English teachers: bound to necessity?

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English in Education, Summer 2017

Being a good teacher of English (or any other subject) requires not only skill – the craft or techne required to achieve a desired outcome – but also wider understanding, or episteme.  Plato associated episteme with a freedom of intelligence, while (according to Damon Young) techne in the Greek polis “was a kind of knowledge associated with people who are bound to necessity”.

English teachers often resent being bound to necessity. Bethan Marshall writes in her conclusion to Testing English: “Despite over 150 years of battle, English teachers are still trying to assess English in a way that makes sense to them.”   Given current circumstances, it’s not surprising that much of the research presented in the new (Summer 2017) issue of English in Education concerns episteme rather than techne.

  • Paul Tarpey reconsiders John Dixon’s “personal growth” model of English in relation to its current manifestations.
  • Nicholas Stock explores the rhetoric of England’s new GCSE English examinations.
  • Jonathan Glazzard examines the “phonics check” for England’s five year olds in relation to various theories of reading.
  • Paul Gardner compares the discourses of English in England and Australia.

In practice, of course, the two kinds of knowledge interrelate.  Margaret Merga’s large-scale survey of children’s reading motivations and interests has direct relevance to classroom practitioners.   Jonathan Monk draws on cultural history and theory and Zadie Smith’s novel NW when preparing his students to write personally about their experience of the city.

Another theme of this issue is the importance of the personal and authentic in the daily work of teaching and learning.   Trevor Millum’s poem “Class Accents” suggests the complex nature of student and teacher voice.

The book reviews offer a conjunction of episteme and techne.  Urszula Clark reviews  Giovanelli and Clayton’s Knowing About Language: Linguistics and the Secondary English Classroom, while  Victoria Elliott reviews Skidmore and Murakami’s Dialogic Pedagogy. 

Foucault used episteme to define what might be called the epistemological unconscious of a community of practice, and he insisted that the essential political problem is to try to change our “political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth”.  This issue argues the importance of bringing together episteme and techne in the experience of English teachers: a consummation devoutly to be wished in present circumstances.

John Hodgson

Members of NATE will receive their printed copy of English in Education shortly.   To join NATE, see sidebar.

 

 

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Assessing Primary Literacy

 

There has been much concern about the new grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS) tests for primary school pupils. Parents, teachers, academics and other commentators claim that the tests are inappropriate for primary pupils and that these high stakes assessments have a deleterious effect on teaching and learning.

Part of the problem lies in terminology. Children have to spot examples of grammatical constructions such as “fronted adverbials”. This term has become notorious as it has not previously been used in grammatical descriptions and seems sometimes to apply to phrases that are essentially “adjectival”. The deeper problem is that the label becomes more important than the underlying reality. It is obviously good to teach children the structures of language, particularly if such knowledge helps to express themselves more accurately. But testing a knowledge of labels is very different from testing an understanding of language structures.

Such understanding requires a connection between children’s everyday understanding of language and the grammar they have to grasp. Linguists such as Halliday have developed a functional approach to language that gives meaning to everyday interactions. However, GPS relies on ‘ideal’ forms of language that contradict everyday experience. The Oxford or ‘serial’ comma is outlawed when it is in fact common and correct usage. GPS requires that ‘exclamations’ must begin with ‘How’ or ‘What’ and include a finite verb – which is not the case in real language use. Terms like ‘command’ or ‘exclamation’, which have a social function, refer in GPS only to specific grammatical structures.

This context-free view of grammar implies that children’s language is either right or wrong. Lord Bew’s review (2011) of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability seized (p.60) upon “spelling, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary” as elements of writing “where there are clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, which lend themselves to externally-marked testing”. GPS performance thus becomes a key indicator of a school’s success or failure – even though the view inscribed in the tests is so limited.

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.

