Last Saturday, the London Association for the Teaching of English ran a day conference at the Institute of Education on the work and legacy of James Britton. Some of the large gathering had known and worked with Britton; others had had only recently completed training in the institution where his ideas had influenced the practice of generations of English teachers. Others, myself included, had less direct knowledge of the man and the institution.
In the keynote session of the conference, Tony Burgess reflected on Britton’s life and ideas, while Myra Barrs explained how Britton had influenced her work as a teacher and adviser. Britton had been the forming hand behind both LATE and NATE, and the ‘shuttle’ between classroom and theory that he practised remains a key principle. He accepted the intrinsic interest and importance of children’s language, and the quotations from children that feature so frequently in Britton’s work are not just illustrations of his thinking but part of the thinking. His ideas have had a profound effect on educational theory and practice – in Canada as much as in the UK – and are still influential despite the current regime of reaction and quantification
Britton believed that understanding the relationship between language and thought was key to understanding how children gain language fluency. In chapter 2 of Language and Learning (1970), he used the work of Luria and Vygotsky, then little known in the UK, to examine the development of thought and language. He saw language as a means of building up a representation of the world. An inward running commentary on experience that operates alongside social speech becomes internal speech: a retrospect that enables a prospect. Speech thus precedes writing, and children’s written language develops from and alongside their talking.
Priorities for the classroom follow this view of language. Britton insisted that language in the classroom should be used for real purposes, one of the most important of which is listening. Myra Barrs recalled that Britton had been a modest speaker and active listener: his colleagues remarked on his intent yet warm attention on the speaker and his encouraging: “Go on.”
Britton developed the concept of the Participant and Spectator roles of language: the speaker/thinker acts on the world by means of the representation and acts on the representation itself. From this point of view, literature does not occupy a different realm from other language; expressive and poetic writing and reading are natural functions of the spectator role. The concept of the spectator role thus brings literature into touch with processes in the everyday life of young people.
As Viv Ellis has written, Britton was ‘the exemplary academic educationist: once a teacher, always fully engaged with the work of school teaching and motivated by educational questions; hugely supportive of the profession developing its own leadership (through subject associations, for example); … Britton shows the way you might, as someone who works in a university Education department, do good work in every sense’. In the final session of the conference, Simon Clements and Douglas Barnes, both of whom had worked with James Britton, spoke. According to Douglas Barnes, one learned from Britton how to be a person as well as a teacher. Could there be a better account of the legacy of a seminal figure in the study of language and the teaching of English?
This post is taken from an article to be published in Teaching English