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.

How was it for you?

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Human beings are given to looking back at supposedly better times than the present. In The City and the Country, Raymond Williams examines nostalgic discourses about social change and suggests that that memories of better days usually refer to a period thirty or more years in the past. But I’ve never felt this way about education. The schools and colleges where I’ve taught during the last thirty years offered a better experience to both students and teachers than the institutions of the 1960s and early 70s, where corporal punishment was a normal feature of everyday life and most students left at 15 or 16 with no qualifications.

And yet – thirty years ago, the political-educational culture was very different to what obtains today. Teachers educated in recent years must find it hard to imagine a time when schooling and assessment were not subject to endless political influence and change. When NATE started in 1963, the consensus about educational reform was such that the Minister for Education wrote an article in one of the first issues of English in Education. Responding to the Black Papers on Education of the early seventies, the Bullock Report of 1975, A Language for Life, stated that there was little substance in the view that “large numbers of schools are promoting creativity at the expense of basic skills”. And yet the Report’s acceptance of a binary opposition between “skills” and “creativity”, a conceptual dichotomy still routinely deployed, arguably set the scene for the landscape of today, where SPAG assessment is seen as a fundamental marker of competence in English and creative writing at A level is under threat.

Over more than fifty years, English in Education has offered critical research and opinion on the “basics” of English in Scotland_Road_playschools – the teaching of reading, writing, speaking and listening. Reading through the collected volumes to prepare our reflective paper on the first fifty years of the journal (published in the September 2014 issue, 48:3) Sarah Wilkin and I became aware of what Margaret McCullagh, an MA student at King’s College, London, calls the “turbulent and challenging” history of English teaching over those years. Perhaps the English in Education archive can mobilise our collective memory at a crucial time in English education.

If you are one of those teachers whose experience, like mine, approaches the number of years that NATE and its journal have flourished, we’d like to hear from you.  Margaret McCullagh (maggiermccullagh@gmail.com) is writing a dissertation on older English teachers’ perceptions of their work.  She wants to interview a number of English teachers aged 55 and over who have spent most of their working lives in the UK educational system.  Those who have retired within the last five years are equally welcome to participate.  She hopes to elicit a picture of what these teachers believe promotes self-efficacy in English teaching – and what hinders it. If you fit this profile, and can help by participating in an audio-taped interview of up to an hour, at a time and place convenient to you, with any travel expenses paid, please get in touch with Margaret at maggiermccullagh@gmail.com.

 

The threat to A Level Creative Writing

Welcome to NATE’s new blog, which will offer informed comment on issues of concern to teachers of English and related subjects, with links to research.   For more information about NATE, please see our ‘About’ page and our main website link.

The future of A level Creative Writing is under review.  The following is the NATE Post-16 & HE Committee’s letter to Ofqual, the examinations and assessment regulator.

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We are extremely concerned to discover that A Level Creative Writing has been placed on a list of endangered A Level courses. The subject fully satisfies all five of Ofqual’s principles for the reform of an A Level subject, and it is crucial in continuing to develop national understanding of and practice in the relationship between literature, English and the arts.

With reference to the Ofqual principles, A Level Creative Writing is making a significant contribution to both English studies and creative writing as disciplines in the UK.  The course defines clearly and precisely the knowledge, skills and understanding required by students of creative writing in higher education; indeed, it is more rigorously designed in terms of content and outcomes than many comparable courses at HE. The clarity and specificity of the course allows universities, schools and employers to understand the level of attainment achieved by students. The course is at least as demanding as other A level English qualifications in the theoretical, literary and cultural understanding required and in the quality of expression and content required of students. Validity in creative writing, as in other arts subjects such as art and music, can be assured by a judicious combination of examination and coursework assessment. Using these methods, student achievement can be readily differentiated. Finally, the course offers a distinct but complementary addition to the current suite of English subjects.

We elaborate these claims in what follows. Most importantly, the course has cultural and educational value that cannot be summarised only in terms of continuity to higher education. It is also making an important contribution to the development of English as a school and university subject. It recognises that, like art and music, literature can be as much an arts subject as a language or humanities subject. In art and music, knowledge and achievement in the discipline are judged as much by the creative practice of the art as by the ability to write critically about it. The same is true for literature. Creative Writing A Level can and should be seen as the creative practice of literature, and thus as a rigorous study of literature just as Art and Music A Level are rigorous studies of art and music.

This is not a minor point. There is a great deal of evidence over many decades that the study of reading and the practice of writing are strongly interconnected, and many teachers and academics believe that literature courses should include more creative writing as this is a route to greater literary understanding for students and teachers (just as creative practice in art and music is universally recognised as a crucial part of the disciplines of art and music.) Creative writing is routinely used as a means of teaching literature as part of primary and secondary English, and is increasingly being used in university English Studies as well as in discrete creative writing courses.

It is also vital to recognise that A Level Creative Writing does not consist only of the practice of creative writing, but crucially and fundamentally requires wide reading and study in a range of literary texts. There is much evidence emerging from A Level Creative Writing classes to show that it produces a rich engagement with literature, as rich as or even richer than that which emerges from A Level English Literature courses. Where creative writing units have featured in A level English courses, they have also been very successful.

A Level Creative Writing is entirely consistent with the primary purpose of A Level both as the rigorous creative and critical practice of an art form (literature) directly analogous with art and music, and as an alternative and equally rigorous approach to the study of English language and literature. A Level Creative Writing is also an entirely distinct subject from all other A Level courses, adopting an arts-based approach to literature rather than a languages- or humanities- based approach.

Valid and differentiated assessment has been shown to be entirely achievable in creative writing both in HE Creative Writing courses and in elements of pre-16 and post-16 English. Again it is crucial to recognise that assessment in A Level Creative Writing is as much based on students’ critical reflection on their writing – the practice of literary criticism – as on their own creative writing and is thus directly analogous with critical practice in both arts subjects and in English.