Why we should simply stop teaching English

14th November 2014 at 00:00
Lessons in grammar, literacy and the like can be dull for pupils and frustrating for staff. So why not abandon them altogether?

Recent reports suggest that Ofsted is concerned about the intense focus on English and maths in primary schools, fearing that it may come at the expense of other subjects. The "other subjects" bracket doesn't seem to include languages, but schools could learn a lot from this area. I have long advocated the teaching of Spanish "by accident", where children pick up the language while their minds are focused on other topics of interest. So why not try the same approach with English?

Languages have had to fight for their place on England's primary curriculum. They have had to battle against a legacy of perceived failure. When adults are introduced to a languages teacher, their first reaction will often be to rubbish themselves: "I'm terrible at languages," they say. "I've never been any good."

To counter such negativity (in adults and children), language teachers have become increasingly clever at slipping their subject past the mental block.

One effective strategy is to subordinate the language to another practical purpose, to force it to serve as a tool for communication. Children tend to assimilate a wider vocabulary when assimilating vocabulary is not the primary object of the lesson. Presented with a list of 20 words to learn, students are liable to trot out a series of excuses - too difficult, bad memory, long cricket match - but they will readily absorb twice that number in an exciting collective Spanish reading of [conquistador] Hernn Corts' catastrophic encounter with the Aztecs or his transformative introduction to chocolate.

Anxiety about English afflicts many parents and even more teachers. Schools have tended to address this head-on, squeezing ever more English into the school day and according it a hierarchical supremacy. The subject is jealously ring-fenced, measured, weighed and levelled. But anxiety breeds anxiety, and the English problem will not be solved simply by doing more English.

We need to take a fresh look at this issue. My suggestion is that we sidestep it and scrap stand-alone English from the curriculum altogether.

The magic of misdirection

Imagine the liberation. Imagine the widening of horizons. Instead of skimming the wider curriculum, we would have time to linger and delve deeper, enhancing the quality of learning through a multi-disciplinary methodology. Teaching English alone is like teaching children to breathe oxygen when they need to use it to run, jump and swim.

English already enjoys dominance. It's all around us. This is true across the globe; doubly so for those blessed - or cursed - with English as a mother tongue. Like children leaving home, we need to get away from English to fully appreciate it. With subtler techniques, we could increase opportunities for learning. We could stretch vocabulary and temporal awareness through the classics. We could teach dialogue through dramatic performance. We could teach monologue and rhetoric through Queen Elizabeth's address to the troops at Tilbury, and counterargument by adopting the viewpoint of the Armada. We could teach narrative and poetic discourse through Bible stories and the Psalms. We could teach descriptive writing inspired by the Amazon and the Ganges, and factual writing through scientific observation and the meticulous recording of data. We could teach creativity through hypothesis and speculation, logic through maths and computing.

And what about English grammar? Simple: in order to know it better, we need to get away from that too. Our intimate, intuitive relationship with our own language makes it harder to inspect with detachment and rigour. For our children, English just "is"; it's not something to be analysed and interrogated. Far easier to put a new, strange language under the microscope, zoom in on it and examine the nuts and bolts. Then pupils will begin to see language as Lego, more abstract but just as colourful, the constituent parts locking together with a satisfying clunk. We can teach grammar through Latinate languages, using the foreign to shine a light on the impenetrably familiar.

Teach English at work and in context, teach it by misdirection, like a magic trick, and children will learn it by accident. By doing less we can do more.

It is time to set aside our quasi-religious approach to English, with its worship of the holy Shakespeare, and adopt a more positivist model, observing the language in action across the spectrum of human endeavour. And with the time that is freed up, we can introduce philosophy - the most neglected of intellectual disciplines - into the mainstream curriculum, enabling children to explore the history of human thought and encouraging them to converse and argue well.

After all, it was Wittgenstein - supreme exponent of the language game - who counselled that if you want to be a philosopher, you should become a car mechanic.

Dr Heather Martin is head of languages and enrichment at St Faith's School in Cambridge

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