Writing – special issue of English in Education, Spring 2019


from the Editorial by Jenifer Smith and Mari Cruice:

Attempting to understand how a teacher enables a student to transform thoughts into words on a page – in different genres, styles and tones – is a complex enough endeavour in its own right. Trying to develop excellent writing pedagogy in a system dominated by standardised, politicised assessments makes the task even more challenging.

In 1989, Michael Armstrong judged the conceptualisation of writing and its assessment in England’s new National Curriculum to be a gross betrayal of children’s intellectual interests. Tests, he argued, ‘measure no more than the shadow of achievement.’

Armstrong was speaking out against the possible perils of the assessment tail wagging the curriculum dog. However, the version of the National Curriculum that he was talking about still recognised the language that children brought with them to school, accepted the importance of attending to what children have to say and acknowledged the multifaceted nature of writing.  It insisted on the primacy of meaning and recognised that not everything that is of value can be measured:

The best writing is vigorous, committed, honest and interesting. We have not included these qualities in our attainment targets because they cannot be mapped onto levels. (DES 1989)

The National Curriculum working party may not have foretold the consequences of their removal of such vital elements of writing from assessment.

Thirty years on, these themes – the importance of meaning; the perils of reductive writing pedagogy in the face of high stakes tests – echo through the contributions to this Special Edition. Gordon Pradl celebrates the life and work of David Holbrook and James Britton, who, following active duty in the Second World War, were fearless advocates of an expansive view of English. Both had the clear aim of helping students to make sense of their subjective experiences. Helena Thomas writes powerfully of the role that the imagination can and should play in the teaching of writing, arriving at a philosophical standpoint that defines the teacher as artist both in terms of pedagogy and in terms of reading and writing themselves.

Myra Barrs turns her attention to current practice. She carefully analyses the possible causes of ‘bad writing’ in schools and explores the circumstances that disempower teachers, locking them into a metaphor of delivery rather than artistry. Simon Gibbons also looks at questionable practice as he describes the ubiquity of ‘PEEL’ paragraphs. He glances backwards to gain some perspective and sounds a note of optimism that English teachers are collectively capable of loosening the stranglehold of formulaic pedagogy.

To do this, as Whitney et al. argue in Coaching Teacher-Writers (reviewed in this issue), we need activists to write about poor policy and practice. We need to build on and publicise the substantial knowledge base that already exists to support the teaching of writing. When teachers write reflectively and write together, they develop an understanding of what it means to write – the difficulty of it, the vulnerability it brings and ultimately the clarity, the empowerment and satisfaction it engenders. Nikki Aharonion and Pauline McNamee reflect insightfully on this. The vignettes of children’s writing and Emma Exelby’s letter to a Year 11 student are reminders of the young people with whom we work and of observation as a professional practice. The artist teacher, for whom improvisation is a vital skill (see Holbrook, Thompson) stands back, looks carefully, and – drawing on personal knowledge of teaching, learning and writing – is then able to think about how to respond.

Perhaps, in the absence of clear lines of communication into policymakers, English teachers are increasingly putting their energy into and drawing inspiration from what Kevin McDermott calls ‘the margins’. Writing flourishes beyond the school walls. In 2018, the Foyle Young Poet competition received almost 11,000 poems. Theresa Gooda’s article explores and exemplifies writing outside the classroom; Kevin McDermott describes the enlivening approaches to teaching writing he used in Dublin schools as a writer in residence, freed from the obligation to meet targets.

Meanwhile, back in mainstream classrooms, the dead weight of a prescriptive and reductionist viewpoint is hard to shift. And yet individuals, especially amongst the young, have learned somewhere that writing is a vital human activity and that it works for us in many different ways. It has a moral and humane heft, it underpins criticality, it is inventive and visionary, it can anchor us. Of course, writing resists ‘mapping onto levels’, but the failure to take writing seriously as a fundamental element of human growth has become a failure to take responsibility for children’s intellectual growth and moral becoming.

