Oh, what shall help English? asks QCA

25th February 2005 at 00:00
Have your say on what you should be teaching pupils by 2015

We are now so accustomed to being told by this government what English - or literacy - is that it comes as a shock to find that one of its quangos is asking us for our views.

The new English review is part of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's Futures challenge, gently easing its way into a rethink of the whole curriculum.

English 21, announced this week, invites everyone - teachers, children, parents - to say what they believe pupils starting school today should have learned and be able to do by the time they near the end of schooling in 2015.

The QCA is asking questions, often provocative ones, such as "Will reading and writing still be basic skills in 2015?"

Others are tougher. "What forms of writing on screen should we teach all learners in 2015?" the discussion paper asks. "If most screen reading is in short chunks, how important is stamina in reading and writing longer texts?"

This could well be where the greatest difficulty arises in shaping a 21st-century curriculum. One scenario is that by 2015, most information will come in screen-size bits, with people jumping from concept to concept via hyperlink. Children will be reading a mixture of text and visual images (often, they already do). The linear logic of books would be less prevalent. "It may be that we have to teach different skills," says QCA English officer Sue Horner.

But then, she asks, what about logical thinking, and building a case? Will children see a coherent picture, or just a collection of data? Will we care? "It's a question worth asking."

In a think piece for the QCA Futures debate, Cary Bazalgette, of the British Film Institute argues that four-year-olds arrive at school highly media literate, having learned about narrative structure and characterisation from TV and video. They understand, for instance, how jump-cuts and dissolves convey the passage of time.

By 2015 today's infants will be adept at switching readily between books and computers, says Sue Horner, and all this could have serious implications for the way reading and writing are taught in the early years.

Schools will have to make choices, she suggests. Will all types of on-screen literacy be taught, or might some of the more informal ones, such as using email or text messaging, be left as children's out-of-school territory?

"How should our literary heritage be defined, given the changes in our society?" asks the QCA. "How should English change in response to our diversity in language, ethnicity, gender and personal needs?"

But what is standard English in a world where more people speak Indian English than American English or British English? Should we be talking about the language of Shakespeare, Toni Morrison and VS Naipaul?

The QCA's annual report on the state of English in schools highlighted the reliance on a few tried and trusted books, with some of the same titles appearing in three different year groups. It also expresses concern about a failure of reading stamina, stemming from the use of extracts and snippets in the literacy hour.

And then there's the long-standing problem of speaking and listening, a cultural divide between, say, American and British schools. Helping children to speak with confidence is a matter of children's rights. It connects with the Children Act and Every Child Matters, and links the inclusion agenda with the standards agenda. It's a key issue for the future of the curriculum.

The QCA is seeking comments the equivalent of two sides of A4. Details and talking points on www.qca.org.ukenglish21Email: english21@qca.org.uk

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