New twists of the traditional tongue

16th September 2005 at 01:00
English 21, the huge consultation on to teach the subject in the computer age, is over. Hilary Wilce reports on a debate that gave a voice to thousands.

How should children be taught English in 10 years' time?

That was the question posed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority last winter. It was a big question, and one to which thousands of people thought they had the answer.

The current English curriculum was shaped more than a decade ago, long before three-year-olds arrived in nurseries with an extensive range of computer skills and celebrities such as Posh Spice saw no shame in admitting that she never finished reading books.

Today's children are proficient in technology, use new forms of English to text and email, and are more likely to think of Romeo and Juliet as a film with Leonardo DiCaprio in it than a play by Shakespeare.

To address these changes the QCA posed questions such as: should teenagers study the English language as a separate subject or as a vehicle for drama, media, film and language? How can creativity be encouraged? And what is the best way to assess skills in English?

The QCA knew there were no easy answers and flung the door open to a public debate which it called English 21, set out under four headings:English for all; e-English; English for 14 to 19-year-olds; and assessment.

Sue Horner, head of English at the QCA, said at the time: "We don't have a view. We are saying, 'What do you think?'"

Six months later, her team is sifting through 259 responses, which came from parents, publishers, arts organisations, teachers, students and advisers.

More than 5,000 people have written in, and 2,000 attended English 21 events, ranging from seminars on spelling and assessment to a debate on must-see films for children and business breakfasts.

Well-known names such as author Melvyn Bragg and the poet laureate Andrew Motion got involved.

But initial responses included both the predictable and the curmudgeonly.

Industry chiefs banged the familiar drum for better basic skills while Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools, slammed the consultation as "a gross waste of public money".

Relatively few English teachers joined the debate, not least because it coincided with the busiest months of their school year. But those who got stuck in have been delighted at this new way of working.

Chris Meade, director of the Booktrust charity, described it as "refreshing and forward-looking". Jackie Marsh, a reader in education at Sheffield university and president of the UK Literacy Association, said: "It's good to give a voice to so many people.

"Parents we asked were very pleased to give their views, and it's a great opportunity to take stock and shape the curriculum to meet the needs of the future."

Her work on the early-years curriculum shows that parents are anxious about the negative messages of television advertisements and want nursery-age children to start developing media literacy.

It shows that many pre-schoolers are now highly computer savvy (one group of Sheffield three-year-olds has made and shown its own cartoon films).

Parents say they would like to see greater use of computers and ICT in the early years.

The English Secondary Students' Association told the QCA that it wanted pupils to have more say on the subject of their topic-based work and the authors they have to study. It would also like new forms of assessment, such as mock job interviews, to run alongside the traditional essays and exams.

"Making presentations or reading to their peer group was universally identified as one of the most disliked activities," it said.

The schools technology agency Becta pointed out that new technologies will offer an ever-developing lifeline to children with learning difficulties, allowing innovations such as voice recognition software to be used in class. But this will make increasing demands on teachers and raise questions about what we think counts as "learning English".

Chris Stevens, Becta's head of special needs and inclusion, said: "We will have to analyse what we are assessing, what are the skills involved and what exactly are we crediting."

The National Association for the Teaching of English argued for multiple approaches to teaching English, and assessment that is integral to learning.

Trevor Millum, development officer for Nate, said assessment is the aspect of the subject that most bothers English teachers, especially at key stage 3.

"The Government is tied into the protocol of league tables, targets and tests," he said. "Real changes are hampered by the assessment regime, and if that doesn't change, they won't happen."

Members of the National Union of Teachers agree, and urge the replacement of a statutory requirement for end-of-key-stage testing with assessment for learning and summative assessment.

"The testing of Shakespeare at KS3 is a textbook example of material being de-contextualised and made almost meaningless to render it testable," the union said. "In addition, teachers complain that speaking and listening is often undervalued as a learning activity since it does not appear in statutory national curriculum tests and need not be reported to parents."

The union urged the QCA to take note of systemic problems - such as high teacher turnover and low expenditure on books - in considering curriculum changes, and called for a flexible national framework that would give teachers the freedom to adapt lessons to circumstances.

It said a range of approaches to learning to read must be retained (the phonics-only route must be shunned), that grammar must be integrated with writing, and that both visual literacy and speaking and listening skills need more emphasis.

But where will these hundreds of responses lead?

John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, applauds the QCA for initiating the debate but is "not that hopeful" of radical reforms.

Any major changes will depend on how the proposals play at Number 10 Downing Street, he said. And just how sympathetic Lord Adonis, education minister and the former prime ministerial adviser on education, will be to any major overhaul of the English curriculum is uncertain.

