Practical tools for reflecting on the what, why and how of English teaching
A friend’s nephew, when in Year 8, remarked to him: “I used to enjoy English, but all we do now is write PEE paragraphs.” If this is a pupil’s view (even an unfair one) of English in their school, then something has gone badly wrong. It’s extreme, but it is – I think – indicative of a trend in secondary English, in which the narrow imperatives of external assessment are dominating planning and thinking, and when GCSE ‘AOs’ are busily colonising Key Stage 3. Meanwhile, tests and secure-fit assessment frameworks are increasingly dominating primary teachers’ thinking about the teaching of reading and writing.
In this post, I offer two simple tools which I have used with both primary and secondary teachers for reflecting on the principles behind English as a subject. This might be as part of a process of curriculum renewal, of the revitalising of practice, or of a deliberate attempt to build cohesion and shared purpose. Or it might just be to to stimulate professional discussion about some basics – on what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why.
‘In this school, English is…’
On many school websites, under ‘curriculum’, there is a section for each subject, setting out its aims. I am surprised how rarely these take the opportunity to express any sort of distinct vision or manifesto. Rather depressingly, they often just list topics covered and exam specifications prepared for, in a very functional way.
More adventurous examples venture into philosophical territory. What is Science about? What is English for? To me, the best examples also attempt to describe what experience the subject offers. After all, to a prospective parent or pupil that is what matters most. What will to be like to study Art here? What will it be like to be taught English here?
Composing such a statement – whether for an actual website, or as a though-experiment – can be a powerful exercise for a subject team.
As a starting point, I suggest that teachers reflect on the five ‘models’ of English identified in the 1989 Cox Report, which informed the first National Curriculum for English: ‘personal growth’; ‘cross-curricular’; ‘adult needs’; ‘cultural heritage’; and ‘cultural analysis’. This might seem like going back a long way, but I think it’s still useful. Of course, as Cox stressed, these views of English “are not sharply distinguishable, and they are certainly not mutually exclusive.” (Cox, 1989, p. 60)
I ask teachers to gauge their individual (and then their collective) affiliation to each ‘model’ on this bar chart, on which I have offered my own gloss of each. How relevant do these now seem? What might teachers add, or how might they adapt my wording?
(Click image to enlarge. Download PDF here)
It is interesting how this exercise can uncover significant differences in philosophy between teachers in a department or team, although it will also confirm areas of commonality. Most importantly, it tends to show the need for an ongoing conversation about the why of English, as well as the how. It is easy for ‘purpose’ to become taken for granted.
‘For pupils, English is…’
But what about the experience for pupils? What is English like for them in the classroom? The suggestions on these cards, and copied in the text below, are ones which I use in training to generate discussion about this. I also use them – in both primary and secondary schools – to scaffold thinking about what a team’s own vision for English might be. As such, they are absolutely not meant to be accepted as they are, or even at all. Some will be in tension with the philosophy or approach of individual teachers or of a whole team, which is fine: they should really be read as a set of provocations. Part of the exercise is to add to them, or to re-phrase what is kept.
(Click images to enlarge. Download original Word document here)
English teams and subject leaders have found these useful as raw material for the composing of a subject manifesto – plucking phrases and ideas from across the statements, and synthesising them into something they can subscribe to.
Of course, this can be an empty process unless it also feeds reflection on actual practice, and that is the essential next step. If this is what we want English to about for pupils – if this is the experience we want them to have – then what are we doing to make this happen? How can we keep doing it better?
In a recent post I tackled the troubled concept of ‘engagement’ in the classroom and suggested its reframing as ‘investment’. Perhaps this list offers some reasons in English for pupils to make that investment, if we can make the subject what we want it to be. That means thinking about how these things translate into classroom practice: into how we set the agenda for a lesson; into classroom rubrics and rhetoric; into what and how we model; into how we handle texts; into explanations; into the design of activities; and into the way we frame learning, as purposeful and worth the investment.
Text on cards:
In English, there are always difficult questions to answer, concepts to understand, skills to learn and problems to solve. There are always more challenging texts to read and there are always more effective or more sophisticated ways to write and to speak.
In English, pupils make choices about what and how to write. They have opportunities to make choices about what they read, and learn to do so in an informed and discriminating way. They can decide and express what they think about texts and they can choose how to express themselves with language.
In English, as pupils learn, they gain more and more control – as readers, writers, speakers and listeners. It is about being in control of words and ideas when writing. It is about being able to be objective about texts of all kinds, and being able to resist their meanings and messages. In a subject in which pupils are already skilled and practised, it’s about becoming more and more skilled at things they can already do.
In English, pupils are continually being creative. They write, talk, act and perform. They put words together in unique ways, to express ideas and experiences. They respond to texts by writing and talking about them, analytically and imaginatively. They are always making something new and original, even when answering questions in an exam.
English is a journey into new knowledge, with constant opportunities for investigation, discovery, analysis and deconstruction. There are always things to find out, workings to reveal and puzzles to solve.
English deals with emotions and emotional concerns. It involves the exploration by pupils of their own and others’ emotions and it provides safe and interesting ways to express how they feel, through talking and writing.
In English, learning is driven by a sense of fun and the chance for release. There are continual opportunities for play and playfulness – with language and ideas, in the interpretation of texts, and through drama and creative writing.
English is a subject in which pupils can be themselves, when writing or when responding to texts. Exploring fiction is a chance for them to explore how they feel about and relate to the world, and to their place in it. It also offers chances for them to express and to tell stories about themselves.
English allows pupils to escape from the ordinary, and to project themselves into invented, unfamiliar or fictional experiences, through reading about them and by creating them for themselves.
English is about becoming more and more knowledgeable – about literature, language and culture. It is about the pleasure of knowing, but also the ability this gives pupils to understand what they read and experience.
English is about gaining power – though building knowledge and through gaining skills, as readers, writers and speakers. It is also about becoming better at resisting powerful influences.
In English, learning often focuses on understanding how people relate to each other – through language and in texts. It is also about communicating effectively within different sorts of relationships. Lessons depend heavily on communicating with others, on sharing of ideas and perspectives and on collaborative endeavour.
In English, learning is about real life and real experiences; it is about the media and the digital world; and it is about skills that people use every day. It allows pupils to explore and to debate things that matter directly to them. Pupils also have real purposes and real audiences for what they produce.
In English, there is the continual promise of real social, academic and economic usefulness. The skills it develops are essential for learning in other subjects, for work, and for everyday living. It also offers important qualifications for employment and for further education.