What is ‘reading’? Why do we read? How do we read?

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I’ve always been fascinated by the process of reading and interpetation.   Why do we choose certain ‘texts’, be these printed, on screen, verbal, visual or in some other mode?     How do we make sense of the words on the page, the pixels on the screen, the signifiers of the environment?   After teaching in a large rural school for a number of years, I embarked on a study of the reading and media practices of the students in my tutor group (home class) as they moved from early secondary to later secondary years and took their GCSE (age 16) examinations.   I was interested in their everyday practices rarher than merely in what they read in and for school.   The work, Grounded Literacy, took me nine years and I learned a lot from doing it: not only about the youngsters I had taught, but also, of course, about reader response theory, object relations theory and reception theory within cultural and media studies, a combination of approaches which formed the epistemological basis of my work.

 

I’m thinking about these issues again, partly because Reader Response and English Education is the theme of the 2018 special issue of English in Education, to be edited by Marcello Giovanelli and Jessica Mason.  I was also struck by a recent blog post by kirstwrites, Three books which got me thinking.   She writes:

I don’t read as much as I should (unless scrolling through Twitter counts?) so it has been a real pleasure to spend the last week staying in a house with a well stocked bookcase and a wood burning stove. After days spent on family walks kicking through autumn leaves, settling down for an evening’s reading in front of the fire has been pure bliss.

I’ve managed to polish off three books in the space of a week (what? I’m an English graduate, reading fast is my only skill) and I want to try and write some kind of review of them. On the surface, they are all totally disconnected. But by the time I’d read all three I was sensing a thread of connection between them all, and it’s this connection that I want to tease out.

She goes on to explain how she found connected meaning in three apparently unrelated books: David Temple’s Above and Below the Limestone: the pits and people of Easington District, an account of how the coal mining industry developed and declined over two centuries in County Durham; Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; and Bruce Springsteen’s newly released autobiography Born to Run.  As I commented, I’m sure that Bradbury would have approved the way her post demonstrates the power of “ordinary” books to help us think.

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New Directions in post-16 English

Teachers of English to post 16 students – whether in sixth form, further or higher education – have a double delight in November, with two successive day conferences at Middlesex University offering ways forward in the teaching of language, literature and language/literature.

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On Friday 11 November, the Integrating English annual conference will offer a mix of talks and interactive workshops designed to support teachers and provide new tools and techniques in the study of English.  Read more …

On Saturday 12 November, NATE will host a day conference on New Directions in Post-16 English.  Invited speakers Robert Eaglestone and Billy Clark will provide the context for short presentations and discussions led by members of the NATE Post-16 Committee. Read more …

A professional consensus against governmentality

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In his latest monthly commentary (May 2016), Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools, states: “We need to put as sharp a focus on the other subjects (of the primary curriculum) as we do on English and mathematics.” Wilshaw goes on to remind inspectors to look closely at “the wider primary curriculum, including science and modern languages, as set out in the inspection handbook.”

Yet, as former HMI Prof Colin Richards points out, no subjects other than mathematics and English are specifically mentioned in the inspection handbook. Instead, there is a vaguely expressed requirement that, when evaluating the design and implementation of the curriculum, inspectors should ensure that this contains “breadth and balance”. As Richards argues, this requirement becomes meaningful only if there is political and professional consensus over the criteria by which the breadth or otherwise of schools’ curricula can be judged.

Recently, I was having dinner with some friends who included two recently retired primary head teachers. One of these mentioned that, in his experience, the support of a professional consensus is very important when deciding the teaching policies of a school. One might disagree with aspects of this consensus, he said, but it was important that it should be in place, to provide an agreed framework for professional effort.

It struck me that it is the absence of such a consensus that is at the root of the present crisis in education in England. As Estelle Morris writes in yesterday’s Guardian: “Teachers are working with a curriculum, assessment and pedagogy that are increasingly directed by ministers’ own priorities and prejudices”.

Thirty years ago, as Colin Richards reminds us, HMI forged a consensus around “breadth and balance” by arguing that primary and secondary schools should involve all children in nine areas of experience and learning throughout the age-range 5 to 16.  Within this consensus, schools and teachers were free to interpret the ways in which these areas of experience and learning might be implemented in particular classrooms.

How different the situation is today. We no longer have the structures to achieve professional and political consensus. The consultative bodies within which teachers, inspectors and politicians discussed the curriculum – the Schools Council, Secondary Education and Assessment Committee, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority – have all been abolished. In their place we have the Department for Education, which effectively implements the diktats of the Secretary of State for Education.

