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"Hi Sue, I'm doing your book, we have to read it and just wanna say it's the most boring crap book I ever read, so thanks a lot for ruining my life. Cheers."

"Hi Susan, we're doing your book, I've gotta do coursework only I don't understand about context, what is it, and I don't no any other gothic writers and we've got to compare you, what's gothic anyway. Pleeeeze reply asap."

"Hi. I've got this essay to do for tomoz, it's about I'm the king of the castle and does the setting play an important part in the story. Can you reply tonight and do it in bullet points so I can copy and paste it straight in. thanks you're a star in advance, cheers..."

"Hi, we have to do this essay on context with your book, and cultural context so what are those please, please explain carefully, I don't get it."

Those are genuine, and very representative, emails from school pupils, sent via my author website. The books they refer to are I'm the King of the Castle, set for GCSE English, and The Woman in Black (Theatre Studies). I also receive (far fewer) questions about Strange Meeting, set for the A-level module on the First World War.

Two years ago, inundated by questions on the books, I set up a special section of my blog in which I answered some of the Frequently Asked Questions on all three novels and occasionally took up a particular topic related to one of them and wrote about it at length. I hoped this would ease the flow of emails I had to answer. It didn't. I don't think any of them got beyond "Contact Susan" before firing off their query - looking into the FAQs seemed too much trouble. But then, so, quite frequently, was reading one of the books themselves, or reading all of it rather than bite-sized chunks - let alone actually answering questions, writing an essay, doing coursework. Why bother, when the author was there to do it for you? Worse, I have had questions not just from pupils but from teachers explaining that they are studying the books via videos of old TV versions and reading only short sections of the text itself. "They find it hard to read a whole novel," one teacher apologised. In that case, they should not be doing GCSE literature at all.

I am happy to reply to the cries for help. It has become distressingly clear to me that too many school pupils are taught badly, lazily, unintelligently and cursorily. They are not taught how to read and understand novels or to write essays and coursework and answer questions about them. Judging by the evidence of their emails, many should not be studying English literature at all, but with guidance, understanding and above all enthusiastic teaching they could certainly be helped to get more out of books - any books - than they are.

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Michael K.
April 23rd, 2012
10:04 AM
What a refreshingly honest post from one of my favourite authors. I teach The Woman in Black to my theatre students, and I will definitely be printing this article out. I did find this well-written and engaging study guide, which might be a good place to point students in the right direction:

January 30th, 2009
3:01 PM
I am so pleased to find someone who thinks,as I do, that analysing etc tends to take away love of reading for pleasure. My son hated having to write about what he had read at Primary school and ever since has hated reading fiction. Or is it partly an excuse?

Matthew Banes
January 26th, 2009
5:01 PM
This was a great read, Ms Hill. As an A-level student I'm kind of shocked to read of this kind of behaviour. I've been lucky, in the sense that for GCSE and A-level I've had very engaging, well-read teachers who have a passion for expanding our literary appreciation. I've had a great experience and read a lot of books, but find your experiences with students surprising, yet depressingly believable. A friend of mine is currently comparing your Woman in Black to Woman in White. She adores the book, and chose it out of reverance, of a sort. I'll be showing her this article as soon as possible. Yours sincerely, Matthew.

January 22nd, 2009
9:01 PM
It doesn't surprise me in the least that students expect you to give them the "answers" for their assignments. I'm a lecturer and have just failed three students who plagiarised 80% of their essays - lifted wholesale from websites and not accredited. These are the dozy articles. We can't catch the clever ones... PS. Listening to books being read aloud is wonderful and mesmerising. I have happy memories of "heads on desks, close your eyes and listen" from my primary school. It seems there is little time to read to children in schools these days.

