Routes into reading (20 Oct 05)

Date: 20 October, 2005
Location: Room 329 and 330, School of Advanced Study, University of London, Senate House, Malet Street
Event type: Conference

Location map | Programme | Event report

book stall

Past event summary

This one-day conference discussed issues relating to the foreign language reading among students following programmes which include the study of foreign language literatures. These included the use of literature in translation and other texts (such as film) that have been derived from or refer to works of literature.

The conference covered three main areas

  1. The presentation of the findings of a recent Subject Centre project which surveyed student attitudes to reading both literary and non-literary texts in the foreign language. Students were surveyed in a range of institutions, with samples from students in all years of (1-4), studying French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabic and Russian.
  2. Issues of transition between school and university study of literature
  3. Ideas and strategies for creating interest and enthusiasm among students for the study of foreign language literatures as well as a panel discussion of the results and related issues such as:
    • reading in the target language
    • literature in translation/comparative Literature
    • selection of appropriate literary and related works
    • methodologies for teaching literature
Programme for 20 October 2005
Time Session
10.00 - 10.30 Registration and coffee
10.30 - 10.40 Welcome and introduction
10.40 - 11.30 The Subject Centre reading survey: initial research findings
Angela Gallagher-Brett and Alison Dickens, Subject Centre LLAS
11.30 - 12.15 Responses and discussion
Panel to include: Chris Shorley, Queens University Belfast; David Frier, University of Leeds
12.15 - 13.15 Lunch
13.15 - 14.00 Issues of transition: an example from English
Andrew Green, Brunel University
14.00 - 14.45 Teaching literature in the context of film
Rhian Davies, University of Sheffield
14.45 - 15.15 When it comes to literature is small better?
Sara Poole, University of Reading
15.15 - 16.00 Tea and closing comments from the panel

Event report: Routes into reading

by Alison Dickens

... a chance to share common concerns
and find out about the latest research

- Conference attendee

This one-day conference presented the outcomes of two research projects looking at issues of reading in the foreign language and transition from school to HE. This was followed by two presentations of ideas and strategies for creating interest and enthusiasm among students for the study of foreign language literatures.

Subject Centre Reading Project

Angela Gallagher-Brett and Alison Dickens, Subject Centre for LLAS
Download PowerPoint presentation: Attitudes to reading among modern language undergraduates: results of a Subject Centre survey (650Kb)

Following consultation with the Subject Centre's Literature and Culture SIG a research study was undertaken which looked at student attitudes to reading in both L1 and L2 and covered a variety of text types including literature. Some 601 questionnaires were collected from students at 7 UK universities who were mainly studying Spanish, French and German although Arabic, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese and Russian were also included. The results are still being analysed but to date the following findings were reported:

  • Attitudes to L1 reading were mainly positive although attitudes to academic reading were more ambiguous;
  • Year 4 students are more confident in their abilities in L2 reading than those in Year 1;
  • Almost all students agreed that the purpose of L2 reading was to improve language skills;
  • The majority of students claimed that they enjoyed L2 reading but there were differences in attitudes to different genres. For example, nearly all students expressed an interest in reading newspapers/magazines and high numbers were interested in novels but poetry was the least popular genre
  • Reading literature was seen as mostly useful and difficult as opposed to enjoyable and cultural

Thus far there are 4 main conclusions

  1. There is a clear sense of progression in students' feelings of competence over the course of the degree
  2. Ab initio students remain less confident in their reading ability in year 4 than students who have experience of the relevant language prior to university
  3. There is some evidence of more positive attitudes to L2 reading in year 4 but this seems to depend on the genre
  4. There is a tendency to view reading literature instrumentally, as a means of improving language skills

However work on this project is still ongoing and a full report of this study will be published by the Subject Centre in January 2006 for news of this.