In these circumstances, “breadth and balance” is little more than dimly remembered mantra from a former age. Within the new order, what matters is not experience and learning but “skills”. The primary skills are literacy and numeracy: the former subjects of English and mathematics, but with ministerially prescribed content. Within the new curriculum hierarchy, creativity is confined to the so-called creative subjects (art, music, drama but not English) that stand outside the “core academic subjects” that comprise the EBacc. Assessment by periodic national testing (the SATs) and GCSE (age 16) and A level (age 18) examinations emphasises memorisation and learning for the test. Private providers of instructional and testing materials and procedures, such as Pearson, are heavily involved in the delivery and assessment of this curriculum.

In the UK, teachers of English are increasingly preoccupied by the need to prepare students for the new tests in language and grammar “skills” which now have to be taken periodically from the early years (age 5) through to GCSE (age 16). There is a particular symbolic significance in these tests. For 50 years, the consensus among English teachers has been that the teaching of formal English grammar as a discrete aspect of English has little or no positive effect on students’ ability to write fluently, coherently and effectively. Grammar, or knowledge about language, did not disappear from the classroom: it has always been part of the national curriculum, and A-level English language, introduced in 1985, is still a growth subject. Formerly, however, English teachers had discretion, supported by a professional consensus, in the extent to which they incorporated explicit grammatical instruction within their teaching. Work by the Grammar for Writing team at Exeter University, which demonstrated ways in which applying grammatical knowledge within the drafting process can help children improve their writing, has recently become part of this consensus. Today, however, teachers and students face a quasi-theological grammatical apparatus that has to be memorised in order to answer test questions.

These curriculum and assessment changes derive not from the education profession but from what Jory Brass (following Foucault) calls “governmentality”. This word combines notions of “government” and “mentality” into a single term to identify political strategies to direct the conduct of the governed towards particular ends. Michael Rosen believes that the obscurity of the spelling, punctuation and grammar tests will result in more schools’ appearing to fail and thus requiring to be transformed into academies, thus supporting the government’s intention to privatise the forms and structures of education as far as is possible. It also seems to me that a more immediate result of these tests – which introduce a further element in the assessment of English beyond the traditional domains of speaking and listening, reading and writing – will be to withdraw cultural capital from numbers of young people who formerly achieved satisfactory results in English. This will be justified in the name of “standards”. It is worth remembering that, in 2012, the Office of Qualifications (Ofqual) put pressure on the assessment authorities (examination boards) to raise the threshold for grade C (the “passing” grade) in GCSE English. Despite an enormous protest, including legal action, by parents, local authorities and subject associations, this move was accepted as a legitimate attempt to “raise standards”.

These are not the “standards” that would be supported by a professional consensus that genuinely sought a broad and balanced education for our young people. Government requires the acquiescence of the governed. To resist these developments, we need a professional consensus against governmentality.

Assessing national standards

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A new report by QS, a firm of global education analysts, places the quality of the UK’s higher education system as second only to that of the world leader, the United States.   This finding may come as a surprise to those who have become used to international league tables that rate the quality of education in both countries as well below such states and jurisdictions as South Korea, Shanghai and Finland.  This discrepancy points to the need for any kind of evaluation to be clear about what is being tested, how, and with what purpose.  (Any valid global assessment of relative national achievement in literacy, for example, would need to demonstrate what aspects of literacy were examined, in what populations, and in what ways; how it provided valid comparisons between countries with very different languages, social systems and educational institutions; and the overall assumptions and purpose of the investigation.)

In the case of this new report, the stated purpose of the analysis is to measure the factors that make a nation’s higher education system more likely to succeed. It is based on four criteria, each weighted equally:

  1. System strength: the rankings performance of a nation’s institutions.
  2. Access: how likely a talented individual is to find a place at a top university in their home country, based on the number of places available at said institutions and population size.
  3. Flagship: the global performance of a nation’s top institution.
  4. Economy: the quality of a country’s economic environment for its higher education institutions, and whether economic prosperity translates into performance.

According to John O’Leary, Editor of the Times Education Guide and member of QS’s Executive Board, the advantage of this ranking approach is that it looks at the quality and accessibility of higher education as a whole.  “Assessing whole systems is not just about the top universities – if it were, Singapore would be much higher than it is and some European countries would be lower.”

It’s interesting to speculate what would come out of a survey that similarly attempted to assess the quality and accessibility of UK primary and secondary education as a whole.   Clearly the questions asked would differ from those in the new QS survey, but given the amount of data already being collected at various stages of students’ progress, it should be possible to assess the performance of UK schools as a whole in realising the potential of their students.  Dealing with some of the current issues about curriculum and assessment, however, might require a more qualitative approach than is usual in these large-scale evaluations.  Nonetheless, UK primary and secondary education has been transformed to offer more equal opportunity over the last 40 years, and international comparisons of the UK’s success in educating the people might be revealing.

