How can I get her to read more?

Charlotte Moon, who teaches English here at WHS, looks to investigate issues around how we can encourage children to continue reading, increasing their independence.

When do we stop reading with our children?

As babies and toddlers, we read to our children to stimulate and satisfy their curiosity, to promote language acquisition, and as a way of bonding. Of course, they can’t even recognise the alphabet at this stage, so the actual reading bit naturally devolves on us. By kindergarten and reception, children begin learning to read for themselves, most likely with the structured support of a reading scheme followed by their school. At this stage, there is an understanding between parent and school that developing your child’s reading ability is a shared responsibility; your child will read with support at school, learning phonics and so forth, and will have books and reading logs sent home with the expectation that parents will initiate and supervise ‘reading homework’ most days of the week.

So what changes as our children progress through primary education?

By the time they’ve moved up to Year 7, what proportion of parents are still actually reading with or to their kids on a regular basis? As an English teacher, the impression I get is that there is a definite shift which correlates with children being able to read independently. Why read to or with your child when they can read to themselves, right? There don’t seem to be enough hours in the day for parents to satisfy the demands placed upon us, so no longer having to supervise reading homework may come as a welcome relief.

The problem is, without supervision, encouragement and the bonding that comes through shared reading, children face the danger of entering a reading wasteland at this age (and I don’t mean that their new found reading independence miraculously enables them to read T.S. Eliot). Do we really know how often or how much they are reading? Do we even know what they’re reading? At Key Stage 3 (Years 7-9), students at WHS read a book they have chosen independently for 10 minutes at the beginning of each double lesson, but in some cases the level of challenge in these books varies greatly: in the same class, one student might be reading Pride and Prejudice while another reads Jacqueline Wilson. It is here, too, that the shared responsibility between school and parent can seem less distinct. While schools offer reading lists and take an interest in which books their students bring to lessons, we no longer have the time to sit and read with students individually, or to take remedial groups out of lessons for extra reading support. And when it comes to the co-curricular provision on offer for English, it tends to be the way that the keenest readers and writers are the ones who attend, and the students who shy away from reading keep their distance.




Jacqueline Wilson and Jane Austen: The variation in level of challenge in reading can be very apparent in KS3 lessons.

How do I get her to read?

As students approach the age of having to sit public exams, the common question at parents’ evening is ‘how do I get her to read?’. Parents can seem at a loss as to how to influence or encourage their daughter’s reading once she has entered adolescence. My guess is that very few parents are reading with their daughters by this stage, but are also, understandably, keen for their daughters to be making good progress and keeping up with their cohort in terms of attainment. So why not read with your child? It could improve her confidence, develop her understanding of texts and aid her continuing language acquisition. Not to mention, at any age, reading is still a fantastic way to bond with your child. So, what’s stopping us? Is it still the restraints on our time, or is it the fear of incurring a teenage meltdown that would impress even Harry Enfield’s ‘Kevin’? Can we build a meaningful relationship based on reading once our children enter their teens? Can we bridge the gap that has been created by years of leaving them to read independently?

Every parent-child dynamic is different. But why not try reading with your teenager? It really will help develop their skills and understanding as readers and writers, and it will enable you to connect, or even reconnect with them, on a level other pastimes cannot necessarily replicate. Model the reading you want to see in your child and you will both reap the benefits.

Cross gender casting in Shakespeare’s plays: Does it solve the problem of gender inequality?

Cecelia (Year 12) investigates the modern and historical practice of cross gender casting in Shakespeare’s plays.

From Tamsin Grieg’s Malvolia to Maxine Peake’s Hamlet, cross gendered casting is becoming increasingly popular in British theatre, never more so than in Shakespeare’s plays. New adaptations wanting to put a spin on the 400-year-old productions now look to casting female actresses in the typically male roles of Lear, Macbeth and Othello. Whilst this allows the play to be seen through a different feminine perspective and offers a completely new interpretation of the character, cross gendered casting gives women the opportunities to embody some of theatre’s most complex and popular roles.