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

Integrating English Language and Literature

Folger_1A linguist deaf to the poetic functions of language and a literary scholar indifferent to linguistics are equally flagrant anachronisms.        Roman Jakobson (1960)

by Marcello Giovanelli

Despite the fact that these words were spoken over fifty years ago, it is curious that ‘English Language’ and ‘English Literature’ are largely still viewed as discrete subjects.  Even when they are studied together, they seem to be part of a combined course, part ‘lit’ and part ‘lang’, rather than a fully integrated one. Whilst the growth of A level English Language over the last twenty years, with its emphasis on providing students with a practical and rigorous toolkit for a systematic analysis of texts,  points towards the value of language-based textual work, all too often responses in literary studies ignore the essence of literature itself: language.  Instead, the direction and focus are geared towards biography, historical context, and fantastical speculation about what authors might or might not have thought, felt and said. The worst kind of criticism is either rooted in vague impressionistic language or else relies on verbose rhetoric. For students this can have the unfortunate consequence that ‘Literature’ becomes difficult to access without resorting to impressionism of their own or else relying on what critics or teachers say that texts ‘mean’. The literary text remains somehow ‘special’, and uniquely creative in comparison to mundane ‘everyday language’.

An integrated approach: stylistics
An integrated approach to studying literature gives priority to language, encourages close reading, helps to avoid superficial, impressionistic comments, and is inherently democratic in that with practice everyone can develop skills and respond to literary texts in meaningful ways. In higher education, the explicit application of linguistic knowledge and models in the service of literary criticism is known as stylistics (see Simpson 2004 for an overview).  Its principles of being clear, transparent and focused on how particular language choices give rise to particular effects are extremely useful as a working model for students of all ages. As an example, look at the first line of Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘A working party’, published in 1917.

Three hours ago he blundered up the trench

There’s plenty of subtle and sophisticated work that students can do with this line simply by asking questions about language, as a way of developing their skills at literary criticism. Here are four such questions.

[1] The poem begins with the adverbial ‘three hours ago’, placed at the front of the clause. This emphasises a time shift – the narrated events at the start of the poem happen three hours before the recounting time of the poem. Why is this important? What would be the effect if this were at the end of the clause?
[2] The soldier is referred to using the third person pronoun ‘he’. Why not use a proper noun or an extended noun phrase such as ‘the young/old/tired soldier’? The use of the pronoun reduces the referent (the soldier) to the smallest, depersonalised lexical unit. However, ‘he’ (and other such pronouns) tends to be used when readers are able to access the intended referent without any difficulty: i.e. they know who ‘he’ is. When they can’t, we tend to use more specific terms such as common and proper nouns.  So here, we have the paradox of an expression that both depersonalises and emphasises closeness. Why?
[3] ‘blundered’ suggests movement but of an awkward kind; ‘up’ is a preposition that suggests a certain kind of orientation (vertical rather than horizontal). Why not ‘along the trench’? How does this preposition fit with the meaning of ‘blundered’?
[4] Sassoon uses ‘the trench’ rather than ‘a trench’. As with ‘he’, ‘the’ tends to be used when the addressee/listener knows the referent or is in its vicinity. So overall what is the significance of the use of the definite article? Would it matter if it were ‘a trench’?

These questions promote thinking about how key aspects of style are important in the act of literary interpretation. Indeed, the fact that these features are significant is in itself a type of emphatic patterning known as foregrounding. The act of interpretation also provides a motivation for teaching linguistic models and ideas in their own right. The examples above offer ways in to enquiry and learning about syntax, the pronoun system, semantics, prepositions and the motivation for using definite or indefinite articles. They involve students exploring language features, asking questions about prominent patterns and choices, and considering the likely effect of alternative ones (for a detailed exploration of the benefits of textual
intervention see Pope 1995; and also Madden 2006, and Queneau 2009).

Creativity in non-literary texts
Very briefly, I’d like to show how an integrated approach also provides novel ways of looking at non-literary texts. A fully integrated ‘English’ denies sole privilege to literary discourse, and sees an inherent value and creativity in everyday language (for detailed discussion of this idea see Carter 2004). An interesting example for students would be to look a phenomenon such as metaphor that might be thought of simply as a literary trope, and explore its pervasiveness and importance in non-literary discourse. Here are two such texts: the first is from an interview with George Osborne (the current UK Chancellor of the Exchequer) on the BBC website; the second is part of a conversation between two year 11 (age 16) students about a forthcoming GCSE (national) examination.

