Book review: Teaching English for the Real World

There are some good points made in this treatise on the importance of English teaching - if you can get past the obvious claims and lopsided arguments, says David James

David James

A globe next to Joe Nutt's Teaching English for the Real World

Teaching English for the Real World

Author: Joe Nutt
Publisher: John Catt
Details: 288pp, £16.00
ISBN: 9781912906956

Joe Nutt is angry. 

He’s angry about the state of English teaching in schools today, he’s angry about the misuse of technology in classrooms, he’s angry about the politicisation of reading lists.

He’s even angry about the font used by the Education Endowment Foundation on its website (its endnotes superscript references “appear in bold type”, which, academically, is apparently infra dig). 

In our pressure-cooker world, stoked by racial tension and pandemics, do we really need another intemperate book proclaiming – rather randomly and obviously – that social media is “explosive”, TED talks are “vacuous” and slideshows are “garish” (and all this in its first sentence)? I have my doubts.

What we teach, and why

That said, perhaps in these days of amplified noise, you do have to shout to be heard above the tinnitus of confected outrage. 

And, as an English teacher who looks on in dismay as my subject becomes increasingly less popular at A level and university, it is clear that we need a debate not just about which texts we teach and how we teach them but, crucially, (and this the kernel of Nutt’s book) why we teach them. 

For Nutt, English teaching has become separated from reality. He tells us (again, a bit obviously) that, in the real world, “English is a big deal”.

The problem for him, though, is that rather than schools preparing students as confident and articulate users of this big deal, they unintentionally blunt enjoyment, focus on developing “key skills”, assess “progress” using reductive assessment objectives based on pointless writing tasks, relegate deep reading to something nugatory, and generally remove any real sense of purpose from each exercise and, by extension, the subject itself.

Much of this is true, and there will be many English teachers adding ticks in the margin as they read this book. 

Ignoring technology's benefits

But, because this is a personal manifesto, Nutt does not spend enough time considering alternative views that might challenge some of his claims. 

For instance, his argument that “technology tends to constrain language use, not liberate it” is surely too narrow. There will be a significant number of students, many with special educational needs and disabilities, who have their language skills liberated by technology.

And any teacher with more than 10 years’ experience will have seen an explosion in writing not just about pedagogy, but also about the complexities of their subjects, and none of this would have been possible without Twitter, blogs and various other online platforms. Technology has given them voices and they are listened to.

My other main criticism of the book is that Nutt too often references his own credentials to validate his claims. 

By the final chapter, we are left in no doubt that Nutt has spoken at many international conferences, worked on important business plans, and that he has “years of literary scholarship, teaching, research and business reading experience” behind him. 

This is a book written from the corner office of seniority and experience.  

But these are irritations, rather than inherent weaknesses and, in fact, Teaching English for the Real World is very often extremely well written, funny, perceptive and justified in its claims.

Well-made points

It will resonate with all English teachers, even though many will disagree with some of its arguments. Nutt clearly feels strongly about the subject he taught for more than 20 years, and the insights he has gained from being outside the classroom for an equal amount of time add to his analysis and are worth teachers considering. 

For much of the time Nutt focuses on how English is taught to students in Years 7 to 9, crucial years, he rightly asserts, before the often anaesthetising effects of GCSE begin to take hold.

Unfashionable though it may be to say, he is right to claim that English teachers should be thinking more about “the project managers and less about the poets” of the future. 

For him, “the more purposeful and valued every writing task...the more likely you are to be cultivating children who really can write”.

Knowing how words make a difference in commercial transactions, how the right phrase can secure a job interview, or even get a date on Tinder, such things embellish, rather than reduce, our understanding of English and root the subject in the real world. 

The power of English

Taught effectively, Nutt argues, English is the most powerful tool a child possesses; taught badly, and it is often the difference between a lifetime of achievement or relative failure.

With stakes this high, it would be understandable (but, for Nutt, wrong) to want more Thomas Gradgrinds than John Keatings in the classroom.

Indeed, although he is a passionate advocate of studying the canon, he does not resist change and says, with some persuasiveness, that we could reconsider the whole structure of teaching creative writing, placing much of it outside the formal English curriculum and make it part of a “creative framework” that embraces art, music and theatre. 

For Nutt, “real-world” teaching is demanding, ambitious and predicated on (to use a modish phrase) levelling up achievement by getting all children to understand that each word they use is “the currency of intelligence”.

When you put it like that, it really is a big deal. 

David James is deputy head (academic) at a leading UK independent school. He tweets @drdavidajames


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