BritLit - 10 years in the making

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I can still remember the faces when I suggested a method of dealing with what most teachers of English considered one of their pet horrors, extended reading. The room was full of tired teachers, and many were quite cynical about the offer to work together to create a new and dynamic approach to the place of stories in the classroom.

They had seen promises come and go and mere words weren't going to convince them, which was a shame as it was mere words that we were principally dealing with. Most teachers were unimpressed by the extended reading challenge from the Ministry, and their lack of enthusiasm for the rather dry list of suggested tales was passed on to their students and everyone was pleased when that part of the syllabus was over. It was simply a box ticking exercise. We needed to do something more. We needed a very different approach.

That was ten years ago. Now we have a different approach, and it works. Here's how it happened (or, like most good stories, here are the main parts. You have to fill in some of yourself employing that underused classroom device, the imagination.) We - that is the British Council in Portugal and the Portuguese teachers' association APPI - started with three main precepts:

  • First, it is important to realise that all of us are storytellers, tellers of tales. We all have our own narratives - the real stories such as what happened to us this morning or last night, and the ones we have been told by others and we haven't experienced personally. We could say that our entire lives are constructed as narratives. As a result we all understand and instinctively feel narrative structure. Binary opposites - for example, the tension created between good and bad together with the resolution of that tension through the intervention of time, resourcefulness and virtue - is a concept understood by even the youngest children. Professor Kieran Egan, in his seminal book 'Teaching as Storytelling' warns us not to ignore this innate skill, for it is a remarkable tool for learning.
  • We need to understand that writing and reading are two sides of the same coin: an author has not completed the task if the book is not read: the creative circle is not complete without the reader, who will supply their own creative input to the process. Samuel Johnson said: A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it. In teaching terms, we often forget that reading itself can be a creative process, just as writing is, and we too often relegate it to a means of data collection. We frequently forget to make that distinction when presenting narratives or poetry, and often ask comprehension questions which relate to factual information - who said what and when, rather than speculating on 'why', for example, or examining the context of the action.
  • The third part of the reasoning that we adopted relates to the need to engage the students as readers in their own right, not as simply as language learners; learning the language is part of the process, not the reason for reading. What they read must become theirs and have its own special and secret life in their heads, a place where teachers can only go if invited.

We quickly found that one of the most important ways of making all the foregoing happen was to engage the creative talents of the class before they read a word of the text. The pre-reading activities become the most important part of the teaching process; the actual reading part can almost be seen as the cream on the cake, and the principle aim of pre-reading activities is to get students to want to read the text. We developed a series of activities which uses clues or fragments from the text yet to be read, and which rely on the student's innate knowledge of narrative, so that they can to build their own stories before they read the key text. They have enough information to generate ideas but not so much that it becomes simply an exercise in guided writing; releasing a free imagination is the objective.

Group activities work well here as ideas can be bounced around, though sometimes the ideas will only bounce around inside the group or even just the student's head so we have to make sure that everyone realises that it is NOT a writing task, even though they are going to have to create their own story. This story will be told to the class; they can take notes but no more. While it is usually the case that one student will tell the collective story, we also encourage collective story-telling, with others chipping in with additional information, corrections and the inevitable variants that occur.

There are various ways to promote this oral activity based on an as yet unread text: picture prompts, a sense of shared narratives (Once upon a time stories being ideal for this - we know that resolution will happen and that there is a good chance that everything will end 'happily ever after', whatever that might mean), using 'chunks' of the text which act rather like verbal pictures and later act as useful stepping stones when the text is eventually read and, my personal favourite, narrative building questions which ask a series of chronologically presented questions about the story that has not yet been read but which relies on that instinct for narrative that I've already mentioned to supply the answers. One result is usually a heightened degree of curiosity about the content of the target story. Students will have played around with their own ideas for building a story using elements from the target story and the majority will be motivated to know what the author wrote.

Moving from pre-reading to reading, we may introduce textual intervention activities. 'Textual Intervention' is a term used by Rob Pope to describe the process of questioning a text not simply as a guide to comprehension but as a way of exploring the context of the story at any one time, and examining points at which the narrative presents choices, points of divergence, or narrative crossroads. We don't do this for all texts, however, as the shorter ones do not seem to gain much from this process and it simply breaks up the reading pleasure.

Follow up activities are needed, at the least, to round off the activity, to bring some sense of closure but they also offer an opportunity to link the reading experience more directly to the requirements of the syllabus. Indeed, the story may have been chosen in the first place because the context supports one of the themes that teachers are required to examine as part of the syllabus - for example, 'families', 'science and technology', 'communications', 'the environment' and all the other familiar themes. There are very few stories that can't be explored without some part of the syllabus being supported. For many teachers this is an essential requirement if they are to engage in such extensive reading at all.

The whole process - pre-, while and post reading - could be just an hour's activity, or it could last for more than one lesson. When we are designing the materials for exploring stories clearly it is isn't possible for us to know how much time any teacher will have available, which is why we construct the activities into a series of independent units which we call kits. They are called kits because we expect teachers to build their own lessons out of the materials we provide, which implies that large amounts may be discarded. What we do ask, though, is that the pre-reading activities be included, if nothing else. That is essential for the process to engage the student as a creative reader..