However, this seemingly ‘modern’ twist on Shakespeare’s work is not as revolutionary as we may think. When Shakespeare wrote the majority of his work, women were not allowed to perform on stage and so his female characters were always played by young boys or men. As much as gender blind casting can provide a wider range of roles for female actresses, is it always effective and when should the line be drawn?

It is no wonder that Shakespeare’s work is constantly being revisited and adapted, his original text is so complex and diverse that something new can be gleaned from it with every new actor. Hamlet is the most frequently adapted Shakespearian play and has one of the longest histories of women playing the title role. The character of Hamlet is uncertain, passive and lacks resolve – qualities that are typically seen as feminine. Hamlet’s effeminate side has led to the character often being portrayed by women, with some believing that they can inhabit the role with more ease as they are able to fully connect with the feminine side to his personality.

Some of the most famous Victorian Hamlets were women, Sarah Bernhardt and Alice Marriot’s Hamlets were highly regarded by most critics with the part said to have benefitted from their “injection of femininity” (Catherine Belsey). Despite this, some critics argued that it was impossible for an actress to truly comprehend and identify with the thoughts and emotions of a man – a line of argument that is still present today. With this in mind some productions choose to play the character of Hamlet as a woman as demonstrated in Asta Nielsen’s portrayal of Princess Hamlet in the 1920 silent film. Nielsen played Hamlet as a woman masquerading as a man, possessing all the masculine skills and lacking only the instinct to kill. But regardless of the past success of actresses playing the Dane, there is still a public reluctance to accept this change; a 2014 YouGov poll found that 48% of Britons were not happy with the idea of a female Hamlet.

Many argue that by changing the gender of the actor, the gender of the character is effectively altered as well; as such, must the text itself be adjusted and if so, to what extent?

Whilst Vanessa Redgrave played the male role of Prospero, Helen Mirren’s Prospera was a female rewrite of the original. For most of Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest, the change to Prospera worked but because her daughter, Miranda, stayed female, the relationship between the magician and the child became complicated. The dynamics between a father and a daughter are vastly different to that of a mother and a daughter, and the Tempest is inherently a complex dissection of the fraught bond between a father and his daughter. The removal of this crucial theme dramatically altered the message of the entire piece and as such did not sit well with many audience members.

Whilst cross gender casting did occur in the 18th and 19th century, it has gained huge popularity in the last 20 years. As gender is beginning to be seen less as a biological definition and more as a social construct, the idea of a woman playing a man or vice versa has become far more acceptable. Our intrinsic understanding of male and female characteristics have changed, along with the ways in which we wish to see them portrayed on stage.

Of course, the opportunity for great female actresses to play great Shakespearian roles is positive. As well as giving women the chance to play classic and multifaceted roles, it allows for directors to create something new out of a play that has been around for hundreds of years.

Despite this, as we move forward, the dramatic community must place more of an emphasis on the creation of original female roles which share the same complexity and breadth of emotion as that of their male counterparts. Juliet Stevenson summarised the debate neatly with her statement on the red carpet that she “want[s] great parts for women, not women playing great parts for men”.

Twitter: @English_WHS

Taking the register

James Courtenay Clack considers the way we use language in the classroom.

It started with a pupil in my Year 9 class dismissing Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting as ‘flanter’. Whilst inwardly I shared her sniffiness about their saccharine shared sonnet, there seemed to be a clear challenge coming from this pupil. Would I, as a teacher, and an English teacher no less, allow her to use slang to talk about one of the most famous scenes in all of literature? This got me thinking about the way we use language in the classroom.

With morning and afternoon registration and seven lessons, most pupils can expect to answer the register nine times a day. As important as this rite is in keeping track of pupils, far more interesting is the other type of register pupils flit between. If anyone with a half-keen ear were to follow a pupil around the school for a day, they would notice that the way pupils speak and write changes as they move from home to school, from WhatsApp groups to essays. Rare is the pupil, for example, who answers the question of what they want for breakfast in the same formal and detailed manner in which they would a question about the bleak landscapes of TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.