Ms Horner says statutory change is not needed. For her, the common themes emerging from the consultation can be fed into projects such as the KS3 review and the A-level and GCSE rewrites.

"We are also saying to the main players, 'We can't take all this forward - we can only set things in train,'" she said.

"They need to consider how they will contribute. If they truly believe that speaking and listening is vital, then maybe they need to do something like look to those early-years teachers who've done it and ask themselves if there is any way they can help that to happen in their areas."

This month, the QCA plans to publish "a lively-looking document outlining what people said and with something about the weight of opinion on different issues". Later, more detailed papers will be released.

But Ms Horner believes the proof of the pudding is likely to come with the publication of the next lot of subject criteria.

"And we will be able to say, 'Well, English 21 helped us know what the issues are,'" she said.

Michael Rosen 22


Andrew Motion says ministers must foster radical change in the way English is taught and that the key is to release pupils' creativity.

The poet laureate praises schemes such as Writing Together, which links writers with schools, and English 21, but is concerned that creativity is "squeezed" at secondary level by the demand for results.

He said: "Because of the experience of universities and creative writing courses a lot of answers are already out there. I don't think you should just reward the student for what happens at the end of the process but what happens during it. By this I mean mapping out and assessing the breadth of work and reading, and urging students to think imaginatively about their work. I want to keep what's best from the past, but anyone interested in education should go to great lengths to make this tradition relevant to today."

Beryl Bainbridge is sceptical about creativity in schools.

"The more you squash creativity, the more people become creative - if they have the talent," she said. "All these opportunities to be creative don't really work. People are born with talent. Something happens to children at a certain age and you can tell almost at once. As a writer, you have to learn to spell, construct sentences, understand clauses. If you have got the talent then you go for further lessons. If you are brilliant at something, you get special attention in schools today, but to spend hours mucking about being artistic is a waste of time."

The focus should be on the great English-language writers. "These classes of art, drama, dance and stuff like that comes later in evening classes," she said. "In school, they should be teaching them only the three Rs."

Philip Pullman says it would be barbarous to scrap English as a separate subject. He feels drama and media studies are important, but that it is also essential to learn English in depth.

"I'm in favour of media studies. Studying rhetoric is 2,000 years old. I believe everyone should act in Shakespeare - walk around and say the words... Macbeth because it's dramatic, exciting and short. Romeo and Juliet because it's dramatic, exciting and romantic.

"But getting rid of English is a ridiculous notion - a sign of barbarity.

English is important because at it's best it is a means of providing children with a cultural literacy, the ability to read and write, and a familiarity with things that make the culture of the British Isles what it is."

But Mr Pullman, a former English teacher, does not believe that huge emphasis should be placed on teaching grammar.

"Children already know grammar," he said. "They know instinctively if something is in the past tense.

"They should be taught everything, but particularly the deep concepts of language."

Jacqueline Wilson's philosophy on the future of teaching English mixes the pragmatic with a determination to see pupils taught the great and good of literature.

The children's laureate recognises that Dickens could be seen as a "hard sell" to teenagers who prefer computer games, but says puberty has its advantages.

She said: "When you look at 14 to 15-year-olds, most are writing agonised journals or love diaries. It is an age when teenagers are quite keen about writing, so it is a good idea to encourage this."

But Ms Wilson believes that the fundamentals of English teaching must remain .

"I feel it is vital that teenagers must study Shakespeare properly. If I had not learnt Shakespeare at school, I doubt... would have bothered to find out for myself.

"I know that modern books are used, and while I understand that with less able students, the ones with reasonable ability should be stretched a little bit.

"I recognise that film studies and drama have their place but we should not edge English out into these more popular subjects.

"For me, English means books, reading, looking at words, listening to the language and trying to write the language in a rhythmic and interesting way."

AS Byatt feels strongly that English must give children the ability to write imaginatively and practically.

"Most don't get round to writing a decent job application," she said. "They need to be taught that as well as writing creative stories."

She thinks a good way to test children's ability is to get them to write, describing a simple task.

"They should write essays and stories but also precise answers to precise questions. It's surprising how many can't describe something simple like how to fit an electric light bulb. Media studies and drama aren't going to help with that.

"Any English language lesson ought to make you see that what you think is not always what you say. It should teach you to think about thinking. It is possible to say what you mean, but it's not easy - you have to have the right words and have to do some thinking.

"Grammar is important, too. Get the grammar wrong and you don't say what you mean. Drama is not a subject for reading books. Writing is a different pleasure to taking part in a play."

But, she said: "Children should learn to read well as well as write well.

You cannot write well if you do not read well."

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