In the third of our posts covering the MaWSIG-LitSIG joint Pre-Conference Event in Liverpool on 1 April 2019, Alan Pulverness describes a project that enabled teachers to use literature in classrooms at all levels.
BritLit was a British Council project devoted to teachers producing materials for working in the classroom with contemporary short stories, poems and extracts from novels. The project evolved out of discussions at BC seminars (in Krakow in 2002 and in London early the following year) on the limitations of coursebooks as carriers of cultural content, and the potential of literature as a source of insights into lived experience and contemporary cultural reality. The project was initiated by Fitch O’Connell at the British Council in Porto, when he started working with a dedicated group of teachers from the Associação Portuguesa de Professores de Inglês (APPI), the Portuguese teachers’ association. It was subsequently sustained by a series of annual summer courses at NILE in Norwich, taught by Claudia Ferradas and Alan Pulverness. Over the next few years it expanded to include teachers from Belarus, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, India, Italy and Spain, with local BritLit projects developing in Russia and Turkey.
In terms of process, BritLit was distinctive in providing a platform for teachers as materials writers. The trainers assumed the role of editorial advisers, offering direction and guidance in terms of both language and methodology, but essentially working with and for the teachers to enable them to realise their teaching ideas in the form of materials that would be accessible to colleagues worldwide. These materials were not cast in the form of lesson plans, but as ‘kits’, i.e. loose collections of schema-activating tasks, resources to support reading, and stimulating follow-up activities. The kits also included audio recordings of the texts and links to related texts.
The project was animated by the direct involvement of many of the authors, including novelists and short story writers Romesh Gunesekera, Ron Butlin, Melvin Burgess, Theresa Breslin and Emma Brockes, as well as poets Francesca Beard, Tony Mitton and Levi Tafari. These authors spoke at APPI conferences in Portugal and worked with teacher-writers at NILE and at the British Council in Moscow. They also visited a number of Portuguese schools.
The guiding principle of BritLit was reader-centredness – putting the student in the active position of reader. Texts were not ‘exploited’ for language practice or for language testing purposes; instead, the ethos of the project was to encourage reading for pleasure, providing support in terms of necessary context and essential language. The main aim was to focus on the experience of reading by creating connections between readers’ knowledge of the world and the world of the text, sustaining the reader’s involvement in the text and encouraging reader response. The materials were designed to privilege the interaction between reader and text by creating opportunities for readers to ‘collaborate’ with the writer (in the spirit of ‘textual intervention’1); encouraging readers to express their thoughts, opinions and feelings, and to discuss and argue about what they read; filling in the gaps of indeterminacy in the text; and providing links between the texts and readers’ lives.
BritLit was a hugely successful example of materials produced by teachers, inspired by a set of principled beliefs about the value of extensive reading. The project came to an end in 2013, when the site was still attracting 150,000 visitors a month, but the materials (around 50 kits) are still accessible – no longer tagged as BritLit, but available at https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/teaching-teens/resources/stories-poems.
1 See Rob Pope Textual Intervention (Routledge 1995)
Alan Pulverness is a Director of TransformELT and a Senior Consultant for NILE. He been a consultant for the British Council on syllabus design and materials projects for cultural studies and reader development in Bulgaria, Poland and Russia. He is the author of Changing Skies (Swan Communication) and Reading Matters (Helbling). He co-authored The TKT Course (CUP) and the award-winning Macmillan Short Course Programme (Macmillan). From 2002 to 2006 he co-chaired the British Council Oxford Conference on the Teaching of Literature.