Collectively, we would do well to remember the words of Harold Rosen:

[English is]nothing less than a different model of education: knowledge to be made, not given; knowledge comprising more than can be discursively stated; learning as a diverse range of processes, including affective ones; educational processes to be embarked on with outcomes unpredictable; students’ perceptions, experiences, imaginings and unsystematically acquired knowledge admitted as legitimate curricular content. (in Eaglestone, 2000)

Rosen and his generation defended the discipline of English bravely and eloquently. Beyond the classroom walls, echoes of their ideas are getting louder.


Armstrong, M (1989) Popular Education and the National Curriculum. Forum Vol 30, No 3. pp 74 -76.

DES (1989) English for ages 5 – 11. London: Department of Education and Science and the Welsh Office.

Eaglestone, R. (2000) Doing English: A Guide for Literature Students. London: Routledge.



This special issue of English in Education will be published online and in print early this year.   Members of NATE will have online access and receive print copies.   To join NATE, please see links to the right. 


Reading in the reception classroom

Ofsted’s 2017 review of the Reception year curriculum asserts that reading is the core purpose of the Reception year, and advocates “systematic systematic phonics” as the teaching method. This precept disregards research into the nature of reading in the early years and the professional wisdom of early years teachers.   This paper is published in FORUM Vol 60 Issue 3 (November 2018).


1. Introduction

Ofsted’s (2017) recent review of the reception year curriculum, Bold Beginnings, refers approvingly to the practices of “a sample of good and outstanding primary schools”. The review describes the reception year, although not compulsory, as “the start of school”. Most parents, it says, decide to send their child to Reception, and, for most schools, it is the start of the national curriculum (p.8). “The basics” – the ability to read, write and use numbers – “need to be taught – and learned – well, from the start (p.10).” Reading, moreover, is “at the heart of the curriculum” (p.5). The review recommends (p.7) that all primary schools “should make sure that the teaching of reading, including systematic synthetic phonics, is the core purpose of the Reception Year.”

2. A too simple view of reading

Nearly half a century after the dawn of post-modern consciousness, this precept suggests a disturbing pursuit of “abstract, theoretical and doctrinaire ideals” (Venturi et al 1972). It is disturbing on two counts. Firstly, every reception class will contain up to 30 or more individuals with heterogeneous purposes and needs. A few may already read silently and with some fluency. To subject either such fully-fledged readers, or those who are well on their way, to a rigid diet of intensive phonics is an affront to their emerging identities as persons (Davis 2013:30). Others may exhibit social or behavioural difficulties that will impede their reading and require attention. Secondly, the teaching of reading, as described in the report, has a highly dubious theoretical basis in that it prioritises one method: “systematic synthetic phonics”. This method requires children to “apply phonic knowledge and skills to decode unfamiliar words fluently and accurately, before trying to understand them” (emphasis added) (p.22). In other words, the review apparently endorses the Simple View of Reading (SVR) (Rose 2006), which separates phonic “decoding” from comprehension of meaning. The schools visited, the report asserts, taught children to “apply phonic knowledge and skills as the route to decode words” (emphasis in the original) (p.21). Bold Beginnings (2017) thus echoes the view that has imbued DfE reports on literacy over the last decade: that the key to reading is to learn “grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs)” (p.21). The DfE (2011) report The Importance of Phonics: Securing Confident Reading has an almost messianic fervour, claiming that synthetic phonics is the solution to educational failure and thus to high levels of youth unemployment. Bold Beginnings (Ofsted 2017) is more measured in tone, but conveys the same message:

In the schools that devoted considerable time and resources to letting children practise blending sounds into words, the children made the strongest progress in reading. Focused time during formal teaching, as well as an expectation that phonic books would be read and practised at home, gave children frequent opportunities to develop their fluency so that decoding of the words on the page became automatic – a critical foundation for independent reading. (p.22)

Ofsted (2011) claim that synthetic phonics can enable “the one in six children who were once destined to struggle reading essential text [to] fully participate in their studies and the world of literature” (DfE 2011). If this were indeed the case, Ofsted’s (2017) strong emphasis on SSP in the reception year might be justified. However, this simple view fails to understand the nature of reading and the way children learn in the reception class of a primary school. This paper will examine these issues by reference to recent research, including a large-scale survey of early years practitioners conducted by the National Association for the Teaching of English (Hodgson et al 2013).