Register, as coined by Thomas Bertram Reid and developed by Martin Joos, is the sociolinguistic term for the use of language as defined by social situation. Broadly speaking, register is about the level of formality of language and it incorporates elements as disparate as:

  • Vocabulary
  • Tone
  • Dialect
  • Slang
  • Abbreviation
  • Use of full sentences

It is worth thinking about why we use language differently in different contexts. In certain social situations, the answer is obvious. We adopt a more formal register with managers/bosses at work, for example, both as a sign of respect and out of a desire to impress. Similarly, our use of a more informal register with friends belies a level of comfort and intimacy that we do not share with our employers.

For the most part the ability to move between these registers – or at least the knowledge that you speak differently with Mrs Lunnon than you do with your BFFL – is picked up when young. As our social skills develop, our ability to move between registers becomes almost unthinking. When I applied for a job at WHS, for example, I did not have to remind myself not to greet Mrs Lunnon with an ‘alreet pal’ at the start of my interview.

That we use language differently in different social contexts is hardly a ground-breaking observation, but it does have several implications for teachers. Once pupils enter the classroom they are introduced to a new range of registers and in English, there are two main areas of interest, or areas of clash: the way we talk in class discussions and the way we write essays.

Although essays are the main form of assessment, the primary skill being assessed – interpretation of a literary text – is developed in class discussion and debate.

The question of how we speak in class is deeply political. The fact that the ability to use language in certain ways is a form of social currency in this country has moved schools such as Michaela Community School and Harris Academy Upper Norwood to ban the use of certain registers in the classroom.

The desire to equip pupils with the verbal skills required for social mobility is undoubtedly a noble one, but I would argue that such a hard-line approach to register is dangerous. Firstly, the fact that WHS’ A-Level curriculum includes writers as diverse as Chaucer and Tennessee Williams is proof enough that there isn’t one ‘correct’ form of English. Secondly and more importantly, however, is the entire point of class discussions. The reason we discuss and weigh up ideas and not just dictate, Mr Gradgrind style, from the front is that we want to encourage pupils to develop their own voices and their own thoughts.

If pupils are going to develop ideas and formulate opinions through discussion, as they will have to do at university, they will need to feel a sense of ownership over the curriculum. It is for this reason that I encourage my class to voice opinions about texts in their own way and it was for this reason that I whole-heartedly agreed with my Year 9 pupil about Romeo and his ‘holy shrine’. Similarly, if my Year 12 class want to refer to the author of Mrs Dalloway as Ginny Bae, or if my Year 8s want to describe Shylock’s insistence on his pound of flesh as ‘a bit extra’, then why should they not?

It is possible to create an enjoyable learning environment in which pupils feel confident voicing ideas and opinions in their own language whilst at the same time modelling the more rigorous language of academia. So I agreed that yes, Shylock ‘was a bit extra’, but then questioned them as to whether his desire for revenge along with Antonio’s overt anti-Semitism made Shylock a tragic hero in the eyes of a modern audience or whether he was a mere comic foil about whose suffering a contemporary audience would not have cared a jot. That he is both, and more, is testament to the genius of Shakespeare, a man who knew more than most about the power of mixing the language of the court with that of the street YEAH.

Twitter: @English_WHS

Chaucerian Challenges: Studying The Merchant’s Tale at English A Level

Studying Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale from The Canterbury Tales as part of A Level English is, undoubtedly, a daunting prospect for any Year 12 or 13 student. It is intimidating reading unfamiliar Middle English aloud in class (e.g. ‘fetisly’ – elegantly; ‘chidestere’ – nagging woman). However, despite initially seeming inaccessible, Chaucer is anything but elitist. In fact, the challenges of studying his work is what makes it continually surprising and rewarding. Stephanie Gartrell, Second in English KS4 at Wimbledon High School, explores the challenges and delights of studying Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ in Sixth Form…

English students face the challenge of identifying a clear moral from the competing narrative voices throughout The Canterbury Tales. The frame narrative establishes the central plot: a socially diverse group of pilgrims travelling from Southwark to the tomb of Thomas Becket. En route, they initiate a rather profane tale-telling competition to liven up what is, ostensibly, a journey of spiritual reflection and penitence. The prize for the best story? A free meal at the Tabard Inn, Southwark, on their return. Thus, from the outset, a conservative framework of Catholic ritual is subverted by a much more anarchic series of interrupted tales. Many tales are replete with ribald vulgarity typical of the fabliau genre; others use Estates Satire to expose institutional corruption; several puncture courtly pretensions of more high-status literary genres or forms (fin amor, chanson de geste, sermons…).

