On the Importance of Literature to Learning

Let’s start by posing a fundamental question: how is one to learn about and marvel in experiences, cultures and ways of life in the past, if not through literature? In my view, there’s only one answer to that. You simply cannot know how you came to be where you are and who you are without literary accounts. You cannot understand your own language, not to mention other languages and their development within a historical context, if you don’t read literature.

Of course, it’s not just a peek into the past that will help get you through the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell and other influential authors of the British classics; you can get a deeper understanding of how the English language evolved in terms of word morphology, punctuation, syntax, grammar, and phonology. As Sally Law, the principal teacher of English at Marr College in Scotland, wrote in The Guardian, ‘we’re equipping them [the students] with essential skills for the real world.’ Simply using the English language as we read it in today’s modern version is not enough to understand its complexity.

As I mentioned above, literature also contributes to one’s identity. Grasping the changes from past to present concerning behaviour, norms, ideas, and perspectives allows one to understand what, how, and why things have transformed. It is very well-known that history repeats itself, and through studying about the past, one can understand what to avoid in the present and, hopefully, in the future.

If there are, therefore, a lot of benefits to the study of literature, why is it not further promoted and encouraged in education in the UK? Because contrary to what you might think, it is not. And for that matter, why are other art subjects less and less appealing to students?

Unfortunately, due to policy changes in education, the number of students following a more artistic path has dropped to its lowest in a decade. English literature, which is better studied in its entirety, is mostly introduced to students as a supporting subject to the learning of the English language. As a result, insufficient attention is being paid to the content of literary work. The ultimate goal of this policy is of course to provide students with the best chance of achieving a good GCSE grade. However, a considerable amount of the enjoyment and heritage that these texts provide is at present being lost in the process. Some classic works traditionally taught as standard have now been cast aside, deemed unnecessary. Students study not for the pleasure of it, but rather as an obligation to pass, not really seeing or being present in the moment. It is unfortunate that today it seems like the study of such a subject is there only as a means to the end of passing exams.


Is the current education system eliminating imagination and artistic potential from our future society?

In recent years the British government has been accused of trying to marginalise the Arts subjects, in favour of Core subjects such as Science, Languages and Maths. The value placed on Art, Music and Drama appears to have decreased, with even the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) having dropped all Arts subjects, bar English, from its list of requirements.

Commenting on his post The Seven Deadly Sins that Prevent Creative Thinking, Psychology Today blogger Michael Michalko said, “Unfortunately, I’ve come to believe that education is a great inhibitor of our natural creativity… To me it seems that in the real world those who know more, create less; and those who know less create more.”

Michalko echoes the opinion that Sir Ken Robinson made in his 2006 TED talk, when he spoke passionately on why we need to create an educational system that nurtures, rather than undermines, creativity ( https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity ).

It could be said that in a modern world, full of technology and instant request filling opportunities, children don’t need to be as imaginative or creative as they have been in the past. In truth, many would argue that the opposite is the case. While the demands of the technology that runs our world means an understanding of science and maths is more vital than ever, the stresses that accompany such ambitions mean that the ability to escape into our imaginations has become just as important.

Creativity, be it through drama, song, playing of a musical instrument, drawing a picture or telling a story, provides a much needed dimension to our personalities, culture, and well-being; In its most extreme case scenario, the sidelining of the Arts would ultimately mean less books to read, less films to see, less songs to sing, and less artwork to enjoy.

In a recent article in the Times Educational Supplement, ‘Too many schools have forgotten that fun is crucially important’, Colin Harris asks if primary schools have become so concerned with meeting the standards of Ofsted and ensuring all government guidelines are met, that there is little time left for children to have fun or learn through creativity.

Mr Harris warns that, “Many of the problems that manifest themselves later at late junior and early secondary phases are due to the insufficient opportunities we have given our children to develop their emotional intelligence through play and creative opportunities when younger… Play and creativity need to permeate all levels of our system. Surely if learning is memorable and inventive then our children will certainly think and behave differently.”

