'We're demotivating generations of GCSE English pupils'

The current focus on standard English and canonical writers makes GCSE English seem 'dry and dusty', writes former English teacher Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough

English GSCe

English teachers have no shortage of issues to argue with one another about. There’s the debate over whether abridged texts should be used with lower ability groups, for example, or the question of whether there’s really any point in teaching Shakespeare at primary level.

But there is another issue that is even more fundamental to our subject than these – and even more fiercely contested: what is English for?

There are many ideas here. Is it our goal to prepare students for work? Should we be encouraging them to interrogate social and cultural norms? Or are we primarily trying to bridge the gap between school and university?

These were questions at the forefront of my mind as I read Barbara Bleiman’s What Matters in English Teaching, a collection of “blogs and other writing” that reveals her fears about the nature of English as students are currently being taught it, and what this means for the future of the subject.

How has English teaching changed?

During my six years as an English teacher, I personally witnessed enormous change in the subject. I saw coursework replaced by controlled assessments, speaking and listening removed as an assessed part of GCSE English, and the introduction of linear courses from 2017.

In her collected writings, Bleiman argues that these changes are contributing to the demotivation of generations of English students. She suggests that the current focus on the intricacies of language analysis, the hegemony of the dreaded PEE paragraph and a lack of attention to the whole text are dissuading students from pursuing English at A level.

She also laments the fact that the previous requirement that students be taught texts from a diverse range of cultures has now been replaced by a fixation on Victorian canonical texts. The revised GCSEs do not require pupils to study post-colonial writing in any depth, with the exception of John Agard’s Checking Out Me History as a lone Caribbean voice in the AQA anthology.

In her book, Bleiman recalls speaking in 1991 about the need to reconcile the vocational aspects of the subject with the development of literary criticism skills – a debate that seems mostly absent today. Indeed, the subject is now largely concerned with academic English – something that I, like Bleiman, find problematic.

Lowering expectations

Pupils are now drilled in vocabulary lists before they are allowed to open class texts, and are encouraged to learn esoteric technical terms to deploy in exams, often with mixed results. These approaches are supposedly based on theories around children’s lack of “cultural capital”. But, as Bleiman argues, such approaches actually lead to lower expectations of students. Instead of helping them to grapple with the thematic insights of literature, we are now priming students to notice examples of sibilance and asyndeton. We are training them to miss the beauty of the woods in favour of spotting individual trees.

This concerns me. I worry that by priming pupils with dictionary terms and overloading them with technical language, we deny them the opportunity to develop a key reading skill: working out the nuances of words according to context.

There are times when a focus on understanding every single word can obscure authorial skills of irony, humour and pacing. For example, I recently attempted to use my rusty A-level Spanish to read Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez in its original language. As I was looking up every unfamiliar word, I soon lost the thread of the narrative. It made for a deeply unenjoyable reading experience. However, once I stopped worrying about vocabulary and attempted to follow the story as a whole, I gained a sense of narrative tempo and theme, even though my understanding wasn’t quite perfect.

This, surely, is a better way to read – a fact that is borne out in research demonstrating that less confident readers benefit far more from reading difficult texts quickly, rather than pausing to dissect each passage in turn.

What is the future of English?

As for the loss of spoken language study at GCSE, I worry that this means pupils are now being denied the opportunity to understand how their own speech varies in different contexts. “Code switching” between forms of language is a central part of all human communication. Yet the rigid focus on both standard English and canonical writers at GCSE makes English seem a rigid, dry and dusty affair. It excludes the fact that many of the greatest canonical writers, from Shakespeare to Joyce, have been engaged in coining new words; in the interplay between the language of the tavern and the court; in how language may be used to oppress; and in how there are a plurality of “Englishes”.

This speaks to a problem with how we now teach the subject as a whole: to approach texts as a collection of preordained nuggets of information is to utterly miss out on the joy of English. As Bleiman notes, students do not necessarily need maps to understand texts – they can largely find their way through them on their own.

The focus on the canon, the analysis of short passages with no sense of the whole, pupils' being denied the opportunity to see a diverse range of cultures in English study, or to prize their own voice – all these factors throw the future of the subject into doubt for me.

When I think about what led me to study English, it was the ability to turn to old favourites from childhood; to ramble through Nicholas Nickleby and feel shocked by its soap-operatic twists of hidden parentage; to engage with the lyricism and political implications of Richard Wright’s Native Son.

I did not know the word “sibilance” at age 18. Perhaps I should have. But what I did know was that I loved reading, and wanted to explore more literature at university.

The question Bleiman’s book raises is whether we are depriving more students of the chance to realise that they also have a future in studying English. This is something that should ring alarm bells for every teacher of English. After all, if students cannot see a future for themselves in our subject, then where does that leave us?

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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