Our text falls in the so-called ‘Marriage Group’ in which the Wife of Bath, Clerk, Merchant and Franklin share tales that directly rebut and challenge one another’s views on marriage. This further destabilises a clear moral message about what constitutes the ideal marriage or marital partner. Some critics, such as George Lyman Kittredge, perceive the Franklin’s final message of mutual love and respect to be closest to Chaucer’s own views (‘We need not hesitate, therefore, to accept the solution that the Franklin offers as that which Geoffrey Chaucer the man accepted for his own part…’). However, there is a residual sense of irresolution on the matter. There is no authorial intrusion or omniscient narrator to clarify our ‘take-away’ message before the Tales move on.

Chaucer also builds a tantalising pattern of parallels and contradictions within The Merchant’s Tale itself. For instance, the Merchant’s Prologue reveals the Merchant to be unhappily married for ‘Thise monthes two’, describing marriage as ‘the snare’ and yearning to be ‘unbounden’. Nevertheless, his tale begins with a disconcerting eulogy lasting 135 lines in praise of marriage. This eulogy is generally perceived as a ‘mock encomium’, satirising the foolish naivety of the aged knight January whose idealised and blinkered view of matrimony as a ‘hooly boond’, echoes the Merchant’s earlier image of wedlock as a binding ‘snare’ or trap, transforming it into a sacred tie. Similarly, January’s vision of a wife as his ‘paradis terrestre’ (earthly paradise) ironically subverts the Merchant’s description of his ‘wyves cursednesse!’ The fact that large sections of the mock encomium are neither direct nor reported speech further blurs to what extent we are reading a filtered version of January’s beliefs, or whether the ironically inappropriate Old Testament examples of female virtue (Eve, Judith, Abigail…) are supposed to express the Merchant’s misogyny to the reader.

To summarise the plot of The Merchant’s Tale very roughly: after 60 years as a promiscuous bachelor, January finally decides to marry a teenage bride named May. Whilst his concerns are partly economic (to beget an heir), his primary motive is to legitimise his lustful desires and protect himself from sin. January is comically specific in his ideal bride: ‘She shal nat passe twenty yeer’ and he refuses to marry any ‘woman thritty [thirty] yeer of age’, who he dismisses as ‘bene-straw’ [dried bean-stalks]. Chaucer swiftly debunks any notion of January embodying chivalric values of spiritual refinement, repeatedly applying the ironic epithets ‘gentil’ [refined] and ‘noble’ to his protagonist, highlighting the absence of these stereotypical knightly qualities. Might this partly reflect some of the Merchant’s own social anxiety – a nameless member of the trading classes aggrandising his fictional self to the status of a knight? Or is the Merchant attempting to expose the fiction of aristocratic nobility to comfort his own wounded pride? Again, it could be neither or both!

In any case, January’s young bride May quickly establishes an affair with their servant Damyan. When January is unexpectedly struck blind, they capitalise on this opportunity to consummate their affair in a pear-tree in January’s private garden, at which point January miraculously regains his sight. With a bit of female ingenuity, May explains that his sight is still impaired and not to be trusted. The gullible knight accepts her explanation and continues to live in a state of prelapsarian Edenic bliss with his ‘paradis terrestre’ – remaining blind figuratively, if not literally…

One of the main pleasures of teaching and studying The Merchant’s Tale is because it is difficult. Ambiguities abound. For instance, who is in the ‘snare’ of marriage by the end of The Merchant’s Tale: May, who is largely voiceless and objectified, or January, the architect of his own trap, likely to raise an illegitimate son as his heir? Why would the Merchant present January as such a contemptible lecher if his main moral were to vilify wives? And are we imposing 21st values onto a 14th century text by casting May as a proto-feminist figure struggling for sexual autonomy?