Most teachers would rightly deny that they work hard merely to instil a feeling of dull mediocrity among their pupils. Yet with English teachers having little choice but to teach us what we are supposed to think about the books we read rather than allowing us the freedom to make up our own minds, and decreasing educational budgets meaning that even if a school wanted to stage a play or buy instruments to form an orchestra they can’t afford to, it is easy to see why the lack of creativity argument continues to rage. After all, any school that was seen to put the desire to buy dancing shoes ahead of purchasing new science equipment would lose its reputation fast.

It is fair to say that, on an individual level, the majority of teachers do their best to introduce as much creativity as they can to their daily lessons; but they are up against a system that is, at this current time, discouraging rather than encouraging that angle of education.

We recently ran an article on the Sci-fi sub genre of Steampunk. But perhaps better known is that of Cyberpunk. Except… again, what exactly is it?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Cyberpunk as “a genre of science fiction set in a lawless subculture of an oppressive society dominated by computer technology”. Resonant with dark overtones, Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that rings thick with intrigue, virtual reality, gritty crime, drugs, vice, and underground heroes. These heroes are usually viewed as felons by the authorities, who rule over the world which they inhabit; a world dominated by powerful corporations and private security forces. Cyberpunk stories, whether they are told in books or film, detail dark political corruption and social upheaval. Unlike Steampunk, which is more easily classified as a sub-genre of science-fiction based in a steam technology driven world of pseudo-Victoriana, Cyberpunk is hard to categorise. Consequently, there is some debate over what can and can’t be included in this subsection of literature and film. However, perhaps looking at the words ‘cyber’ and ‘punk’ in isolation can help.

Cyber is a reference to technology. We are familiar with the Cybermen in Doctor Who, for example, with their cybernetic enhancements to the body; and of course, cyberspace. The phrase cyberspace was first used by the writer William Gibson, popularly known as the father of cyberpunk literature. The term cyberpunk itself, however, can be traced to the short story Cyberpunk by Bruce Bethke, published in 1983. Punk, however, is a cultural and attitudinal reference to people who are frequently antiheroes, outcasts, criminals, visionaries, dissenters, and misfits. This makes them the perfect protagonists for cyberpunk, who tend to be similarly subversive in nature. Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), part of his Sprawl Trilogy, is considered one of the first cyberpunk novels and a prime example of the genre, yet there is work like Bethke’s that came before him. And its back catalogue has continued to grow ever since, with such titles as The Diamond Age (1995)by Neal Stephenson and Halting State (2007) by Charles Stross.

Apart from Gibson, the author best associated with Cyberpunk culture is Philip K. Dick. He wrote 44 novels and over 140 short stories, including The Man in the High Castle, Minority Report, and The Little Black Box. However, it has been argued that his work translated as cyberpunk via the medium of film far more convincingly than it did as literature. Perhaps most famous example associated with him, and with Cyberpunk culture as a whole, is Blade Runner. This 1982 film was directed by Ridley Scott and starred Harrison Ford. Although the film was written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, it was an adaptation of his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

In Blade Runner’s footsteps came The Matrix trilogy, Tron, Inception and more, including William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic. These films, which helped move cyberpunk culture into the mainstream (the latter aside), involved dystopian futures, particularly where humans could store cybernetic information in their own minds.

Cyberpunk can mean different things to different people. Sometimes it is dark and brooding with advanced technology, sometimes it’s political and full of antiheroes fighting a political system with the aid of, or against, enhanced technological beings and advancements. However you see cyberpunk, as genre site Neon Dystopia (https://www.neondystopia.com/what-is-cyberpunk/)  says, “There are cyberpunk movies, television programmes, comics, music, and art everywhere. All you have to do is look. Cyberpunk has influenced fashion, architecture, and philosophy. Cyberpunk has become much more than what it was when it began. And it will continue to evolve and become more relevant as we move further from the Cyberpunk Now into the Cyberpunk Future.”