[1]
Britain is moving from rescue to recovery. But while the British economy is
leaving intensive care; now we need to secure that recovery.
[2]
Akbar: so what you gonna revise for
Jack: well (.) Slim will come up (.) that’s what Mr Jones reckons
Akbar: yeah (.) he thinks it will be there (.) I bet he’s not right though
Jack: but (.) but I’m not going to risk it this year if it is there
Akbar: how would he know (1) he’s just guessing

Metaphor works by mapping attributes from one concrete area of knowledge to another that is more abstract (see Lakoff and Johnson 1980). In the first example, two metaphors are evident: the personification of the economy as a hospital patient; and the idea of a journey (moving/leaving from one place to another). Exploring why these metaphors were chosen in this example of political discourse can be just as intellectually demanding and satisfying as looking at metaphor in literary texts. Equally, in the second example, students can explore how the speakers co-construct an entire dialogue built around the metaphor ‘life is a gamble’. Both texts show the inherent creativity in seemingly everyday discourse.

Conclusion
The kind of work I have been describing is as easy to promote with younger students at Key Stage 3 as it is at A level. Indeed, one of the challenges of the future seems to me to offer students of all ages opportunities to engage in integrated work that can support rigorous, systematic and transparent analysis as a way of developing skills in areas of knowledge that might be seen as traditionally either more ‘literary’ or ‘linguistic’ in focus. This type of ‘language and literature’ work naturally resists a crude compartmentalisation of the subject, and instead sees the value in an integrated ‘English’.

References
Carter, R. (2004) Language and Creativity: The Art of Common Talk, London: Routledge.
Jakobson, R. (1960) ‘Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics’ in T. Sebeok (ed.) Style in Language, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp 350-70.
Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Madden, M. (2006) 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, London: Jonathan Cape.
Pope, R. (1995) Textual Intervention: Creative and Critical Strategies for Literary Studies, London: Routledge
Queneau, R. (2009) (3rd edition) Exercises in Style (translated by Barbara Wright), Richmond: OneWorld Classics.
Simpson, P. (2004) Stylistics: A Resource Book for Students, London: Routledge

This article was first published in The Voice (2013)

Storytelling in primary and secondary classrooms

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Gary Snapper writes:

If we want to improve our students’ literacy, we should not narrow their curriculum by providing ever more test-oriented literacy lessons. We can instead enrich their curriculum with more creative and physical activity, raising motivation and energy levels, and providing the stimulus for more effective learning. In English, in particular, effective understanding and effective writing can flow from the stimulus of discussion, drama, and performance, as from the traditional routines of grammar, comprehension and essay writing.

With this in mind, and in the light of the decreased emphasis on speaking and listening in the current curriculum, the central theme of the summer edition of Teaching English will be Storytelling in primary and secondary English. An idea that recurs throughout the magazine is the power of storytelling to motivate students (and teachers), its potential in stimulating and activating students’ (and teachers’) creativity, and its consequent potential to improve students’ literacy.

We look at storytelling from a range of perspectives. Tony Wilson suggests ways of teaching oral storytelling to children. Georghia Ellinas explores storytelling in the context of Shakespeare’s stories at the Globe. Carolyn Drever recounts what happens when storytelling and outdoor education come together. Debbie Chalmers and Mick Connell focus on the range of creative work that can emerge when the teacher becomes storyteller. In a similar vein, Chris Parton and Joan Foley report on teacher-as-storyteller in the ‘Classic Tales in English’ project. Meanwhile, Pete Bearder discusses the power of oral performance in his account of his work as a Spoken Word Educator in London.

Also in this edition

We feature two articles by James Durran intended to help English departments think through some fundamental issues to do with assessment and learning objectives. Peter Thomas’s detailed exploration of how to improve students’ writing – by focusing on sentence structure and sequence – is essential reading, and its concerns are echoed by Harry Ritchie’s call for a move away from traditionalist notions of grammar and towards grammar-in-use. Andrew McCallum, meanwhile, suggests strategies for dealing with unseens at GCSE, whilst Amy Forrester urges NATE members to consider organising English ‘teachmeets’ to share good practice.

Columns and Reviews

As usual, our news and review pages feature a survey of recent curriculum news and reviews of recent publications, whilst regular columns by Tom Rank and Keith Davidson explore topical issues in English. We also remember the life of Peter Medway, who died this year – a longstanding friend of NATE and a key figure in the history of modern English teaching.

If you are a member of NATE, you’ll receive Teaching English in the mail at the beginning of June. To join, click on the main website (link on right) or click here.