Being ‘good at English’

Image result for correctSome possible ‘qualities’ of excellence in English

There has been some discussion recently on blogs and Twitter about what it means to be ‘good at English’. Often, this is in the context of thinking about progression – from Key Stage 3 to 4, or from GCSE to A-Level, for example: what should we be aiming to ‘produce’ in students?

Of course, there are lots of official and institutional answers to this question, enshrined in exam specifications, assessment frameworks, tracking systems and so on – all being constantly reinvented, re-purposed and adapted by teachers. And, to some, ‘being good at English’ means being able to recall a prescribed quantity of ‘knowledge’ – about texts, for example.

These debates have reminded me of some work which I did a few years ago with Jim Stewart, when working on a resource for school leaders to support provision for students who are ‘gifted and talented’ – back when that still was a thing. We attempted to identify a number of qualities or attributes, any of which might be exhibited by such students, when they really were becoming very ‘good at English’. These were mostly, and quite explicitly, hard to pin down or to measure; however, we did try to exemplify how each one might be exhibited.

Anyway, here they are. I haven’t attempted to re-evaluate or to revise them, so I offer the list as a talking point rather than a stated position.

Some are more like practised skills; some are more akin to personality. However, I think it is interesting to reflect on how we can deliberately teach, develop or encourage them, and what sorts of knowledge students need in order to acquire them.

Looking back at the list now actually feels quite refreshing – a reminder of what English teaching can aspire to teach and to develop beyond the mechanistic prescriptions of content, frameworks and AOs.

Some possible qualities of high attaining students in English Example of evidence
Ability to synthesise & connect… …ideas & insights
…textual references
…expressive forms and techniques
A Year 8 student studying Of Mice and Men is able to make inventive connections between references in the text and their interest in history and social politics.
Curiosity… …about ideas
…about contexts
…about possibilities
A Year 11 student working on Hard Times is inspired to find out more about the ideas of John Locke.
Dexterity… …with form
…with ideas
…with words
A Year 7 student introduced to the concept of assonance deploys it skilfully in a piece of original writing.
Flair… …with language
…in response to texts and ideas
…for interpretation
…in written, spoken or dramatic communication
A Year 10 student presents his/her response to a poem through a stylish mixture of analytical comment and humour. 
Flexibility & adaptability… …in welcoming new challenges
…in interpretation of texts
…in uses of language
…in embracing ambiguity
A Year 13 student working on The Wasteland articulates delight in the opportunities it provides for multiple interpretations.
Independence… …in forming views
…in interpretation of texts
…in exploring new fields of enquiry
…in seeking out connections and alternatives
A Year 9 student participating in a small group discussion persuasively expresses a dissenting view from that of the rest of the group when reporting back.
Leadership… …in discussion and exploration
…in development of ideas
…in shaping of activities
A Year 12 student working with others to present ideas about a scene in The Duchess of Malfi shapes the discussion by asking incisive questions.
Originality… …of thought
…of expression
…of interpretation
A Year 7 student argues persuasively for a surprising reading of a poem.
Playfulness… …with language
…through humour
…through irony
A Year 11 student produces a sophisticated parody of a Carol Ann Duffy poem.
Precision & subtlety… …in expression
…in interpretation
…in discrimination between ideas
A Year 9 student watching a clip from a horror film produces an elegant encapsulation of the director’s intentions.
Receptivity… …to unfamiliar texts and forms
…to new ideas
…to new experiences
A Year 8 student researching the development of the English language encounters The Canterbury Tales and pursues an interest in reading them.
Risk-taking & adventurousness… …with language and expression
…in interpretations of texts
…in development of ideas
A Year 10 student tests out radical interpretations of a novel in a draft of an essay.
Stamina… …in pursuing and developing ideas
…in persisting with challenging material
A Year 11 student, asked to compare the uses of rhythm in some pre-1900 poems, works through several drafts as their ideas develop.
Subversion… …of expectations
…through parody
…through questioning
A Year 9 student, asked to storyboard an opening sequence for a film of The Tempest, begins with Prospero’s final speech.

See also: Objectives and purpose in English

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