Panel: Responses to the study

Following the presentation a panel made of up representatives from the Subject Centre's Literature and Culture Advisory Group were invited to give their responses to the outcomes of the study. These are summarised briefly below:

Rhian Davies, University of Sheffield (Spanish)

  • Findings were more positive than expected, more positive to different genres [e.g. novels] than expected
  • Importance of the vocabulary issue [students reported frequent dictionary use when reading]
  • Students seem scared of academic style [some resistance reported to academic reading]
  • Need to persuade students that literature is for enjoyment put the fun back in.
  • Research-led teaching must be pitched at the right level.
  • In year 1 literature is too much of a leap if there's no A-level experience and there's a tendency to under-estimate students' lack of language skills [only half the students surveyed agreed that they were doing well in L2]
  • Try short fiction rather than novels
  • Compare a text with a translation

Chris Shorley, Queens University Belfast (French)

  • A very useful study and it might be helpful to pass on findings to students
  • Regret that there appears to be no real increase in students' enjoyment of literature [there was a slightly lower interest in reading literature reported by Y4 students than among Y1 students]
  • The study is a snapshot which raises the question as to what would the snapshot would have been like in the past and what will it be like in the future?
  • It raises questions about the A-level syllabus (how does it relate to HE work)?
  • Could we work at doing things right in the future?

David Frier, University of Leeds (Portuguese)

  • The study is a mixed bag of information containing both pleasant and nasty surprises [students have very positive attitudes to reading, but see literature mainly as a means of acquiring language skills]
  • Teacher and learner purposes are perhaps not in accord, so teachers need to persuade learners to see the teachers' point (that reading literature has purposes other than language development).
  • There is, perhaps, a case for using translated texts including film which is especially true with ab initio students. With two provisos
    1. Students are at the mercy of bad translations even this can be useful in comparing the original with the translation.
    2. Must ensure that students are aware that books and films are very different genres.
  • Students' experience of literature appears to be too gloomy [some students commented that the texts they read were sad or morbid in content] cheerful is not always possible but students can be helped to appreciate that literature is saying something about human experience.
  • Does language get in the way of literature? Yes, if students think they have to look up every last word, perhaps they could be encouraged to skim read for gist before looking up
  • The amount of risk students are prepared to take and their confidence in reading could relate to the genre [e.g. they don't have the confidence to approach poetry].

Daniel Hall, University of Nottingham (German)

  • Perhaps students could learn to love the gloom in literature this is possible
  • We need the information from the study on students' degree backgrounds what are their language/subject combinations? Is the language in question their L2/L3/L4? This could impact on attitudes?
  • Confidence, in year 1, 50% are confident but they could be wary of not being experienced in reading certain texts but experience grows
  • Time of the year when the questionnaire was completed is important (how early in their studies was it?) [April]
  • Vocabulary is a big issue so translation must be considered.
  • Lack of appeal of poetry in year 4, could this be explained by Y4's thoughts having turned to more practical considerations of their future careers?
  • Language does seem to get in the way of literature but the idea that literature and language are mutual opposites should also not be encouraged
  • Teacher awareness of the student experience is crucial
  • Is the students' experience of literature compulsory or voluntary?
  • Literature is seen as challenging but rewarding [by students] this is positive

Reading: Four perspectives on transition

Andrew Green, Brunel University
Download PowerPoint presentation: Reading: Four perspectives on transition (144Kb)

In this presentation Andrew reported on a study conducted for the English Subject Centre of transition from school to university studies of English Literature. In this study students and staff were interviewed at 6 th Form and university level in order to:

  • To explore uses and purposes of reading at post-16 and university levels and their impact on student learning;
  • To evaluate how effectively study post-16 prepares students for university reading;
  • To consider assessment post-16 and its impact on student reading and attitudes to reading;
  • To identify differences in expectation and perception of reading between post-16 and university.
  • A number of approaches to reading were explored at both levels which led to the following key findings:
  • Pre-reading tasks were set at each level but the content and support for this was considerably different at 6 th Form (high support, very directed, short texts) and university (low support, not directed, longer more varied texts)
  • DARTs (Directed Activities Related to Texts) such as cloze exercises and prediction were used extensively at 6 th Form level and rarely at HE level
  • Drama-based approaches to reading which help develop tools' for reading (e.g. notions of voice, explorations of character) were not used extensively in either sector but were much more likely to be used at 6 th form level and very rarely at HE level
  • Theoretical, critical and contextual reading is widely reported at both levels (more so at HE level) but there is evidence that at 6 th form these are introduced rather then extensively applied