Why Dartmouth mattered

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Shortly after its inception in 1963, NATE joined with the US National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Modern Languages Association (MLA) to secure funding for a month’s long seminar at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. The plan – as John Dixon has written, perhaps surprising today – was that a group of 40 to 50 teachers in schools and universities would thrash out the fundamental questions about English teaching and, through their national associations, spearhead a new approach.

Delegates to the conference brought visions of English teaching that differed not only between but (in some cases) also within the participant territories. English teachers in the United States employed rhetorical models of expository writing that were less familiar to participants from the UK, several of whom brought to Dartmouth a tradition of close literary study originating largely from the Scrutiny-inspired Cambridge school. At the same time, delegates from the London Institute of Education, including James Britton and Harold Rosen, insisted on the importance of respecting and working with the language that children brought to the classroom as a starting point for development.

In the circumstances, it was necessary to find a principle of English teaching that would reconcile these divergent approaches to teaching and learning within the prevailing educational climate. The concept of “personal growth”, articulated by John Dixon of the UK delegation, provided a pedagogic ideal which most could support. It spoke both to the delegates’ awareness of wasted talent in the school-age population and to the zeitgeist that produced the human potential movement, R.D. Laing’s anti-psychiatry, and the Summer of Love of 1967. Fifty years on, it is still the principle of English teaching that gains the allegiance of a majority of practitioners. This is because the radical core of the concept of “personal growth” was the student’s own language.

This focus on the child’s language emphatically did not exclude or marginalise literature. Pupils’ written stories and poems, when shared and discussed, became “the literature of the classroom”. And delegates from both sides of the Atlantic were surprisingly united (Dixon writes) in their view of literary response: “The experience of art is a thing of our making, an activity in which we are our own interpretive artist.”

These formulations about students’ language and literary response were developed, amended and rewritten over the next half century in NATE publications and elsewhere.  During these years, language study was reconstituted, insights from discourse studies of genre and narrative were assimilated, and technological change was incorporated into everyday classroom practice. The development of English studies over the last half-century demonstrates (in the words of Garth Boomer, a former president of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English) that the curriculum is no longer a prepackaged course to be taken; it is a jointly enacted composition that grows and changes as it proceeds.  The view that the experience and language that the child brought the classroom was intrinsically important, and that the process of teaching English must start here – not merely to impose class-based notions of formality and correctness, but to work with students to expand their language, cognition and range of feeling: this is the legacy and the importance of Dartmouth.

This post is adapted from an article to be published in Teaching English.   There will be a research symposium on Dartmouth on 26 June 2016 following the NATE Conference in Stratford on Avon.

Renewing acquaintance with James Britton

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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

The Politics of English …

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… is the correct title for the current (Spring 2016) special issue of English in Education.   In producing the print edition, the publishers accidentally transposed the title Assessment and Learning from the proposed 2017 special issue.   The online version has the correct title, and print subscribers will receive a postal note from the publishers.

So how does the special issue view the current politics of English?  In his editorial, Ken Jones writes:

The articles in this special issue register the effects of … the ways in which English, through a thirty-year process of cumulative change, has come to be regulated and redefined. They examine some of the intellectual justifications put forward by advocates of change. They track its effects on teachers’ sense of the possibilities of English. Without hyperbole, they consider alternatives.

Simon Gibbons’ article focuses on the ways in which teachers have internalised the requirements of policy in their own sense of what it means to be a good English teacher. Andrew McCallum studies the teaching of English in a state secondary school and a private school.  He argues that, in the first school, where creativity is seen not as integral to English but as conditional upon the prior mastery of something uncreative, a skills focused curriculum produces a drastic narrowing of the learning experience.  This experience is captured by Michael Rosen in his poem ‘Bear Grylls’, which the author has allowed us to reprint for the special issue from his latest collection.

Drawing on  a comparative study of teaching Romen and Juliet in London and Palestine, Monica Brady and John Yandell insist that ‘classrooms are places where meanings are made, not merely transmitted’.  In similar vein, Karen Daniels, in her article on Early Years education, argues that English – or ‘literacy’ – is a site where students develop ‘repertoires for meaning-making’.    These micro-practices of English teaching are not insulated from the political, as they are enabled and constrained by the wider, ‘macro’ social practices of policy-makers and social movements.  Howard Ryan and Debra Goodman consider these in their account of the ‘whole language’ movement in the United States.  As Ken Jones concludes, to make significant changes to the present state of English requires looking beyond the micro-politics of the classroom.