3. The rise of synthetic phonics

In recent years, government in the UK and several other English-speaking countries has promoted the teaching of “synthetic phonics” as the key to success in training young readers. In this approach (sometimes known also as “systematic phonics”), the pupil is supposed to learn the correspondences between sounds (phonemes) and letters: for example, pronouncing each phoneme in shop /sh/-/o/-/p/ and then blending those phonemes to produce the word (DfE 2011). The 2006 Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading recommended that synthetic phonics should be taught “discretely” and as the “prime approach” (Rose 2006). As this paper will show, this policy has met detailed and cogent opposition from both researchers and classroom teachers; but the Ofsted (2017) report states that “leaders [in the schools visited] were passionate about the place of systematic synthetic phonics as part of a rich and varied reading programme” (Ofsted 2017: 21). In these schools, we are told, “systematic synthetic phonics played a critical role in teaching [reception year] children the alphabetic code,” and reception teachers passed on to year 1 teachers checks of children’s phonics knowledge (p.4). “Children read out loud frequently from carefully selected books that closely matched their phonic knowledge” (p.5).

4. Reading English

English spelling is governed as much by meaning and word origin as it is by regular “phoneme-grapheme correspondences”. The quotation marks indicate that the concept of phoneme is debated, but it is not equivalent to letter sounds (Port 2011). Ofsted and the DfE appear confused here, their documents interchangeably using the terms “phonemes” and “letter sounds”. Leaving aside this important theoretical distinction, the relationship between letter sounds and their written representations in English is complex and inconsistent. Few if any letters are tied to the “same” sound, and some (“b”, “p” and “l”) suffer sound death in such words as “lamb”, “receipt” and “psalm” (Davis 2013:22). Many common words are heteronyms, where the pronunciation of letter sounds depends on context: “tear”, “wind”, “row”, “lead”, “minute”, and so on. Despite these common irregularities, synthetic phonics teaches children to “build up” words, through sounding them out, one grapheme at a time. As Dombey (2018) explains: This works well for languages such as Spanish and Finnish. But it simply does not work for many of the commonest words of English”:

Given this complexity, the term ‘decoding’, when applied to reading English, must be taken to mean more than synthetic phonics. (Dombey 2018)

Children learning to read make use not only of “grapheme-phoneme correspondences” but also of semantic (meaning) and syntactic (grammar) cues from the surrounding text (Goodman et al.2005). Kidd (2013) gives an example of a young reader who had to switch from a phonic to a grammatical approach to decoding:

[Hobie] comes across a word – ‘going’ – and his phonics knowledge initially tells him that the word is /g/oi/ng/ – like boing … He hesitates: he has pre-existing knowledge of vocabulary and he self corrects – going. This is not a decoding skill; it is a vocabulary skill. He goes a step further. Writing the word down, he recognises a morphemic pattern – a base and a suffix – and draws a line between the two. This is a whole lot more sophisticated than implementing a decoding skill. Phonics alone would not have got him to the correct pronunciation of the word.

One might add that Hobie’s pre-existing knowledge of vocabulary has a contextual element: his recognition of the word “going” strongly suggests that he knows what it means.

5. Teaching (very) young readers

Davis (2012) argues that the case for synthetic phonics (SP) depends on “fantasies of research-based teaching”. He claims that the case has never been made because a discrete method of teaching synthetic phonics cannot be identified and measured. Studies allegedly showing that intensive discrete SP lessons improve reading achievement in comparison with control groups of similar pupils rarely if ever indicate the exact nature of the lessons concerned (Davis 2013:16). They cannot do so, because no classroom teacher would conform to the narrow method of decoding apparently required; to do so would be to abdicate their role as teachers (Davis (2013:6). Competent teachers will always want pupils to develop “relational understanding”, where they can place their new knowledge on an existing cognitive map. For this reason, teachers will naturally view words as units of meaning rather than merely as units for grapheme-phonic decoding. Even if a teacher attempts to implement systematic synthetic phonics as recommended by the DfE, focusing children’s attention solely on “phoneme-grapheme correspondences”, her professional judgment is likely to inflect the way in which she actually interacts with children, especially in the reception class.

