For the love of English
Given the Scottish government’s emphasis on literacy it is no surprise that the recent debate on Excellence in English was a lively event. Chaired by Marc Lambert of the Scottish Book Trust, the panellists – Lisa Sorbie of Perth High School, Yvonne Gerrard, Education Scotland’s literacy and English team leader, and irrepressible Scottish novelist, Janice Galloway, seemed to agree on most things.
English teaching required a rich variety of texts. The cultural tradition remained crucial but modern writing, Scottish writing, and work in translation were also vital.
An active learning approach, in which students learned from each other as well as from the teacher and which developed practical skills of critical and discriminating reading was essential.
Contemporary forms and genres and new media, all had their place in the English classroom. Structured language skills, including grammar and spelling, were essential but there could be no return to old forms of rote learning.
Higher order skills were of the essence but there was no dispute that the effective mastery of the higher order skills had to be preceded by mastery of the lower order skills: no meaningful evaluation or synthesis was possible without a basic knowledge of grammar or literary terminology.
It was even agreed, more or less, that the proper starting place was where learners were, not the place to which we hoped to direct them.
So far, so consensual, but the consensus soon broke down. Serious questions were posed on the very role of English as a subject and on how English and literacy are perceived in the broader teaching profession.
One experienced principal teacher of English suggested that there was pressure to minimise the teaching of a broad literary curriculum and press for exam passes by diluting the content. Drill them into regurgitating a memorised essay on each of one poem and one short story, and there’s a better chance of an A grade pass at Higher.
It is the opposite of higher order skills but the product of an output-obsessed system. If it is more than an isolated example, it betrays everything for which quality English teachers have ever stood. The English teacher in question insisted that he entered teaching precisely to teach literature and the worlds which literature could open to young people. He fears that such a stance opens him to ridicule in a results-driven culture.
Even more concerning was the suggestion that while literacy across the curriculum (and across the school) was now a much vaunted target, it was, in practical terms, derided or ignored.
Tales abounded of misspelled and ungrammatical teachers’ corrections, reports and hand-outs, even from English teachers.
Another experienced principal teacher related the tale of a poorly punctuated, internal school communication from the senior management team to staff. When he respectfully suggested that perhaps it would read better if the punctuation were inserted, the response from the irate depute head was “I don’t do punctuation”.
There was a palpable sense of English teachers feeling under pressure, derided as pedants and dismissed as upholders of an outmoded concept of culture. Perhaps the time has come for English teachers to reassert Santayana’s wonderful aphorism: “For an idea ever to be fashionable is ominous, since it must afterwards always be old-fashioned.”
Perhaps, even briefly, English teachers require to insist that their priority for professional debate and development is the resolution, not of how to teach their subject, but why teach it in the first place. From that would flow questions around what should be the key content of a subject area which always requires to be vitally alive to the contemporary but, equally, continuously mindful of the traditions.