The phenomenon of Steampunk is becoming increasingly popular in both literature and fashion. But just what is steampunk?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it in terms of literature as, “a genre of science fiction that has a historical setting and typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology.” It goes on to define Steampunk fashion as, “a style of design and fashion that combines historical elements with anachronistic technological features inspired by science fiction.”

The term “Steampunk”, which combines Victoriana with modern day technology (fuelled by steam rather than electricity or batteries, etc.), originated in the late 1980s. It was first used within the world of literature, when science fiction author K. W. Jeter sent a letter to Locus Magazine trying to find an accurate description of the book he’d written (Morlock Night).
Although it was Jeter who is credited with inventing the word “Steampunk”, it was William Gibson and Bruce Sterling who developed it into being a sub-genre of fiction, rather than a few niche books. They did this via the popularity of the novel The Difference Engine (1992). This book, which provided an alternative, fictional version of the Industrial Revolution, saw Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine as not just a unique object of future potential, but an accepted and well used piece of machinery.

According to the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrence, “Steampunk is an inspired movement of creativity and imagination. With a backdrop of either Victorian England or America’s Wild West at hand, modern technologies are re-imagined and realized as elaborate works of art, fashion, and mechanics. If Jules Verne or H.G. Wells were writing their science fiction today, it would be considered steampunk.”

It isn’t just literature that embraces steampunk. Over the past decade in particular, it has also become a fashion style. As with the literature, the clothing involved mixes together traditional Victorian garments such as top hats, corsets and frock coats, with cogs, goggles and boots. Steampunk fashion frequently creates something wearable and elegant out of random bits and bobs of metal, leather and wire.

At a time when the modern world faces political instability, it is perhaps not surprising that a culture which lets us escape into the romance of the past, while simultaneously allowing us the use of a certain amount of the technology we have become used to, is rising in popularity.

With more and more novels being turned into feature films, the question of whether the book is better than the film becomes more emotive with every new cinema release.
To answer this question, I interviewed a number of writers to get an author’s perspective. The resounding overall answer was ‘No… but there was this film…’ In other words, the gut reaction from 95% of the 80 writers I asked was that the book was always better than the film- and then they’d promptly come up with an example that contradicted that first reaction.
For instance,“No… but then I loved Cold Mountain the movie, but couldn’t get through the book.”

One author commented, “I think it depends. Sometimes there are really good adaptations of books, but they are never really similar. For instance I love Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which are are the same but different. The name of the main character and basic plot are the same, but the rest isn’t. I find that with watching movies I don’t always have to concentrate as much, with reading books I do. Books are not better; they are just different, because we use our imagination in a different way when we watch, rather than we do when we read.”
This is an excellent point. The frame of mind we are in when reading is very different from that when we are watching a film on the television or at the cinema. With a book it is our own imagination that is engaged by the words before us. With a film, the work is being done on our behalf by the visuals and sounds we are presented with. It is often the case that we see the book as better than the film when we have read the book first. If we see the film and then read the book, our perspective is more likely to be the reverse, and we will declare the movie better.

Script editor and film expert, Lucy V. Hay says, “There are loads of films that are better than the book, especially when plotting is an issue in the book, because movies cannot get away with plot issues in the same way. A good example is The Maze Runner. There are so many good things about the character and dialogue in the book, but the plotting is nonsensical in parts and exposition is back-ended towards the resolution. The movie takes all the great bits from the book regarding the concept, characters and dialogue and streamlines the plot.”

Another argument often voiced in the book versus film debate is that bad books make good films. This concept, known as fidelity criticism, has some merit as the film maker takes the idea and strips it into something far superior than the original text. Two examples often cited in this instance are The Godfather and Trainspotting. Though there are plenty who would disagree and give their own choices. Again, all highly debatable.

In the end, however, whether you think the book is better than the film, or vice versa, it must be remembered that they are fundamentally different mediums. In a book you can spend several pages on a character’s internal dialogue or in describing a landscape but these techniques do not usually translate well onto the film screen. Added to which, if a director included every single plot detail in a film then most would probably be a day long…. again not something you want.