One of the purposes of encouraging a creative reading approach in the language classroom is to do with the dynamics we perceive in the classroom. Strategic theorists tell us of the social trinity, whereby three elements are required to achieve a dynamic in any social situation. In the language classroom these might be seen as consisting of the student, the teacher and the language. Certainly from the perspective of the student - and usually from the perspective of the teacher - the relationship is an unequal one, with the language being perceived as placed closer to the teacher than the student. This will result in less dynamic between language and student than between language and teacher. However, if we replace 'language' with narrative and especially if that is approached as a creative process that draws the student in so that they feel they 'own' the relationship with the text, then this will shift the dynamic in the classroom so that the student, who has now become a reader, is much closer to the language - or narrative - than previously. This creates a much more effective dynamic of learning. However, some teachers feel threatened by this apparent loss of overall control and mastery. Indeed, the whole business of open ended creativity and a lack of boxes to tick for the correct answer is quite unsettling territory for some to find themselves in.

One of the reasons that we can be sure that the vast majority of students will instinctively recognise how a narrative works, and be able to supply their own models easily, is that there are basically only seven types of plots from which all stories are built, and we are all familiar with them. Very young children recognise them, or most of them, and by the time they have become teenagers then all the known plot lines will be very familiar indeed. These seven plots are The Quest, which revolves around a central protagonist striving to meet an all important and often far off goal; Voyage and Return, which, like the Quest, is based around a journey but during which the hero learns things that give him or her a deeper understanding of themselves or the world around them; Rebirth, in which the protagonist is often cast under some dark spell either instigated by himself or an outside force; Comedy, in which people are shown to be worse than they are and for the characters to be thrown into a state of confusion; Tragedy, where the central character is an individual (usually of great status) who goes through a series of actions and decisions that unwittingly brings about their own downfall; Overcoming the Monster, in which the hero/heroes must overcome a dark evil creature/person/entity; and finally Rags to Riches, where the central character is seemingly plucked from nothing.

The original model for BritLit was aimed at one particular age group only, middle teens, though the Ministry list of authors originally relied on texts written for adults and so we had to adopt activities which were graded according to level, even if the original story wasn't. Our collection at present contains a wide variety of narrative types, plus poetry, and ranges from literary gems from the likes of Andrea Levy, Romesh Gunesekera and Ron Butlin, established contemporary classics from Fay Weldon, Beryl Bainbridge and Roald Dahl for example, plus poetry from a wide range of styles, from Owen Sheers to Benjamin Zephaniah, from Jackie Kay to Levi Tafari. We quickly moved away from the standard list and started to experiment with texts from writers for younger readers rather than adults, writers like Melvin Burgess, Paul Jennings and Louise Cooper and even with authors who specialised in stories for pre-teens such as Michael Rosen and Tony Mitton, and the same basic methodology worked with all of these writers. When we reached the youngest groups, however, where picture books are more appropriate, a slightly different technique is required and consequently we have developed fewer resources for the under 10s.

One important development that arose naturally from the work we were doing was not factored into the original plans at all. Early on we decided to work with stories which were written by contemporary authors and this led to working directly with the authors themselves, in some cases to create the materials. The involvement of the authors in the project opened up a whole new dimension, and soon we were inviting the authors to work with teachers and children in the schools, and also with teachers who had been recruited as materials writers on training courses run by NILE in the UK. It is hard to overestimate the effect of bringing an author into a school, especially if the BritLit approach to creative reading had been previously adopted and many stories of hope and encouragement have arisen from this process. In one example, the British based Sri Lankan writer Romesh Gunesekera, made some visits to schools on the Portuguese island of Madeira where he was so entranced by the work of the schools on his writings in which some students had turned some of his stories into plays (and acted them out for him) that he went away and researched and wrote a set of new short stories based on the island. These stories were eventually published in a bilingual edition to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the island by the Portuguese. In another, a group of Catalan students had studied the very short stories of Louise Cooper and, when she came to visit, they set her a puzzle. They had rewritten some of the characters to be found in Louise's stories in their own stories, and asked her to identify her own characters, who were now dwelling in new environments!

These examples of sharing creative roles, and allowing the texts and the authors to become catalysts for new and imaginative approaches, fostered a stimulus within the language learning environment to such an extent that many teachers reported that their teaching practices had been revolutionised. The story of BritLit spread and soon teachers on all five inhabited continents were engaging in the work, and reporting similar levels of interest amongst their students. The distribution of the materials, free of charge, via the British Council's Teaching English website obviously had a great deal to do with this, but so did the use of authors and poets associated with the project, who acted as ambassadors and travelled the world to take BritLit across Europe, to Asia, South America and Africa. When BritLit became associated with some of the International Hay Literature Festivals, especially in Segovia in Spain and Cartagena in Colombia, its status changed yet again and a new generation of teachers became involved in the process.

In ten years we have achieved far more than we originally thought possible. For me personally the great achievements have been in hearing from many teachers from all around the world who tell me of how this changed their teaching practices - for the better, I should add - and also to the number of fine writers and poets who I have been privileged to introduce to schools across the globe. There has been enormous satisfaction in seeing publishers adopt the methodology we espoused, and for our work to be acknowledged in the national teaching plans of Education Ministries. Most of all, though, it is the knowledge that millions of children have had the opportunity to discover that reading can be a creative activity which can make learning a language a lot of fun.

By Fitch O'Connell

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