January 11th, 2009
7:01 AM
That was a splendid article, Ms Hill - many, many thanks for it. But what a rude way for those children to write to you! Please don't think all your teenage readers are like that. Some of us are actually quite nice. Me for example: I've all of your books - I discovered "The Woman In Black" in my fourteenth Winter and fell in love with your writing style. And I read them for pleasure, not for school as I was I'm schooled at home. Anyone who does not like such books as "The Woman In Black" and "I'm the King of the Castle" must be a half wit of the first order. Yours tolerantly Josie

January 9th, 2009
10:01 PM
I am glad that you're discussing the value of students being read to, or listening to audio-books, versus being limited to reading print books. This has been tremendously important for my home schooled kids. Their interest level, at various points in their development, has been higher than their reading level. Reading aloud and audio-books has enabled them to read novels that engage their minds and imaginations versus being bored with ideas that are "dumbed down" to fit a certain reading level. And it has not held back their reading development in the least, as some teachers seem to fear it might. Thanks for the thought-provoking article!

Susan Hill
January 7th, 2009
5:01 PM
I am absolutely DELIGHTED that they should listen to it being read to them. It does not trouble me in the least that someone else is doing the physical reading bit. That is why I am delighted that the downloaded audiobooks of the novels are extemely popular among students. They are wonderfully well read and they help them to concentrate. I published a children`s book last year for the 7-12 age range and had a letter from a teacher to say she had started to read it aloud every Thursday morning to a class of unruly 9-10 year olds with many boys among them who found it almost impossible to sit still. But they became so engrossed in her reading that nobody so much as wriggled, and they were all sitting on the mat waiting for her, eager and attentive, every Thursday. Most of them had reading difficulties but once they had heard the book, wanted to try for themselves. She also reported several who had asked parents to buy it so that they could read at home. In three cases this was the first book the parent had ever bought. I am more proud of this, as I am of hearing about the army-bound older boys listening to the reading of The Woman in Black so attentively, than I am about almost anything. I don`t want them to have to strain to analyse and answer exam questions on my 'text' if this is something they genuinely find difficult, I want them to read or listen to the books and find that a positive and enjoyable and enriching experience which may encourage them to read or listen to another book.

January 6th, 2009
12:01 PM
To add a more positive note. I have regularly taught 'The Woman in Black' to GCSE students in an FE college. They have all failed the exam in school and so they aren't the brightest or the best motivated students. I don't believe in doing 'bits' of a novel or a play - it just spoils the whole thing, apart from any more academic considerations but I have to say that they way I cope with the whole text would not please any Ofsted inspector. I read the whole thing to them and they sit and listen, folowing in the text. It's like Jackanory. They're mostly boys and many of them are planning to join the armed services. After the first week, when they're understandably a bit sceptical about it, they're in the room before me, pushing the tables together so we can all sit round one space. Some even stop me round the campus to ask: 'Are we doin' more of that story about the ghost?' I'm too old to care that my methods would not be seen as interactive enough. I know most of them can't read well enough to enjoy the text on their own.

Joe Nutt
January 5th, 2009
9:01 PM
One of the points being missed here is the crucial part the misuse of technology plays in this whole sad situation. There has never been anything to stop a child from writing to a (not dead!) author in the past, and I am sure some enterprising and polite children did exactly that, but only after having been taught by their teachers the etiquette of letter writing, a convention designed to protect and satisfy both correspondents. Today’s teenagers are given the technology, but none of the etiquette. Worse, our entire educational landscape is being driven by techno-zealots and edu-bloggers whose own use of English wouldn’t gain them a grade C at GCSE but whose mish-mash of jargon and marketing speak, masquerading as academic work, has managed to persuade politicians who ought to know a lot better. At a couple of speeches I gave to teachers last year I showed examples it had taken me a matter of minutes to locate, and they were suitably horrified. I can point anyone interested in the right direction, should anyone wish to see the evidence, but believe me, it will be frighteningly easy to find for yourself.

Badger Madge
January 5th, 2009
5:01 PM
I did English Lit for my degree (2.1) and got away with reading around the subject for a lot of the time as I simply didn't have enough time to read everything PLUS all the critique. No, rilly. It killed my joy of literature; someone who constantly had her nose in a book from the age of seven. Something has to change…!

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