


The following activities and suggestions for an introductory lesson are intended to get students reading anything--and fiction here seems to be the most accessible way in. At this stage you need not be over-concerned with analytical, critical reading or with reading recognised works from the literary canon. This is all about freedom, flexibility and sheer enjoyment.

Here are case studies of some Year 12 students who described how they got back into reading.


Student A

'The book I most enjoyed at school was To Kill A Mockingbird as I was gripped by the courtroom scenes. A teacher suggested that I read a novel by Jodie Picoult which described the intricacies of a legal case. Then I discovered John Grisham and this has inspired me to take Law at A level.'

Student B

'I liked watching detective programmes on TV and a friend suggested a book by Patricia Cornwell. I found the forensic detail fascinating so looked for more writers in that area and found Kathy Reichs.'

Student C

'I really don't like reading but my parents were always going on about me not reading. I love football and support Man U and a friend of my dad's gave me Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. It's a great book, even if he does support Arsenal.'


Student D

'I do Art and I wear Goth stuff. I like unusual novels, especially if there is something creepy about them. I found The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter and I think it's the most amazing book. I actually based some Art coursework on some of the scenes in the book. I think I'm really in love with Finn. I'm going to read The Company of Wolves next and get the film.'

The introductory lesson we suggest is based on the premise that students trust the recommendations of those with similar interests to their own and will read novels about topics that interest them. We suggest activities which are non-threatening and student-orientated, and which will give you a chance to get to know your individual students.

The Lesson The Ice-Breaker

Stage 1-10 mins Distribute sheets of A3 paper and coloured pens. Ask each student to complete a table like the one below.

What do I watch?

Man United The Simpsons 'Skins' on Channel 4 The Mighty Boosh Black Books

What do I listen to?

Chris Moyles on radio Bloc Party The Foals

What would I most Like to be doing if I wasn't here now? snow boarding playing football sleeping listening to music out with friends

What do I read?

Harry Potter Gregory Maguire: Wicked Terry Pratchett websites blogs graphic novels

Stage 2-10 mins

Fix A3 sheets to the wall and get students to circulate to see what others have written. You can take the opportunity to read the posters yourself to identify common themes/interests.

Help the students to divide into 'interest groups' based on common interests and ideas generated by the table exercise. For students who don't seem to fit in, get them to choose the group where they feel most comfortable.

Stage 3-10 mins

In 'interest groups', talk generally about shared interests eg. football, being a Goth, working in McDonald's (anything to create a relaxed and friendly atmosphere).

Stage 4-10-15 mins

Ask each student to introduce one book from their table to other members of their group. Their purpose is to 'sell' the book to others and make them want to read it by briefly describing the book and the impact it made on them.

Their choice of book can be anything at all. For example, one student chose his favourite childhood picture book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and said this had given him a longlasting interest in the horror genre.

Part 2: Themed reading

The second part of the lesson will need some advance preparation and discussion in your department. You may find it useful to tap into the experience and knowledge that your existing students will have from their other chosen subjects. It might be productive to talk to subject specialists to find out if they recommend any wide reading--as many history teachers do. It will be essential to have discussions with your librarian, and it might be a good opportunity to introduce the students to the school/college library by taking them there for this part of the lesson.

In a ten-minute plenary session, ask questions which will enable you to guide students to the type of reading that they will enjoy. Have ready handouts with booklists as a response to the likely answers to the questions. Choose titles and authors that will be accessible and enjoyable to the age group. This will have the effect of customising their reading to what they already like.


Some possible questions are listed below, with just two authors or novels suggested. You will, of course, want to list four or five.


Who is interested in Law?

Jodie Picoult John Grisham

Who is interested in psychology?

Frank Tallis Mark Haddon

Who enjoys reading about young people's experiences of growing up?

Donna Tarte (The Little Friend) David Mitchell (Black Swan Green)

Who is taking History?


C.J.Sansom Philippa Gregory

Are there any Art students?

Tracey Chevalier (Girl With a Pearl Earring) Deborah Moggach (Tulip Fever)

Do you enjoy fantasy or science fiction?

Arthur C Clarke P. K. Dick

Is there anyone who finds it difficult to read a complete novel?

start with graphic texts, eg Neil Gaiman's 'Neverwhere'

Is anyone fascinated by future worlds?


P.D. James (The Children of Men) Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go)

Who enjoys horror and the supernatural?

Michael Cox (The Meaning of Night) Elizabeth Costova (The Historian)

Who enjoys detective fiction/thrillers and unravelling plots with clues?

Ruth Rendell Andrew Taylor

Who would like to travel?

Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible) Gregory David Roberts (Shantaram)

Out of the classroom

Put all the book titles that you have recommended on the school/college Intranet and set up a forum or chat room. Ask students to post comments after they have read a book (either favourable or otherwise). They can also use this forum to promote books they have discovered.


Your new prospective AS group should now be set up for their holiday reading or will have begun their first term in Year 12 with a re-kindled best for books.
COPYRIGHT 2008 National Association for the Teaching of English
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Title Annotation:Secondary; General Certificate of Secondary Education, Advanced Subsidiary level
Author:Jay, Mary; Nixon, Cherith
Publication:NATE Classroom
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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