I have always admired the way that English teachers can appear to be going along with any school policy you might care to name while, in practice, being as subversive as ever in the business of protecting what it means to be literate, in engaging with broad definitions of culture, in subscribing to an open multiculturalism and, above all, being critical, questioning and evaluating of the world around them.
It has been hard to keep to the true path for the past few years and it seems to be getting more difficult year by year so, perhaps, it’s time to set down some fundamental truths about the nature of the subject even where these truths are not always allowed to flourish. So, here goes:
1 You learn to read by looking at books and recognising words as you go. That is where you start and learn to create meaning. You can also learn words by sounding them phonetically but that is not reading. The notion that teaching phonics is a good way to teach reading started with some discredited research in Clackmannanshire, has been supported unthinkingly by various governments because it contributes to the notion of measured improvement in league tables and is allegedly proved to be effective by research which shows without any doubt that the laboured teaching of phonics increases children’s understanding of phonics. The jury is still out as regards what it does to their reading but the empirical evidence is that it puts them off real books.
2 You learn about language by encountering it in all of its beautiful variety. Grammar is a way of categorising, describing and analysing language once you’ve written it. The study of grammatical systems can help children to reflect on their reading and writing but teaching grammar as if, in some mysterious way, good writing is predicated upon its teaching is getting things back to front. Knowing that an adjective is a describing word will not help anyone to describe better. Testing the understanding of grammar as if that is an indication of the capacity to read and write is pointless. All you measure is the understanding of grammar. Children do need to learn to spell and construct meaning in sentences and that is much better done by modelling and experiencing good writing, by learning about progression in the structuring of language and by being encouraged to be ambitious learners.
3 The slavish teaching of writing types and genres in terms of lists of features has proved to be a long and torturous blind alley. As examinations and national tests have become more doctrinaire about what genres look like and how to reproduce them by imitation, in the real world they have become more slippery and overlapped than ever. In the digital world, formal and informal writing are distinguished not by presentation but by content and tone although the English curriculum still has to catch up. Scaffolds provide representations of these flawed models of writing where filling in the gap replaces original thought but, helpfully, appears to be capable of being marked and assessed to give a grade. The teaching of writing in schools should be as authentic as possible, purposive and it should relate to the real world and new literacies. There is nothing to fear from this approach and everything to gain.
4 Children in schools need to encounter a vast range of good reading. In fiction, it is worth remembering that children have historically read as a way of encountering the world of adults and understanding how they relate, conflict and resolve. The notion of literature for children (featuring children and childish issues) has had its day and it is a true test of the best books for children that they are enjoyed by grown-ups. Teachers need to remember that quality is not measured by length or inaccessibility. Reading for pleasure is an achievement for any child and is not encouraged by set text study, the absurd notion of historical and cultural context and the cultural accident of the literary canon. Even the most able students in today’s English classrooms are often bereft as readers – working through set texts, supported by notes and commentaries with the aim of answering questions in limited time in an examination. It is a myth that children do not read because of the digital distractions around them. They fail to read because their reading habits have been straitjacketed in their schools.
5 The notion of developing literacy has always been valid but the methods have failed and continue to fail. We have not developed a literate generation. There are no young people in sixth forms and universities who look back fondly on how the literacy hour shaped and developed a love of anything. The current focus on reading and writing with its clumsy attempts to marginalise speaking and listening is stupid enough but is nothing compared to the refusal to recognise the digital literacies of the 21st-century and the variety of creative media which surround us today. English teachers should be teaching children how to read film and video, to scan websites, to search effectively and how to evaluate sources. There is a 21st-century skill set which is simply being ignored because politicians want children to learn what they did in schools and learn like they did, forgetting that in those schools only a handful succeeded and many failed completely.
6 And finally, the way English is taught in schools needs to be seen as problematic because the way in which it has always been done and the traditional models which are currently encouraged are not working. Gobbet-based lessons, filling the gap exercises and photocopied worksheets turn English lessons into sequences of activities as opposed to learning. English teachers know in their hearts that children ought to talk more and be supported to read in silence. They know the value of extended topics and the real engagement with learning which that can bring but they fear OFSTED and retreat into the old mantras, telling children what they are going to learn rather than letting them find out, chopping lessons into sections, avoiding controversial topics and questions and, in the end, simply playing safe. Children ought to enjoy English lessons, be stimulated by them and learn from them. That is not always the case currently and it is time to state the arguments for a new approach to English teaching and a new debate over what it should include.