In conclusion Andrew comments that owing to a very heavily assessment-driven curriculum at 6 th form level the more cognitively challenging and risky' (applying theory) aspects of reading are neglected at pre-University level which creates potential areas of difficulty at transition to HE. In addition the high levels of support and lack of wide/extensive reading prior to university study suggests that there is a need for more preparation for the independent study and reading around the subject' required at HE. He ended with the following recommendations

  • Explore where gaps in perceptions of the purpose and nature of reading exist between Sixth Form and university subject paradigms;
  • Seek ways to encourage student risk-taking and breadth in reading;
  • Develop proactive rather than reactive programmes to assist students in learning to cope with the planning and execution of reading in the university context.

Finally despite the fact that Andrew's study related to the learning of English Literature it had great resonance for modern languages where students are likely to have had even less exposure to literary texts (only a quarter of students surveyed by the Subject Centre reported prior experience of this) and may, therefore, experience greater challenges in making the transition to HE literary study.

Teaching Literature with Film

Rhian Davies, University of Sheffield
Download PowerPoint presentation: Teaching Literature with Film (1,953Kb)

This presentation introduced a new module that Rhian has been teaching at the University of Sheffield which uses a film version of a novel to promote closer engagement with the written text. She began by referring to recent studies that show that reading is a less popular activity than TV/Film watching and that the least engaged sector of the population, as far as reading is concerned, are 18/19 year olds. Add to this a lack of exposure to foreign fiction (even in translation) and the frequency in the cinema of books turned film she decided to approach teaching literature from a new direction. In the module she has developed she uses the film Tristana (Luis Bunuel 1970) as a springboard into analysis of the novel (Benito Perez Galdos 1892) on which it is based. Taking into consideration concerns that the film could easily overshadow and dictate interpretation of the novel she begins the module with extracts from the written text which students are asked to use as a basis for creating a visual image of the characters, before they see the actors cast to interpret them. Other activities relate to comparing film and novel from the point of view of historical setting (Bunuel changes the time in which the novel is set), location (Bunuel moves the drama from Madrid to Toledo ) and characters (a key protagonist is more sympathetically portrayed in the film than in the novel). In this way, she concludes, students are encouraged to see that film is an interpretation of the novel, not a substitute for it. The film maker, like them is a reader of the novel and the film is a work in its own right.

Clearly there are potential difficulties in approaching literature in this way, but for Rhian these were mainly questions of time (to select extracts and clips) and technology (making and showing film clips). She suggests that the following benefits using film in this way are:

  • Film acts as a catalyst for class discussions
  • Film provides new insights into literary works (through comparison)
  • Satisfaction & enjoyment
  • No wavelength problems students are comfortable with the film medium
  • Studying literature through film can be fun

Routes into reading is small better?

Sara Poole (University of Reading)
Download notes: Routes into reading: is small better? (29Kb)

In her paper Sara discussed a literature module that has been developed at Reading to respond to many of the issues that were discussed in early sessions, namely, lack of prior exposure to extended literary texts and lack of familiarity with the genre together with the need to cater for students who are not specialising in literary study. The literature offered in the Contemporary France module (which also includes History) is a collection of short stories. This enables students to experience a variety of literary styles and structures and to make comparisons between works from different points in time (19th and 20th century). As the stories are all different there is a chance that each student will like some of them (and can move on from the ones they don't like) and of course the quantity of reading is potentially less!

Together with the stories the students are supplied with notes to help them focus their reading. They are guided through approaches to plot/narrative, point of view, characters, setting, style, t heme via a series of prompt questions. They are then asked to produce a close textual analysis of an extract from a story (chosen by the student) which comments on the context (the story as a whole), the nature of the extract itself (what is going on) and the structure (narrative, language etc.).

To date Sara has not collected student feedback on this aspect of the module (which is new) but those teaching the module are very positive to teaching in this way and it has been suggested that the small texts approach is extended to other aspects of the module. She also points out that although the texts are short the selection of the material and the development of the support material were no less time consuming (possibly more so in fact) than for other types of text.