English teachers criticise 'restrictive' curriculum

'Obsession with vocabulary' and 'technique-spotting' overshadowing 'big picture', English teachers say

Catherine Lough

Boy reading

English teachers have called for more creativity in the curriculum, saying that “knowledge” is being prioritised over “know-how” when it comes to reading a range of texts.

Jonathan Morgan, director of NATE, the main English subject association, said the revised curriculum at key stage 4 was “particularly restrictive”, while KS3 was often being used as a “stepping-stone” to GCSE.

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He said many English teachers are concerned by an “obsession with vocabulary and technical terms” rather than thoughtful debate about “the philosophical view of the text”.

“Having knowledge is more important than applying it,” he said.

Mr Morgan said English teaching increasingly focused on narrow interpretations of characters and “bolt-on, quick-fix” historical context to meet the demands of the exam criteria.

Dr Francis Gilbert, the course leader for PGCE English at Goldsmiths, University of London, said a narrow focus on subject terminology was limiting pupils’ responses.

“It’s a real problem – you go into many classes, and children are not engaging with reading in a meaningful way.”

Dr Gilbert said “technique-spotting”, where pupils rush to pick out similes in a text, resulted in “an imitation of learning” where “there’s stuff in their books” but little indication pupils have really understood what they have read.

He said in one lesson he observed, pupils read an unseen passage about Sherlock Holmes. Many pupils identified literary devices, yet the majority missed the crucial point of the passage – someone had died.

“They were looking for onomatopoeia,” Dr Gilbert said. “They hadn’t absorbed it.”

English and Media Centre consultant Barbara Bleiman said English teaching was too focused on vocabulary learning at the expense of a broad, “big picture” understanding of texts.

“They [the pupils] need knowledge, knowledge, knowledge – before they reach the book,” Ms Bleiman said.

The focus on language analysis was making pupils dependent on their English teachers.

Reading widely, Ms Bleiman said, should be like “strolling through the gallery”, pausing to look at different works of art.

“You can look at the brushstrokes, but you also need to see 'what’s on offer',” she said, speaking at the NATE conference this month.

Some PGCE course leaders said they welcomed some of the curriculum changes, such as more teaching of literary classics, yet only as part of a broad and varied curriculum.

Dr Elizabeth Rawlinson-Mills, who teaches on the PGCE secondary English course at Cambridge University, said while canonical writers such as Shakespeare and Dickens “are often taught in fantastically engaging ways”, there were “missed opportunities” in KS3 curricula that missed out new writing from BAME authors.

“Dead white men (and a few women) do not have a monopoly on 'the best that has been thought and said'," Dr Mills said.

“We know that reading for pleasure is key to students’ futures – Pisa found that reading for pleasure was more important for students’ educational success than their socio-economic background.”

Clare Feeney, an English teacher from St Thomas More RC Academy, North Shields, said creativity was “absolutely essential” in English teaching.

“It reminds us about everything that is important in our subject – creativity, personal response, empathy and criticality. These are things of genuine value for young people,” Ms Feeney said.

Not all English teachers were in agreement that curriculum changes had damaged creativity.

Nikki Carlin of the Team English Twitter group said: “We love being creative and we’ve found more space to do that with the new spec.

"As for the language analysis, the new spec allows for really in-depth analysis of texts, and creativity in responses is encouraged. My team and I have really enjoyed teaching pupils how to respond creatively to the poetry and Shakespeare’s language in Macbeth for instance."

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We know that many teachers are using creative ways to teach the English curriculum. We purposely do not stipulate how lessons must be taught in the curriculum – we just outline the topics that must be covered – to allow teachers creative freedom.

“At KS3, pupils are taught about imaginative writing and many schools use stories, scripts, poetry and other creative ways to teach this. There are also wider opportunities for creativity with the upcoming national poetry recitation competition: we expect pupils to be able take part from autumn 2019.”

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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