In fact, no DfE, Ofsted, or other reputable report produced during the last decade claims that “systematic, synthetic phonics” alone are sufficient to establish successful early readers. Rose (2006) recommends that synthetic phonics should be taught “discretely” and as the “prime approach”; but this recommendation is preceded by a call for the priority provision of guidance on “developing children’s speaking and listening skills”; and it is followed by a further recommendation that:

Phonic work should be set within a broad and rich language curriculum that takes full account of developing the four interdependent strands of language: speaking, listening, reading and writing and enlarging children’s stock of words.

Ofsted’s (2010) accounts of the phonic methods adopted by 12 exemplary primary schools also acknowledge the importance of complementary strategies. The reported view of one school is that “children do not become fluent readers by using one skill alone”. This school, we are informed, supplements phonic instruction by guided reading and “real books” to take home. Another provides boxes of books in every class and uses an unusually long lunch period for individual and guided reading. A third (nursery) school places “great emphasis on story time”:

The children enjoy listening to five high-quality books each term from Reception to Year 2 – 15 in the course of a year. Life in the nursery contains a lot of imaginative play, role-play and some practice of phonics.

“Some practice of phonics” is hardly an endorsement of a monocular approach to early reading. The Department for Education’s (2011) “evidence paper”, The Importance of Phonics: Securing Confident Reading, itself states: “Phonics teaching must be embedded in a language-rich curriculum”. The one UK study regularly cited in favour of synthetic phonics (Johnston and Watson 2005) finds a correlation between children’s word reading and spelling in Primary year 7 and the quantity of children’s and adults’ books available in their home. Bold Beginnings (Ofsted 2017) also acknowledges the importance of a “rich and varied reading programme” (p.21) – but its constant line is that knowledge of phonic “decoding” must precede other kinds of reading (p.22).

6. Professional views from the classroom: the NATE survey

Davis (2012:7) has emphasised the importance of professional judgment when teaching reading in the early years. The vast majority of early years teachers, he writes, handle this challenge with professionalism, and will continue to do so if they are not troubled by rigid prescriptions from policy makers. How, then, do teachers actually work with early readers? In 2013, the National Association for the Teaching of English conducted an on-line survey of teachers’ views and practices in relation to the teaching and assessment of early reading (Hodgson et al 2013). The full results of the survey can be found at http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/35641/.

Of the 445 individuals who completed the survey, more than half taught in infant schools (Hodgson et al, 2013, p. 4). A majority of these (203, or 68.4%) claimed that phonics was a high priority in their school or department; however, a similar number (200, or 67.3%) said that their school devoted fewer than five hours a week to the teaching of phonics (p.5). Nearly all infant teachers (272, or 91.6%) used a scheme or programme to teach phonics, Letters and Sounds being the most popular scheme (p.6).

No respondent to the survey regarded phonics instruction in early years education as unnecessary, and there was significant support for the view that phonics should be the prime focus of teaching beginning readers (Hodgson et al, 2013, p. 9). Several people agreed with the assertion of the DfE evidence paper (DfE 2011) that the ability to decode “grapheme/phoneme correspondences” is the first requirement for success in reading (Hodgson et al, 2013, p.10). Some respondents who worked with children with special learning difficulties believed that early phonic instruction is particularly important for the progress of such children (p.10). A majority of both infant and junior teachers reported positive effects on their pupils’ writing and spelling, and about a third of each group reported positive effects on pupils’ comprehension and higher reading skills (p.8). But the view of more than two-thirds of respondents was that, while phonic decoding is an important part of learning to read, other strategies are also vital (p.10). More than a quarter of respondents emphasised the importance of reading for meaning, and there was much concern that an overemphasis on phonics leads to an unbalanced reading curriculum in which other reading skills such as prediction and contextual information are not taken into account. In the view of many, a phonics approach leads to less able children “barking at print” while good readers lose motivation and fail to achieve appropriate assessment results. Some children, it was alleged, develop a style of “reading” that consists merely of phonic decoding. There is less time for reading stories and for listening to young readers, and more time is taken up by “teaching to the test” (the national phonics “check” at the end of year 1). In such classrooms, respondents argue, the overall quality of pupils’ literacy experience declines (Hodgson et al, 2013, p.14).

