‘Pull together to keep the spirit of English alive’

12th August 2016 at 01:00
In our preview of the next academic year in primary and secondary schools, experts call for a focus on the joys of studying the subject, not high-stakes exams

You would be forgiven for thinking that English teaching in primary and secondary schools was now just about cramming as many grammar rules as possible into the brains of the nation’s youth.

After all, this was all anyone really talked about last year: be it the “injustice” of teaching 11-year-olds a level of grammar more frequently found in university seminar rooms; or the increasing emphasis on 16-year-olds’ sentence structure in exams.

Of course, this could not be further from the truth – English as a subject is still a melting pot of multiple disciplines. Where the subject does suffer, though, is that it is arguably under more scrutiny than any other. Literacy is the number one priority of the government – with good reason.

Therefore, teachers should expect no breathing space over the next 12 months – English teaching will remain firmly under the microscope. To help navigate this uncertain terrain, we have recruited some experts to offer assistance.

What you need to consider in the next 12 months


Louise Johns-Shepherd, chief executive of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education

It is so important that we don’t let external assessments dominate our pedagogy. Although there are separate reading and writing assessments, we know that these are interdependent processes – making links between them will support children to make progress in both.

We need to remember that reading, in particular, is a social phenomenon, and to make sure that children have the opportunity to read whole books and regular sustained opportunities to talk about them. Equally, we can’t let an external grammar assessment skew the teaching of writing; we want children to appreciate language, and the teaching and exploration of grammar can help them to do that.

We don’t want robotic writing, with children unable to develop their own voice. What we need to ask ourselves is not “What grammar features can we shoehorn into this task?” but “What is the appropriate grammar for this task?” And you can only know what this is when children are clear about the purpose, audience and register of their writing.


Andrew McCallum, director of the English and Media Centre

English has always been a favourite subject for students. So it should be, given the textual riches at our disposal. But the relentless focus on high-stakes tests and narrowing of the curriculum risks turning English into something that it was never intended to be – particularly for 11- to 16-year-olds. So, my key question for all teachers is: how do we keep the spirit of English alive? Here are a few follow-up questions to collectively mull over:

How do we make sure key stage 3 English is a great experience and not just preparation for GCSEs?

How do we introduce students to unseen texts in ways that develop their understanding of how language works, rather than reducing the subject to a set of assessment criteria?

How can we reassert the value of group work and classroom talk?

How do we encourage personal responses to texts?

What are the best approaches to teaching grammar?

How can we expose students to a diverse range of texts that reflect their own backgrounds?

How can we ensure progress in English across the ability range, in light of the new Progress 8 assessment measure?

Answers to these questions need to be found quickly. We have to pull together as English teachers to ensure the spirit of English is kept alive and well.

Tips and strategies for the year ahead


The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) has these three top literacy teaching tips for primary schools.

Don’t be afraid to take risks

Being brave in a culture of high-stakes accountability is hard. Determine what your core principles are; root this in sound, relevant theory and research (as well as a thorough understanding of your pupils and their starting points); and use this knowledge to interpret policy with integrity. CLPE’s free reading and writing scales (bit.ly/CLPEscales) aim to help you to understand the continuum of development and give you a wealth of research.

Pick the right books

Start your planning with a high-quality text with depth and interest in story, character, illustration, vocabulary, structure and subject matter. The Core Books database (bit.ly/CLPEcorebooks) provides a free list of books that work well in this way, as well as free teaching sequences and resources.

Don’t neglect poetry

Reading, writing and performing poetry in the school classroom provides a gateway for so many young readers and writers in their journey towards becoming literate.

Poetry is an excellent vehicle for children’s understanding of form and audience, as well as word and sentence structure. Poetryline (bit.ly/CLPEpoetry) offers a range of poetry-related resources, including teaching sequences, to help you to do this across the primary age range.


Andrew McCallum says that the English and Media Centre’s focus is to promote creativity and rigour in the classroom. Here he offers six strategies employed by great English teams to achieve exactly that.

Aim for diversity

Commit to reading a range of fiction alongside your students: the Carnegie Medal shortlist (bit.ly/CarnegieList) is a good starting point for this.

Indulge your passion

Make some space, at key stage 3 in particular, for aspects of English that you really value.

Cultivate independence

Develop students’ ability to think and write for themselves by stripping back scaffolding to a minimum and then reintroducing bits only according to need.

Be careful with group work

Structure group tasks carefully to help students develop their understanding of texts.

Audit your department

Examine what happens in your department’s classrooms. What activities dominate? Which work best? What is missing? Use this to develop the repertoires of all your teachers.

Reassess setting

Consider the implications of teaching in sets or to mixed-ability classrooms. With Progress 8 in mind, lots of schools are turning to mixed ability as a strategy to raise achievement.

My aims for the year


Alice Edgington is acting deputy headteacher at St Stephen’s Infants School in Canterbury and tweets as @aliceedgington

This year, the focus on teaching English in primary schools has become massively hung up on spelling, punctuation and grammar (Spag). Teachers have had to be creative in their teaching to make the new curriculum engaging and exciting for the children in order to achieve anywhere near the results that the government requires.

The key stage 2 results show the stress that teachers and schools are under. I am hoping that next year we can stop killing children’s passion for English with an outdated focus on what some politicians consider to be basic skills. Surely being able to use your imagination is a basic skill, too?

Hopefully, the new education secretary Justine Greening will make sense of the senseless Sats and start listening to the profession.

My wish is that children will be encouraged to choose their own reading material and write about topics that excite them for real-life purposes, rather than to showcase their knowledge of standard English. Let’s equip these children for the wider world and community, preparing them for adult life. Yes, this includes knowing how to spell, but literacy crosses into all subjects and should not be tested so rigidly in its application.


Caroline Spalding is head of English at Tupton Hall School in Chesterfield and tweets as @headofenglish

Since I became a head of English five years ago, there hasn’t been a single year when we’ve taught the same GCSE course. While there have been sound reasons for many of these reforms, the pace and scale of change has left us all feeling quite dizzy. Add changes at KS2, KS3 and KS5 into the mix and it’s no surprise that many English faculties have a feeling of Blitz spirit about them.

So, my wish is for a year of no change. A year of no bright ideas or surprises. A year of stability in a world that is feeling increasingly unstable.

We have sought to embrace the excitement that teaching new texts from new schemes of work can bring, but we’ve also grafted to ensure these courses are well-planned and taught. I think many of us now hope these specs remain in place long enough for us to refine our provision.

In light of the recent workload reports, we’re reducing the number of assessment points to three. All students will sit a baseline, interim and summative assessment each year, which will give us the information we need while also protecting teachers and allowing them the preparation time that is necessary to teach well. We’re also offsetting the timing of assessment points in KS3 and KS4 to support teachers in managing their workload.

I believe that happy, healthy, English teachers who want to remain in the profession will make the best faculty!

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