The language of confusion;Subject of the week;English

17th September 1999 at 01:00
Poor selection of literature examples in GCSE English language syllabuses leaves many pupils bewildered, argues Mervyn Lebor.

Why do so many 17-year-olds starting college find writing "correctly" so difficult? Could it be because of the English language GCSE syllabuses to which they have been subjected?

GCSE English language courses contain theoretically beneficial chunks of "literature". But the chosen texts seem to represent tensions on a political battlefield between traditionalists and post-modernists rather than a way to encourage students to write imaginatively or to construct correct sentences.

Offering students an eclectic range of literary texts, such as writings from other cultures along with Seamus Heaney's poetry, a complete play by Shakespeare and some 19th-century "short" stories could be truly educative. For many candidates, however, "English" can seem a bewildering rag-bag of unrelated areas, many of which are examined as subjects in their own right. Students could pass GCSEs in media, literature and drama, but fail to get that elusive C grade in English language, where all these subjects seem inexplicably combined.

The current weighting of English language syllabuses with an overload of literature has set up a confusing range of criteria by which to assess students' writing on a range of texts. One of the liberalities of assessment of reading skills (EN2) is that the examiner's attention is on the student's ability to understand texts rather than write correctly about them. The problem is that students can write poorly, but pass because they show "understanding".

Nor do the texts they study do them any favours in learning to write. Poetic or non-standard English materials break the "rules" of word order, syntax, spelling and the "norms" of logic associated with prose. Yet should students be naive enough to introduce such "literary" techniques into their own "explo-ratory" or creative work, they would be penalised under writing criteria (EN3).

For instance, Hardy's "Melancholy Hussar" is a long dense text, embedded with obscure, anachronistic vocabulary. It offers the attractions of romance and militarism, but few students are enthused. Most struggle with the basic story line, only a minority responding to character, themes or wider implications. The best answers tend to be based on teacher notes, students gaining credit for understanding a cribbed synopsis rather than the original text. Such candidates rely on the all-purpose answer for a limited range of questions, set by examiners possibly too guilty to ask anything searching.

"Literature" in the English language syllabus has centred on teaching a complete play by Shakespeare, usually the reduced canon of Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth. Students enjoy the visual impact of the sex and violence in the Baz Luhrman film version of Romeo and Juliet. But did the traditionalists really want young people to appreciate Shakespeare through Tybalt blasting Mercutio with an automatic weapon? In fact, the Shakespeare element represents 3 per cent of the total marks; its inclusion is a sop to statutory requirements, but not decisive in grading.

The third element, speaking and listening (EN1), is difficult to assess objectively. Introducing ENl originally took the emphasis away from cerebral written papers and opened the possibility of giving credit to students who were orally effective, but might be unable to express themselves on paper. Nowadays the oral is integrated as 20 per cent of the overall mark, determined by local centres which have vested interests in their own students.

Instead of this unsatisfactory hodge-podge, why not return to the creative essay of the old O-level? Its single-word or brief title expanded students' imaginations, developed individual vision, and yet could be assessed in terms of correct sentences, punctuation and paragraphs. Or what about the old precis? It encouraged a tight selection and control over diction and syntax. How about merging and simplifying EN2 and EN3 back into the guise of the comprehension? Didn't practice for the "great unseen" of itself introduce students to a wide variety of texts?

Coupled with a taped comprehension to genuinely test listening skills and small group or individual discussion with an external examine, as used in many foreign language exams, such a syllabus would develop productive skills for all students.

Mervyn Lebor is a lecturer in English language and literature at Dewsbury College. The views here expressed are his own and do not represent hiscollege's attitude or policy.

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