More than a quarter of respondents were concerned that an over-emphasis on phonics teaching and testing failed to take into account the needs and capacities of particular children (Hodgson et al, 2013, p.10). Children for whom English is a second language require an emphasis on textual understanding; phonics approaches fail to provide visual scaffolding to support their learning and these children find it hard to progress under such a regime, which occupies the greater amount of classroom time because of the phonics “check”. Many respondents expressed concern that systematic phonics instruction creates more problems for struggling readers, as their cognitive energies are spent trying to sound out words, and they therefore miss the meaning of the text. Several commentators believed that such children need a variety of different strategies in order to progress. Many teachers observed that children of all abilities are less motivated by reading schemes than by real books, as the latter encourage reading for interest and enjoyment (p.14). A teacher of deaf children pointed out (p.11) that her pupils cannot hear phonemes; yet they go on to become fluent readers.

A university researcher took the opportunity (Hodgson et al, 2013, p.15) presented by the survey to set out a summary case against an exclusively phonic approach to early reading:

English is not a phonetically regular language. It does not have a single letter/sound correlation. The teaching of phonics in a systematic way often, therefore, creates more problems for struggling readers. Much of their cognitive energies are spent trying to sound out words, apply phonics rules that are not applicable, and generally misdirect their focus from the true act of reading – constructing meaning. Readers construct meaning from text by employing several cuing systems. When phonics becomes the centre of reading instruction, those other cuing systems are often neglected. Children learn to read by engaging in texts that are read aloud to them, that they can read on their own and with the help of others. Over-complicating the act of reading and reading instruction fails to work. Assessments of phonemic awareness and phonics eat time, misplace instruction, and set fragile readers further behind.

7. Conclusion

As professionals in teaching young children to read, assessing their progress, and making strategic interventions where required, many respondents to the NATE survey resented that their judgment and knowledge were not recognised. They were outraged not only by the simple-minded analysis of early reading offered but also by the way in which a limited pedagogical practice has been inscribed in the school curriculum, backed by the authority of the school inspectorate, and made subject to nationally imposed testing. Some pointed out that a single approach to the teaching of reading has commercial advantages for publishers who follow the official line. Many challenged the imposition of an expensive, time-consuming and disruptive “phonics check” on year 1 pupils. Taking a wider view, some respondents pointed out that phonics instruction is not an answer to all social ills, and suggested that those in power see it as a remedy for the deficiencies of other people’s children.

As Davis (2013:6) has pointed out, competent teachers of early readers will not impose a rigid and inappropriate reading method on actual children. Reading at any level involves a complex set of skills of which phonic awareness is one important element. The responses to the NATE survey demonstrate that most teachers of reading know this, and reject the specious argument that “systematic synthetic phonics” offers a panacea. Ofsted would gain respect from such teachers if it were to recognise the full nature of meaningful reading in the reception classroom.


Davis, A. (2012) A monstrous regimen of Synthetic Phonics: fantasies of research-based teaching methodsversus real teaching. Journal of Philosophy of Education 46 (4), pp.560-573.

Davis, A. (2013) To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics. Impact 20. London: Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain.

DfE (2011) The Importance of Phonics: Securing Confident Reading. London: Department for Education.