When we read the book first, we often feel that the film should mirror every part of that story; but what if the director interprets the book differently? In short, it is very difficult to adapt a book for film, and it would be impossible to please everyone who’d read that book. Perhaps it is best that we view each of them as different concepts, mediums, and creative works in their own right, rather than compare them to each other.

For more information about specific books and that have been turned into films, see Lucy V Hay’s site- http://www.lucyvhayauthor.com/category/Book-Versus-Film/

“With a unique ability to see the world through a child’s eyes, the aptly named author and illustrator Lauren Child is one of the most influential and innovative writers of her generation. Her creations include the popular picture book series Charlie and Lola and Clarice Bean as well as the Ruby Redfort books for older readers.” – Waterstones

Last week, Lauren Child was announced as the 10th holder of the Children’s Laureate title. This coveted award was first proposed by Poet Laureate Ted Hughes and children’s writer Michael Morpurgo, who wanted children’s literature to be held in the same esteem as adult literature. According to Waterstones and the Book Trust, who run the scheme as a joint enterprise, the role of Children’s Laureate is intended to “promote and encourage children’s interest in books, reading and writing”. The Laureate is the person who agrees to act as the official champion of children’s books on behalf of the nation’s children.

Just how the post can champion the cause of children’s books is a matter for debate. Lauren Child has already stated her intentions to encourage children to write, draw, and be generally creative, echoing the intentions of primary school teachers everywhere. She has also voiced her concerns over the closure of so many public libraries. Of course, these concerns are not new. It has been widely known and accepted for some years that as libraries close, fewer children have access to books, especially those from families with lower incomes, where books are an expensive luxury. So while the position of Children’s Laureate certainly adds a positive voice to the debate, it can do no more than strengthen the argument in favour of fewer libraries shutting, and the hard fact is that libraries are not closing because people don’t care about our children’s literary future, but because the money simply isn’t there to keep them open.

As part of the role of Children’s Laureate, Child will visit schools and children’s events to promote the idea of reading and writing. Sadly, as the award only runs for two years, any author, however well intentioned, can only attend a limited number of such events before the gauntlet is picked up by the next holder of the prize. This next award winner, who may or may not have the same target audience within the vast children’s arena of the book market, will have their own unique take on how to promote the joy of reading to our children. Nonetheless, the role of Children’s Laureate can only have a positive outcome, albeit one with a less far reaching effect than we’d like. If Lauren Child can persuade just a few boys and girls to discover the joys of reading, writing, and the magic of storytelling, then her role as an ambassador of children’s literature will have been worthwhile.

Lauren Child takes over the mantle of campaigner for better writing and wider reading opportunities for children from Chris Riddell (2015-2017). Before them came Quentin Blake (1999-2001), Anne Fine (2001-2003), Michael Morpurgo (2003-2005), Jacqueline Wilson (2005-2007), Michael Rosen (2007-2009), Anthony Browne (2009-2011), Julia Donaldson (2011-2013), and Malorie Blackman (2013-2015).

Freelance writers create stories, articles, blogs, press releases, adverts and technical manuals. Whether fiction or nonfiction, the majority of writers work on a range of these different products rather than just concentrating on one, and will allocate them a certain amount of time during their day accordingly.

1) Writing

Approximately forty percent of a writer’s day will be spent writing their latest novel or set of stories, as well as working on any articles, manuals or blogs they may have been commissioned to create.

2) Researching

Uncovering background information for stories and any articles or blogs that they have been commissioned to write is very important and this will take up a significant proportion of time as well. Readers will expect an author to have his or her facts right.

3) Marketing

Promoting a catalogue of work is essential, and takes up the biggest part of a modern writer’s day. Very few publishers provide adequate marketing or public relations for their authors. This means that writers need to be familiar with all forms of social media so that they can interact with their readers and generate new markets for their work. The preparation and maintenance of this is vital.

