The state we're in;Reviews;English;Books

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
Geoff Barton finds two useful books for putting English teachers on the right track.

THE ENGLISH CURRICULUMIN SCHOOLS. By Louise Poulson. Cassell. pound;11.99. ENGLISH TEACHING IN THE SECONDARY SCHOOL. By Michael Fleming and David Stevens. David Fulton. pound;15.

What is English teaching like at the end of the 20th century? Louise Poulson's overview of the English curriculum - in which she emphasises many of thetensions within the subject as well as the loony controversies (coursework versus exam; literature versus language) - might have been called "How we got where we are today".

As with all such books written from the sanctuary of university education departments, there's a certain relish for the profession's scraps with government - the skirmish over key stage 3 testing, for example. Those of us at the sharp end found the process less whimsical.

But this is, nevertheless, a substantial book, skilfully illuminating key areas of English: a canter through the history, the political spats; assessment; English in primary and secondary schools. It's an account which would help any budding English teacher or new entrant to get his or her bearings.

The final chapter, "Beyond Controversy", is particularly interesting. It explores where English may be heading, with an agenda for a more balanced attitude to the way we defineliteracy. I'd have liked more of this. Just as information and communications technology is likely to transform the learning process throughout schools, so English cannot hope to remain the same. The implications of this will be profound.

English in the Secondary School is much more of a practical guide, a well-judged blend of good practice, sound theory and new ideas. I've been teaching English for 12 or so years and found much here that is worth trying out. The tone is authoritative and never patronising, drawing on examples from the best practitioners, with useful reading lists. If I was starting from scratch as an English teacher, this is the book I'd want.

One important quibble, however, about both books. They focus on teaching, which, at the end of the 20th century, isn't the real issue. The issue is learning. And the correlation between teaching and learning isn't always as inevitable as we might hope.

Learning needs to be at the heart of the English agenda because teaching follows from it. Without a clear framework for the way children acquire and then develop language, for the way reading and writing skills develop, teachers can get locked into approaches that areineffective.

That hardcore of Year 11students who leave school - scandalously - still unable to write in complete sentences are testament to the fact that teaching doesn't automatically lead to learning. If we're really going to make a difference to students' lives in a new century, we'll need to abandon some of the teaching models we have inherited from the 19th century and look afresh at how children learn.

That's what our English teachers of the future need to be talking about now. These two books will provide them with excellent starting points for some lively debate.

Geoff Barton is deputy headof Thurston Upper School,Suffolk

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