One of the most common and irritating of responses to be found strewn through students’ literary or linguistic analysis is that a writer will have a made of particular choice in order to ‘make the reader want to read on.’ So far as I know, no English teacher has ever advised their students to use this phrase and, in fact, a great many explicitly forbid its use. From where, we might legitimately wonder, does this tortured construction derive? And what is the source of its enduring appeal?
Like so many persistent problems in teaching, the MTRWTRO Gambit is so not so much wrong as woefully inadequate: the reason students continue to use it in the teeth of their teachers’ scornful admonitions is because they know it’s right. In order to understand this impasse, it’s worth considering why it is that so many students end up stuck on horns of this confusing dilemma.
Faced with teachers’ questions about the use of linguistic and structural devices, students know they’re not allowed to say what appears to them patently obvious: that no choice was made. A writer, like they themselves, will just utter the first idea to spring to mind in whatever unfortunate or fortunate manner this first occurs.
This misconception stems from the fact that students have not yet understood a fundamental truth about language: that speaking and writing, whilst sharing many superficial similarities, are profoundly different. Contrary to what might be popularly believed, we do not, in the normal course of events, speak in sentences. The words we use in conversation make sense – if they do – because speakers and listeners share the buffer of crucial contextual information: we gesture, refer to this and that, trail off and say, ‘you know?’ And, miraculously, listeners do know because it’s usually obvious what’s being referred to. None of this is true with writing. Readers and writers are separated by time and space in such a way that makes clarity and precision vital. Even when the spatial-temporal separations are tiny (think of the feedback you’ve written in the margins of so many students’ exercise books) the difficulty of trying to communicate something relatively straightforward is burdened by a lack of shared contextual cues. When the separation is between very different cultures or the gulf of centuries, the capacity for misunderstanding is so much greater. If we want students to understand why it’s unhelpful to use the MTRWTRO Gambit, they first need to understand all this.
But this is just a small part of the problem. Although students so often fail to appreciate these differences between speech and writing, they instinctively know that no one sets pen to paper for no reason. The effort of communicating something in writing is so much greater than just saying it, that there must be a purpose behind such a decision. They also know, implicitly, that stories exist to be finished. An unfinished story is like an uneaten meal: pointless. Therefore, just as the reason for cooking a meal must be to ‘make the eater want to eat on,’ the purpose of writing a story is – obviously – to make the reader want to get to the end. This is – or should be – uncontroversial.
The problem we have as English teachers is bound up in what’s often called ‘the curse of knowledge’. This curse is comprised of two elements. Firstly, experts tend to have forgotten how they became experts, and secondly, experts systematically over-estimate what novices know. If we consider this curse from the perspective of an English teacher, two things are likely to be true:
- Our ability to analyse language and literature is so ingrained that it has, to a large extent, become automatised. We can ‘just do it’ without really understanding what it is we’re doing.
- Because we’re often not sure what it is we ourselves do, we labour under an illusion of explanatory depth where we struggle to explain something which to us is blindingly obvious but to our students is bafflingly opaque.
The solution to this, and most other instructional failures, is for teachers to become more aware of what they don’t know. In this particular case, what we English teachers tend not to know is how we know how to explain writers’ choices. The unhelpful (but true) explanation is that we have automatised many thousands of individual items of knowledge into schematic edifices which we commonly refer to as ‘skill’. Where this backfires is that because we have no idea how this skill emerged, we attempt to teach the ‘skill of literary analysis’ without ever deconstructing it back into its component parts. So, in order to prevent students from falling back on the MTRWTRO Gambit, we need to do the following:
- Teach students the differences between speech and language.
- Acknowledge that writers really are trying to ‘make the reader want to read on’ but that what students need to be able to do is explain how this feat is achieved.
- Explicitly and systematically teach the various ways in which a writer can make a reader want to read on. The focus of this teaching should be to enable students to answer three questions about any word, phrase or stylistic decision: 1) What choices were available? 2) Why might this one have been chosen? and 3) What difference does it make to the reader?
- Provide extensive practice at expressing these thoughts in writing, focussing on sentence level mastery of a range of different analytic constructions (such as the thesis statement beginning with a subordinating conjunction). The point of this practice should not be for students to practise until they get it right, but to continue practising until they can no longer get it wrong.
All this is far easier said than done. I’m currently working with the wonderful Rikki Cole at Ormiston Victory Academy to pilot an attempt to help students automatise meaningful literary analysis that we’re calling ‘Couch to 5k Writing’. I look forward to sharing some of the results of this work over the next few months.