Mapping the minefield;Reviews;English;Books

11th June 1999 at 01:00
Tread warily with this text which aims to widen the literacy arena, warns Gunther Kress

Use of Language across the Secondary Curriculum Edited by Eve Bearne Routledge pound;15.99 Don't be taken in by the innocuous title. This book has some bombs buried in the text. "Every teacher is a teacher of English," writes the editor; "...a learner has the right to be rather more than a passive acquirer of facts"; and "the answer is in looking again at just what knowledge is". One contributor, John Rickman, suggests "as educators we need to remind ourselves from time to time about the essence of our subject area".

The one that terrifies me is the first. If every teacher is to teach English, what will happen to English as a school subject? The editor means it when she says: "Over-dependence or control by the English department contributed significantly to the 'failure' of the Bullock initiative."

If literacy initiatives are not to fail, Bearne argues, every teacher will have to take responsibility for English (or should that be "language"?). But where will the knowledge and skills come from to bridge the gap left by almost three decades that spurned (real) knowledge about language? Where are the materials, the trainers, the sense of what grammar is?

And here is another minefield - what are the implications of accepting the learner's right to be an active participant in schooling? We would have to look again at what knowledge is and to ask uncomfortable questions about the "essence of our subject areas". Soon the whole curricular edifice begins to look unstable. We do need a focus on rights and entitlements more profoundly than current attempts at reform and official policy allow.

Rickman points to the historical connection between the content of subjects and the purposes of society in which they are to be effective. Issues of language and literacy, as well as other forms of communication, are at the core of questions about a curriculum that will prove useful in 20 years' time.

The editor has given us two books: the first invites teachers to discuss their knowledge, experiences and difficulties, and remedies they have developed. The other, which emerges from the editor's linking pieces, opens up the debate about the aims of education, and how they can be achieved while meeting immediate demands. It tries to keep alive an agenda that looks beyond the short term and the merely instrumental.

Gunther Kress is professor of English in education at the University of London Institute of Education

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