The classic dilemma

20th May 2005 at 01:00
An urgent review of English teaching should be Ruth Kelly's first priority as Education Secretary - with young people leading it, says Viv Ellis

English teaching is in the news once again. On the one hand, a small group of teachers and some authors complain young people don't read enough "classic" literary texts and spend too much time on recent literature and pop culture ("English lit 'dumbed down'," TES, April 22). On the other, the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) wants the abolition of A-level English literature on the grounds that it doesn't prepare people to write essays at university and doesn't give enough time to "theory".

These polarised positions, in what is anyway a pensionable debate, must seem highly irrelevant to the thousands of school students in England who have just taken their key stage 3 tests.

I've been in schools rather a lot recently watching very good student-teachers in very good English departments teaching Year 9 lessons.

The important question for me is not whether English teachers are teaching to these tests but for how long, and at what cost, to their students. My impression is that both are drowning in a sea of PEE. I'd better explain.

A recurring feature of many of the lessons I have seen was the use of the acronym PEE (point, evidence, explain) in teaching the structure of argument. Now my complaint isn't that students who need it are being provided with a structure upon which to hang their ideas - and it's not merely that PEE is at once both inelegant and nudge-nudge "funny", either.

No, my concern is that this is indicative of a fundamental problem in English teaching at the mo-ment - the prioritisation of structures (more easily measured by our testing system) to the detriment of conceptual understanding and the generation of ideas.

This emphasis on structures over understanding has been informed by the misappropriation of research on cognitive development by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky and the later coining of the metaphor of "scaffolding" by Jerome Bruner. Vygotsky was concerned with the development of concepts, Bruner with developing a theory of instruction that engaged learners and suggesting how teachers could intervene and support their learning.

Neither sat at home of an evening inventing writing frames (templates that can, indeed, effectively support some writers in increasing control of unfamiliar genres of writing) nor coming up with acronyms such as PEE.

For both, language - spoken and written - was entirely bound up with how people learn to think; writing was not defined as a sequence of marks on a page that could be quickly measured by an over-burdened examiner.

The consequence of this misappropriation and its perpetuation by the key stage 3 strategy can be seen in the fragmentation of texts (literary and otherwise) into extracts that illustrate linguistic features, the drilling of empty discourse structures and much, much less attention given to the kind of work that allows young people to think and have something to say in the first place.

Student teachers already know the phenomenon of children being able to parrot the technique for answering a Sats question and reciting the appropriate structure without being able to engage with a real question independently and critically. Fortunately this doesn't seem to matter for the tests.

David Bell, the chief inspector, has said that English teaching isn't as exciting as it should be.

I think he probably has to ac-cept that the Office for Standards in Education itself is partly responsible for this. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has grandiloquently announced an opportunity for English teachers to have a say in the subject's future. Frankly, charging the QCA with such an "opportunity" is like watching someone trying to slap a corpse back to life after running it over with a bulldozer.

There is an urgent need for a truly independent review of English teaching, not by university English lecturers, civil servants, or the imploding NATE, but by those who know most about it and for whom it matters most - young people and their English teachers. There lies a challenge for Education Secretary Ruth Kelly.

Viv Ellis is a lecturer in education studies at Oxford university

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