Dombey, H. (2018) The Simple View of Reading. https://www.teachingtimes.com/news/the-simple.htm (accessed 5 August 2018)

Goodman, Y.M., Watson, D.J. and Burke, C.L. (2005) Reading Miscue Inventory: From evaluation to instruction. Katonah NY: Richard C. Owen

Hodgson, J., Buttle, H., Conridge, B., Gibbons, D. and Robinson, J. (2013) Phonics and Early Reading: professional views from the classroom. National Association for the Teaching of English. http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/35641/ (accessed 8 August 2018)

Johnston, R. and Watson, J. (2005) The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment: a Seven Year Longitudinal Study. http://www.scotland.gov.uk/library5/education/sptrs.pdf (accessed 3 January 2016).

Kidd, D. (2013) Phlipping Phonics. Love Learning. http://bit.ly/H1y74P (accessed 15 October 2013).

Ofsted (2010) Reading by six: how the best schools do it. London: Office for Standards in Education.

Ofsted (2017) Bold Beginnings: the reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/reception-curriculum-in-good-and-outstanding-primary-schools-bold-beginnings (accessed 6 August 2018)

Port, Robert F. (2011)  Phones and phonemes are conceptual blends, not cognitive letters. Accepted for presentation at the Cognitive Science Soc. Annual Meeting, July, 2011, Boston.

Rose, J. (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading: Final Report. London: Department for Education.

Venturi, R., Scott Brown, D. & Izenour, S. (1972) Learning from Las Vegas. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Publish your work in English in Education


Following the last post, here is more information about English in Education journal and how to write for it.  English in Education provides a research forum for the subject community to explore the philosophy and practice of English teaching.   The journal complements the Association’s professional journal Teaching English and supports NATE’s work in sharing and advocating good practice at all levels from early years to higher education.  We want as many people as possible to get involved so the whole community is represented: teachers, learners, researchers, consultants and everyone who wants to support and improve English education.   Please see the journal’s Aims & Scope for more information.

English in Education accepts research papers, review articles and creative writing (usually poems) related to the teaching of English.  We occasionally publish extended articles to explore complex matters in more depth.  One or more issues per year is devoted to a current or emerging aspect of English education that requires special attention.   Once your paper has been assessed for suitability by the editor, it will be double blind peer reviewed by independent, anonymous expert referees.

Guidance for Authors

Please follow the following guidance as closely as possible, to ensure your paper matches the journal’s requirements. For general guidance on the publication process at Taylor & Francis please visit the Author Services website.   For fuller, detailed guidance on all aspects of publishing in the journal, please see Instructions for Authors.

Preparing your Paper

Research papers should normally be between 4000 and 6000 words, including the abstract (approx. 200 words), tables, references and captions.  Please use the Chicago Author-Date system of referencing and keep endnotes to a minimum.   An EndNote output style is also available to assist you. You should include between 3 and 6 keywords to help make your article more discoverable

Extended papers should be as above but may contain between 7000 and 15000 words.

Review articles will usually be between 600 and 2000 words, but there is flexibility here to allow for longer treatment of particularly significant books or topics.

Poems will normally be up to 40 lines in length, but again some flexibility is allowed.

Style Guidelines

Please refer to these quick style guidelines when preparing your paper.  Use British (-ise) spelling style and double quotation marks, except where “a quotation is ‘within’ a quotation”.  Long quotations should be indented without quotation marks.

Formatting and templates

Papers may be submitted in Word format. Figures should be saved separately from the text. To assist you in preparing your paper, we provide Word formatting templates.

Submitting Your Paper

This journal uses ScholarOne Manuscripts to manage the peer-review process. If you haven’t submitted a paper to this journal before, you will need to create an account in ScholarOne. Please read the guidelines above and then submit your paper in the relevant Author Centre, where you will find user guides and a helpdesk.

Please note that English in Education uses Crossref™ to screen papers for unoriginal material. By submitting your paper to English in Education you are agreeing to originality checks during the peer-review and production processes.

On acceptance, we recommend that you keep a copy of your Accepted Manuscript. Find out more about sharing your work.

English teachers: bound to necessity?


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.



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


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


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.