Reading from nowhere: assessed literary response, Practical Criticism and situated cultural literacy

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School examinations of student responses to literature often present poetry blind or “unseen”, inviting decontextualised close reading consistent with the orientation-to-text associated with Practical Criticism (originating in the UK) and New Criticism (originating in the USA). The approach survives in the UK after curricular reforms and government have promulgated cultural literacy as foundational for learning. How is cultural literacy manifest in student responses to literature? To what extent can it be reconciled with Practical Criticism where the place of background knowledge in literary reading is negligible? This article explores their uneasy relationship in pedagogy, curricula and assessment for literary study, discussing classroom interactions in England and Northern Ireland where senior students (aged 16–17) of English Literature consider Yeats’ “culture-making” poem “Easter, 1916”. Using methods where teachers withhold contextual information as they elicit students’ responses, the divergent responses of each class appear to arise from differing access to background knowledge according to local though superficially congruent British cultures. The author proposes “situated cultural literacy” to advance the limited application of Practical Criticism in unseen tasks, acknowledge Richards’ original intent, and support the coherence of assessment with curricular arrangements invoking cultural literacy as a unifying principle.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20-35
Number of pages16
JournalEnglish in Education
Issue number1
Early online date3 Jan 2018
Publication statusPublished - 29 Jan 2018


  • Reading
  • literature
  • poetry
  • Practical Criticism
  • situated cultural literacy
  • unseen assessment

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