4) Blogging

The majority of authors have their own website upon which to promote their work and to pass on news to their fan base and readership. Regular blogs by the author, and any guests they might like to invite to feature on their site, need writing, setting up, and scheduling.

And sometimes one thing needs every hour and more…

5) Personal Appearances

Literary festivals, research groups, libraries, book clubs and conferences all provide opportunities for writers to talk about their work and sign books for the public. Such visible marketing is an essential part of an author’s promotional schedule.

6) Teaching

Many writers teach creative writing classes to bring in additional income. This will obviously require preparation and organisation in and of itself.

Finally, a writer has to be flexible and open to new ideas, organised, willing to take on the freelance writing about subjects they may not be interested in, and be comfortable with public speaking and willing to take the time to travel to promote their work. Most writers are paid in royalties, which are dependent on how many books and articles they’ve sold. They must also be able to adapt their lives to fit in with being paid either every three months, twice a year, or annually.

In 2015 I wrote an article anticipating the publication of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, written before but set after To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee’s death, soon after its appearance, raised concerns about whether the novel she hid for 55 years should have been printed in her old age, suggesting that she had been coerced into publication. The book itself did not meet with universal praise, although most criticism was aimed not at the quality of the writing but at the change in the character Atticus Finch.

Now that the dust has settled, I thought it would be worth taking another look. It is, undoubtedly, a ‘good read’, although this time it is not narrated by youthful, naïve ‘Scout’ but by her older self, Jean Louise, who lives away and is only visiting Maycomb. She sees through adult eyes and judges in a way that her younger self did not. Now, being critical of the attitudes of others, she is unaware of her own shortcomings.

The biggest and most difficult aspect to come to terms with is indeed the alteration in Atticus Finch. Scout’s view of him as a learned, wise and compassionate father became ours. Now Atticus is infirm, and even worse, he is attending white supremacy meetings. There is some attempt to contextualise, but Lee does not satisfactorily explain how the man who defended Tom Robinson with such empathy and eloquence could now be his inverse. Similarly, Calpurnia, the reliable housekeeper and important influence on the young Scout, is now hostile towards her. Change came to Maycomb County, as everywhere, but it does not make easy reading.

In some ways, Watchman is the novel where the characters are more rounded and the flaws are out in the open but there was something very special about the view of the world which Lee gave us through the eyes of an inquisitive young girl and I can’t help wishing that she had preserved that.

There are two questions in Section C and all candidates must answer both of them. The first question is an analysis of a single unseen poem. This question is worth 24 marks. The second question introduces an additional unseen poem. You must then compare the two poems. Curiously, this second question is only awarded 8 marks, so you can see that you must not spend much time on this. Ideally you should spend about 30/35 minutes on part 1 and about 10/12 minutes on part 2.

The unseen poems come at the end of a long, complicated examination paper, so it is crucial that you have your timings all worked out before the exam. You will need to make sure you have the time (and stamina!) to give Section C your very best shot.

Preparation is key!
Just as with Sections A and B, preparation is key. These are unseen poems so you cannot actually learn them in advance. You can, however, practise your technique. Borrow a collection of poems from the library, use the internet, or use the poems from your Anthology which you have not studied, to practise coming face to face with an unseen poem.

Part 1

The question will be, for example: In ‘To a Daughter Leaving Home’, how does the poet present the speaker’s feelings about her daughter?
(See the AQA Specimen Paper if required.)

When faced with an unseen poem, it’s a good idea to SMILE:
Structure – what is the structure and form? What does this add to the effect?
Meaning – what is the literal meaning?
Imagery – what poetic devices, e.g. similes, etc, are used? To what effect?
Language – what type of language is used?
Emotional effect – how does the poem make you feel?

Once you have SMILED the poem, you should have a good understanding of it. You can now look again for deeper meanings. Is the metaphorical meaning different from the literal meaning? In the example mentioned above, the poem appears to be about a girl learning to ride her bike. However, the title of the poem and other language and clues in the text suggest it is more about a daughter growing up.

