Arguing about English

Everyone has an opinion on the teaching of English, its curriculum, along with our national qualifications. Not just teachers: parents, policy makers, and pupils, all have an argument at the ready. 

Of course, most of us have stumbled through an analysis of Shakespeare, or grumbled over the peculiarities of grammar at one time or another, which influences our feelings about the subject, including ‘what’ should be taught and ‘how’.

The problem is that those views often fail to cohere, so we lose clarity or hope for a consensus. We can be left with clashing beliefs, unclear language, and ill-considered action. 

A little history can help. 

In 1989, when I was still fresh out of playing in the school-yard in primary school, the seminal Cox Report was published on recommendations for the teaching of English for ages 5 to 11

Helpfully, the report characterises five different viewpoints on English. These views can help us make sense of the debates about ‘why’ we teach English and ‘what’ we teach.

The Five Viewpoints

“A ‘personal growth’ view focuses on the child: it emphasises the relationship between language and learning in the individual child, and the role of literature in developing children’s imaginative and aesthetic lives.

A ‘cross-curricular’ view focuses on the school: it emphasises that all teachers (of English and of other subjects) have a responsibility to help children with the language demands of different subjects on the school curriculum: otherwise, areas of the curriculum may be closed to them.

An ‘adult needs’ view focuses on communication outside the school: it emphasises the responsibility of English teachers to prepare children for the language demands of adult life, including the workplace, in a fast-changing world. Children need to learn to deal with the day-to-day demands of spoken language and of print; they also need to be able to write clearly, appropriately, and effectively.

A ‘cultural heritage’ view emphasises the responsibility of schools to lead children to an appreciation of those works of literature that have been widely regarded as amongst the finest in the language.

A ‘cultural analysis’ view emphasises the role of English in helping children towards a critical understanding of the world and cultural environment in which they live. Children should know about the processes by which meanings are conveyed, and about the ways in which print and other media carry values.”

Why are these five viewpoints from the Cox Report so helpful? They offer us are critical stances so that we can debate English with greater clarity.

English teachers can often focus on the more tangible English literature curriculum (over messier notions of ‘English language’ teaching), with its ‘cultural heritage’ focus and canonical history. More recently, the valuable debate about representation in literature in the English curriculum has fired debates about ‘cultural analysis’. We are rightly asking ‘who’ is represented in texts and we are scrutinising ‘what’ texts are routinely chosen, or not, in English.

Perhaps more tacitly, most English teachers have an innate belief in the importance of English literature for ‘personal growth’. There is the emotive potential impact on the imaginations and emotions of pupils, far beyond a qualification or a mere grade.

I will often talk and write with a focus on the vital importance of ‘literacy’ for school success – a little more broadly than ‘English’. I do so with strong notions of a hybrid model of ‘personal growth’, ‘cross curricular’ and ‘adult needs’ all in mind. Of course, if we don’t ensure pupils become skilled readers and writers, then pupils will no doubt struggle in school and beyond.

The ‘cross curricular‘ and ‘adult needs‘ viewpoints often inform national policies and can also drive high stakes assessment. They are reasons why we ‘do’ the reading paper in SATs, or English language at GCSE (though many teachers ask it is serving those ends in its current curriculum guise). We should ask the tricky question: would an ‘adult needs‘ and ‘cross curricular’ perspective be satisfied if pupils just studied literature?

When we grapple with these different viewpoints, we don’t end up with any trite, easy answers about ‘why’ we teach English, the scope of the curriculum, or its values and purposes. But, perhaps, we do end up with some shared language with which to understand one another, translate our strong views, and take part in better debates.

Let’s argue better about English with these five perspectives in mind.

(Image via Ungry Young Man)

5 thoughts on “Arguing about English”

  1. So good to read this. We have similar issues in RE and I imagine in all subjects. More significantly it is at the heart of education itself. Some seem to want one purpose/reason, perhaps understandably as it would make life so much easier. But life is complex and education is contested. Useful to have shared categories, concepts and language with which to discourse and enrich our understanding and pupils’ experience.

  2. Cox certainly presented an admirable digest of the purposes of English teaching that had been discussed in the previous 30 years or so. When, a decade ago, government took over direct control of the curriculum, they emphasised cultural heritage & a prescriptive approach to grammar which might be seen as adult needs. So it’s certainly worth remembering the other aspects, as you say. English in Education has recently published the results of an international survey of English teachers which suggest that social justice is very high on the agenda.

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