And if that weren’t enough of a challenge, students compare The Merchant’s Tale to Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband – a divergent text in form and context. An Ideal Husband was first performed on stage in 1895 for the Victorian elite at the Haymarket Theatre, whilst The Canterbury Tales is a narrative poem from the 1390s. However, despite the 500 year gap, both texts share a prescient (and hopefully timeless) interest in exposing individual folly and abuses of institutional power – whether religious or political. They mock moral hypocrisy and the false ideals perpetuated by those guilty of self-deception or duped by sentimental dogma.

Since all of these concerns are as pertinent today as they were for Chaucer and Wilde, it seems vital that students continue to engage with the delightful, troubling complexities of Chaucer’s work.

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Decolonising the Canon of English Literature

By Ava Vakil, Year 12.

If the purpose of literature is to represent the culture and tradition of a language or a people, can we really profess ourselves to be true students of literature when seemingly only focusing on a single culture and its peoples?

Such has been the question of a group of students from Cambridge University these past few weeks; there has been a cry from undergraduates to “decolonise” their English Literature syllabus by taking in more black and minority ethnic writers, and bringing more expansive post-colonial thought into the curriculum.

A kindred instance occurred at Yale University in May of last year, where there was widespread criticism of the requirements to graduate as a Yale English major. As it stands, a student is able to fulfil the requirements of the revered course without studying the literature of a single woman or minority writer.

However, as always after a plea for diversity, there comes the inevitable “But…(insert the name of any women/minority)!”.

And whilst this may be true – and the likes of Austen and the Brontës have themselves a fairly fixed place within the Canon of English Literature – it is simply not good enough; not only are women and minorities few and far between, but they tend to offer what I consider ‘one-step diversity’. This being white women, or gay men, or anyone who represents only one shift away from the ‘norm’ of the straight, white cis-gender men. Where are the black female trans writers, and why aren’t they a key part of our education?

There is an urgent need to address the homogeny of the curriculum within many universities and schools, along with the canon itself. The reason for this is not just diversity for diversity’s sake (though this has many benefits in itself), but because we are narrowing and constricting our understanding of literature and context by ignoring writers simply because they don’t have a place in the literary canon.

This does not mean refusing to study Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Frost etc. but simply broadening our conceptualisation of what English Literature is.

As Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a teaching fellow at Churchill College (Cambridge) puts it:

“It is not just about adding texts but about rethinking the whole question of Britishness, Englishness and what they mean in relation to the empire and the post-imperial world… questions of race, gender, sexuality and so on.”

We are hampering and inhibiting our own knowledge under the colonial guise of the canon. Surely it should be impossible to study Othello or Jane Eyre without considering the post-colonial context? Or Twelfth Night without a wider multidisciplinary study of gender and sex?

Though it is against the nature of universities to want to politicise their curriculum, this happens by default when the syllabus simply reflects the age-old and continuing social, literary (and political) repression of anyone classified as “other”. Hence, cries from Twitter trolls about this being a ‘patrolling’ of the curriculum to suit and accord to the views of particular women and minority groups are intrinsically hypocritical.

The canon of literature has forever accorded to the politics of the majority, and appeals to change this are no more political than the sexist, racist and colonialist nature of the canon in the first place.

The need to change this system of subtle repression of writers within education must come from both professors/teachers and students alike. Though there are concrete changes which need to be made in terms of legislation of the actual syllabus, as students we have a large part to play.

Read widely and read critically; consider racial and gender context; rewrite and reclaim what you consider “classic”. Most importantly, investigate the hidden under-belly of the canon of English literature – the texts that are excluded have just as big a part to play in the shaping of our society as the texts which sit smugly on the exclusive list.

“Let’s make our bookshelves reflect the diversity of our streets.” – Phil Earle