Context is not assessed in Section C, but do consider the name/dates of the poet. Do they give you any additional clues to what it is about?

Plan your answer
It is important that you spend some time planning a careful, considered answer. Just as with Section B, to score a high mark you need a structured, conceptualized response, not just a stream of unrelated paragraphs. You need to plan a detailed answer which considers the language, structure and form of the poem and includes relevant quotations.

Part 2

You are not given much time to focus on this second unseen poem. Take about three minutes to quickly SMILE it. The focus of the question is on comparison. For example: In both ‘Poem for My Sister’ and ‘To a Daughter Leaving Home’ the speakers describe feelings about watching someone they love grow up. What are the similarities and/or differences between the ways the poets present those feelings?
(Both poems available on the AQA Specimen Paper).

This question is only worth 8 marks and the examiners want to see that you are able to confidently compare the language, form, structure and ideas in the two poems. Luckily, you have plenty of experience in comparing poems from Section B. You will need to work quickly to plan a short answer, addressing these points. Remember, the key focus is comparison.

This concludes my series on preparing for this exam. I hope what I have said will prove useful when you finally come to sit down and put pen to paper, and lastly, I wish you all the best of luck.

Section B – Comparison of two Anthology poems

The question in Section B will ask you to compare two poems from the fifteen which you have studied. The examination paper will choose one poem; you must choose the other.

Preparation is key! It is absolutely vital that you are comfortable and familiar with all the poems. This is no mean feat, so do take it seriously. This is a tricky examination and students (and teachers!) are understandably a little nervous about this. Read through the poems until you are sure of each one. Can you confidently explain the structure, form, imagery and themes in each one? Have you learnt some key quotations for each and every poem?

  • Quick Quiz

Love and Relationships
(1) Which of the poems are about marriage?
(2) Which of the poems are about love between parents and children?

Power and Conflict
(1) Which of the poems consider the power of nature?
(2) Which of these poems are written after the conflict?

If you can, ask a friend or relative to help you revise. Give them a list of the poems you have studied and ask them to read it to you. Give a brief synopsis of each poem.

  • The Question
    Your question will be something like this:

Love and Relationships
‘Compare how poets present the idea of romantic love in ‘Love’s Philosophy’ and in one other poem from your cluster’.


Power and Conflict
‘Compare how poets present the idea of power in ‘Ozymandias’ and in one other poem from your cluster’.

  • Planning your answer

Look carefully at the question and consider what is being asked. You will have the text of the poem in front of you. So what ideas of romantic love are presented in ‘Love’s Philosophy’? You will need to look at the language, structure and form. Consider also the wider context of the poem, e.g. Shelley as a romantic poet. Annotate your poem quickly. Remember to focus on the question being asked. You are not being asked merely to analyse the poem, but to prepare a considered, conceptualised response.

Once you have annotated the first poem (spend about five minutes on that), turn your attention to choosing a second poem. You will not have the full poems in front of you, but you will have a list of them you can read through. Look for comparisons and similarities. Which of the other Relationships poems focus on romantic love? Which of the Conflict poems discuss power? Give yourself a couple of minutes to decide this (and then stop thinking about it and move on!). From memory, jot down key features (language, structure, form and context) of the second poem. How does the poet present ideas about romantic love/power in the poems?

You now have your two poems and notes about each of them. Spend an additional five minutes drawing together a plan. You should aim for about three or four good paragraphs. It is important to not just list the features of the poem; you must explain why they are there and the impact they have. Skilled answers will move beyond a basic comparison and begin to create a conceptualised narrative considering the question of, for example, romantic love/power.

And Finally… Start Writing! A question like this will probably require 10-15 minutes serious planning. A good plan on your exam paper shows the examiner that you understand the question, have considered your answer and you know where you’re going. If you start to edge towards the 15-minute mark, however, it is time to move on. You have revised for this, you have learnt all your quotations and you have prepared a solid plan. Now you need to start writing!


A final blog, on approaching Section C, the Unseen question, will be published on this site next Thursday.

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