Why the way we teach English needs a complete overhaul

The rise of social media means we should be more rigorous in the teaching of English, not less

English, poetry, questioning, interrogation

Walking my dog at the same time as the local school run, I overheard a mum explaining to her toddler son that it was now illegal for people to climb Mount Everest alone. His shock and disbelief were palpable. “Why?” he demanded, immediately.

“Because they don’t think it’s safe,” mum said, calmly and reasonably.

“I could do it,” the little lad insisted, “I would take my hamster.”

Children want to know stuff. They need to know stuff. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if they tie a bowline round their pet hamster and set off gleefully up a glacier. What’s more, they quickly realise the best way to find out is from adults who already know stuff. So I’m not surprised by the recent interest schools are showing in discussing and capturing in detail, precisely what knowledge they think is required, by subject and key stage. I did some recent work with a teacher doing this across their multi-academy trust and was impressed by their thoughtfulness. The most significant place where this interest has appeared is in Ofsted’s own shift of focus to the curriculum.

If children have a right to an education, as international law insists, then they have a right to the right knowledge, every single step of the way.

And that’s where I think there’s a fascinating discussion to be had in one of the most fundamental of all subject areas, my own specialism, English. English is quite rightly twinned with maths as the foundation for any successful educational experience. Without a reasonably sophisticated grasp of at least one’s mother tongue, its use and abuse, what chance has any child of reaching that point where they can confidently regard themselves as an educated adult? What chance have they of developing or conveying their own knowledge in every other subject? English is the only tool most will ever have to show others what they know and what they’ve learned. 

Teach a child that two plus two equals six and the real world consequences are only too easy to imagine. Yet is English taught with a similar respect for rigorous truths about the subject as maths is? To what extent is that desirable or even possible? I think not only do we need to ask, but even a cursory examination of contemporary culture, thrown into all kinds of disarray by new technologies, suggests that the question is way overdue.

Is the English curriculum fit for purpose in a society where most of the written English children will produce as adults, will be mediated by some form of technology?

Instagram, for example, has spawned an entirely new kind of laconic, spontaneous writing exemplified by the poet Rupi Kaur. Her work only found its way into print after her huge success on what is essentially a visual platform. 

In case you’re thinking this is a thinly disguised demand for more grammar teaching: it isn’t. The issue is far more challenging, urging those of us who really care about words to consider the complex role English usage plays on everything from the side of a bus, through tissue thin social media, garish slideshows and perky TED talks, to the hundreds of pages of research or official reports so often used as the basis for serious political policy.

Few children naturally possess the kind of facility with language that means they don’t need a high degree of knowledge about it, to use it well, even those from literate homes, steeped in books and with good reading habits. My eldest daughter has a highly literate student friend whose malapropisms make her weep with delight. Most of us have to learn fundamental rules and guidance about how to speak and write, clearly and articulately.

Now consider the substantial time and effort, especially before key stage 4, that’s devoted to encouraging children to experiment with language, to play with it, squeeze or contort it, in the belief that we’re teaching them how to express themselves. SATS exams have been widely attacked by vocal none teachers, like the writer Michael Rosen, who feel strongly that they somehow stifle creativity or kill children’s love of books.

But instead of this focus on experiment and creativity, instead of requiring them to write newspaper articles, stories or speeches, the main deliverables in any English GCSE exam, I wonder if we’d do a better job today if we thought far more about how to connect what they write, with who they are and where they really want to publish. Because they are publishing their own ‘work’ all the time. The purpose, surely, is every bit as important as the product. Children generally don’t write for newspapers, the number of outlets for adult short story writers never makes double digits and speeches, apart from the best man variety, tend to be the preserve of fairly senior figures.

Of course, they are also taught to write well by example and through practice, yet there are equally challenging questions to ask about much of the material routinely chosen. How often are texts and authors selected for study, for reasons that have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with knowledge or linguistic skill, and everything to do with politics? Even exam boards are guilty of this. I tutored a sixth former last year whose opinion of one of the contemporary playwrights they’d been required to study was far more articulate than anything written by the playwright concerned. I wasn’t especially surprised by their A*.

What I’d like to suggest is that perhaps children stand to benefit from a thoughtful debate about the way English has been taught in schools for decades - and how, why and crucially, via what, it actually makes an appearance in today’s world.

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more of his columns, view his back catalogue.

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