Time to go our separate ways

6th October 2000 at 01:00
Language and literature have been hitched like a pantomime horse, says Iain MacDonald

Da-ad," began my 10-year-old son, employing his best tricky-question cadence, "what exactly is English?" His reason for asking, of course, is that now he does literacy at school, which takes up a lot of his time and seems very important. However, he is old enough to remember a time before Pokemon, before yo-yos even, when there was something called English, which mostly involved reading books and writing stories, and which he rather liked. He senses that it is still around, but not much talked of, like an uncle caught fiddling his income tax.

Indeed the languagesubjectdiscipline that we all know and love is undergoing one of its periodic identity crises, and the confusion is not confined to 10-year-olds. The new AS-level specifications for English Language and Literature protest to the point of arousing suspicion the "interconnected nature of these two sub-disciplines"; that "one informs the other"; that they are "mutually supportive". The GCSE English exam contains almost as much literature as the English literature exam, and we insist on publicly assessing our 14-year-olds on their response to Shakespeare and their ability to write stories.

Meanwhile, back in primary schools, English is quietly mutating into literacy. The authors of the National Literacy Strategy Framework have worked hard to distance the document from any hint of a utilitarian approach to the subject. They too protest the interrelatedness of language and literature.

None the less, it is pretty clear that the whole exercise is driven by the imperatives of economic competitiveness (standards, if you like) and that the likely victim is going to be creativity in both teaching and learning.

English in schools has always been an ungainly and somewhat unstable compromise designed to satisfy the demands of various interest groups. In consequence it is as puzzling and at times as unsatisfactory to those who teach it as it is to those who study it. Yet much of the problem stems from the well-meaning determination of English teachers to hold together, at all costs, aspects of their subject which would be better disengaged and given the freedom to thrive independently.

I am thinking here not of language and literature, but of what we may call, for the sake of argument, functional English and creative English. Each is a sub-set of the vastly complex phenomenon that is the English language. Each has a legitimate and necessary place on the curriculum, and should be taught from the early years of schooling onward. They should, however, be taught and assessed in quite different ways.

Functional English would encompass the mechanics of the language - spelling, punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, and its practical uses. Students would work on reading and producing texts whose relevance to everyday living was self-evident. In effect functional English would start with what we used to call literacy and work up to what is still sometimes called directed writing, and to the deconstruction of sophisticated non-fiction prose texts. It would include most of the speaking and listening elements of the national curriculum, but with a practical focus - arguing a point of view or chairing a meeting, rather than role-playing Macbeth on trial. Functional English alone would be subject to end-of-key-stage testing.

Creative English would be based around the reading and writing of the various literary genres at a level appropriate to the individual student. These would be enjoyable and above all student-centred activities. National curriculum constraints would be minimal, allowing students and teachers to negotiate texts between them.

Assessment would be overwhelmingly formative at key stages 2 and 3, and at KS4 students could opt for a non-certificate or at least 100 per cent coursework-based course of study. Others with the inclination and aptitude would follow a course which introduced the more formal disciplines of literary criticism, with creative writing as an optional task.

Such a system could not help but produce students who would be more literate in two senses of the word. They would become more powerful and skilful users of the language for practical purposes, which would benefit both themselves and their employers. They would also be free to express themselves creatively without a numerical value being placed on their work; as a result both the study and production of literature would once more become enriching, exciting activities with more to do with personal growth and the understanding of the world than with the passing of exams.

Such an approach may seem radical; some may find it offensive. As we have seen, it is a kind of shibboleth that "language" and "literature" are inseparable constituents of an organic whole. But the consequence of this view is a pantomime horse that is neither swift nor elegant.

Functional and creative English, offspring both of the mother language, must be unharnessed and given free rein if the teaching and learning of the subject are to move forward.

Iain MacDonald is head of English at a West Midlands grammar school

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