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Teenage boy with book in class looking bored

What’s missing from English literature at school – emotion

Reading fiction is an emotional experience. Feeling emotions – even negative emotions such as sadness – drives reading and helps us enjoy books. Research from the National Literacy Trust, a UK charity, has found that nearly 45% of children and young people said that reading made them feel better.

The emotions we feel when reading may even help us show empathy, understand that others have opinions, and encourage us to help others. The emotional experience of reading is both individually and socially beneficial.

The link between reading and emotion is largely missing, however, from the reading experienced by young people in English literature lessons in England.

An impersonal approach

The GCSE English literature curriculum has been criticised for its narrow choice of texts. Closed-book exams mean students have to focus on memorisation, making the subject far removed from the experience of reading students might have beyond the classroom.

What’s more, examination questions in English literature are usually constructed impersonally. A recent GCSE paper asks students: “How does Priestley explore the importance of social class in An Inspector Calls?” Questions like this prompt students to consider the intention and style of the author without taking their personal response to the text into account.

Teachers preparing students for examination questions like this may downplay emotions in their teaching, which could result in studying English literature being very different to reading for personal enjoyment.

This shift away from emotion in teaching and assessing English literature is a recent change. In 1921, the Newbolt Report, a landmark educational review of the teaching of English in England, argued that emotion should be at the centre of reading literature.

Nearly seventy years later, examination questions in English were still inviting emotion-driven responses. For example, a 1989 A-level English question asked students to “write about what you have particularly enjoyed or admired in your favourite Hardy poems”.

What teachers think

The current approach to the English literature curriculum and its assessment is also at odds with how teachers view the value of emotions in English teaching. In our recent research, we surveyed 140 teachers of English from across England to find out their views on the place of emotion in teaching literature. We found that they placed great value on drawing on students’ emotions.

Teachers spoke of how important it was for students to make personal connections with books. Research has shown that personal relevance can help readers take the knowledge they have acquired from literature into their wider lives.

Young woman smiling reading book on sofa
Reading for pleasure elicits an emotional response. carballo/Shutterstock

The teachers used the words “feel” and “feelings” frequently. These words often occurred within broader comments about engagement and a sense of closeness to both the themes and characters in the texts being studied. Some of the teachers we surveyed felt that this connection with a text had to be in place before any attempt to analyse language, structure and meaning. As one teacher said:

I find the easiest way into getting kids to analyse language is getting them to think about how it makes the [sic] feel and then to explore how the language is making that happen.

Teachers were also keen to promote the value of discussion in their classrooms. They viewed this as an important way in which learners developed as readers, through dialogue and by building on others’ emotional responses. Teachers told us that they felt such collective talk was important as a tool for enriching the classroom environment. It also, crucially, encouraged students to understand that any literary text can give rise to multiple and often very different interpretations. A teacher said:

If students can’t verbalise their own emotions regarding a text, I encourage them to empathise with others and consider how other readers may respond to the text. We discuss a range of responses and think about why and how (depending on person, context etc) emotions and reader responses may differ.

Some teachers felt that the current assessment system prohibited personal and emotional connections with texts. This view came across particularly strongly from those preparing students for external examinations. They felt that the very rigid nature of examination questions meant that, despite their belief in the value of foregrounding emotional responses to texts, they had to concentrate their teaching on what ultimately would be assessed.

If students do not find studying English literature stimulating, they may be deterred from continuing to study the subject beyond GCSE. Fewer students are studying A-level English. Not only is this damaging for the humanities generally, but it could also have harmful consequences for the subject. Fewer undergraduates reading English could result in fewer students going on to become English teachers.

School reading should be more closely aligned to personal reading practices – and those are very much driven by emotions.

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