English: a Frankenstein subject?

In my last blog post I argued that the dominance of ‘English’ as a subject on the secondary school curriculum should be challenged. I want to elaborate in this post a little further as to why I think this is the case.

In short, it comes down to the fact that I think English has something of an identity crisis. What is it? What is it for? In other school subjects it is much easier to have an identity: chemists teach chemistry, historians teach history, mathematicians teach mathematics. But what do you call someone who teaches English?

I would suggest that English, as a subject, might be understood as an amalgam of the following:

  • (1) Learning the English language, particularly in terms of grammar and syntax.

This is perhaps what is normally called functional literacy. It is a major focus in primary education (and rightly so, I think). I can very much see that there is an argument for maintaining a focus on this at secondary, at least until pupils have reached a particular standard. Grammar and syntax need to be taught explicitly.

Frankenstein Piece 1: This component of English is most akin to learning a foreign language.

  •  (2) Creative writing

I think (1) is often overlapped with (2), although I am not sure this is always a good thing. You certainly need to have a strong grasp of English grammar and syntax in order to produce prose and poetry, though, it is worth noting, you also need it to write historical analyses and to produce a report on a biology experiment.

Frankenstein Piece 2: This component of English most akin to other creative arts such as painting, sculpture and music.

  •  (3) Linguistics

(1) is about learning a language; (3) is about making language an object of study. It is the fact that linguistics exists to produce knowledge about language that makes it an academic discipline (which (1) and (2) are not). Linguistics involves the study of semantics, phonology, morphology, and so on. It is an important academic discipline, but it is not the same as literacy. As a discipline, it is possible to see linguistics as an art, a social science or a science, depending on what you choose to emphasise.

Frankenstein Piece 3: This component of English is an academic discipline such as chemistry, geology and history.

  • (4) Literature

Literature is the study of the prose, poetry and (perhaps) other forms of writing, and typically involves the study of writing in a particular language (English Literature, German Literature), a particular culture (American Literature) or those things combined. As with (3), language here becomes an object of study – something about which one can gain knowledge – and so again this is an academic discipline.

Frankenstein Piece 4: This component of English is an academic discipline such as chemistry, geology and history.


So, where does this leave us?

In my curriculum model, I split English up. I gave two lessons a week to Literature (4), treating it as a humanity rather like history. I moved creative writing over to the arts, on around one lesson a week. I removed the explicit teaching of grammar and syntax completely on the grounds that this needs to be done in primary school, though I am persuaded that having some emphasis on this – particularly at the start of secondary school – might be useful. I am not convinced that linguistics (3) has a place on the core secondary school. I would be happy for it to be an A-Level option and, in any case, I think the study of linguistics probably proceeds better once one has a grasp on two different languages, a good argument for delaying it.

Why does any of this matter? I think clarity about the purpose of subjects on the school curriculum is greatly lacking – the problem with this is that, without a clear sense of purpose, it is hard to see why something is being taught at all. If, for example, we conflate creative writing (2) and explicit instruction of grammar and syntax (1), then we risk not giving sufficient emphasis to one or the other as might we assume that we are doing one when we are in fact doing the other.

I would argue that we can have a meaningful discussion about the curriculum only if we are clear about what each subject is actually about. Ultimately, I do not mind if – after careful consideration – we think it does make sense to lump (1) – (4) under the same banner, but equally it is important that we do not necessarily have to do this.

6 Comments on English: a Frankenstein subject?

  1. Yes! I’ve been arguing this (although with less clarity) for sometime. I do think you undervalue (1) and (3) has never been a part of English teaching pre A-level (unless you count the horror that was ‘spoken language’ in the current GCSE specification. Also (2) is, I think incorrectly lumped with music et al – the study of rhetoric could arguably be conceived of as a body of knowledge but I understand the impulse and might be able to concede that is some form of ‘expressive art’

    Overall: bravo!

    • Michael Fordham // 16 June 2014 at 16:31 // Reply

      Thanks for reading and commenting David. I am persuaded by the comments that you, Stuart and others have made about the importance of (1) – I’m working on a remodelling of my last post to account for this. I can also see the point about (2) – this strikes me as similar to the tension between the creation of music and the study of music as an academic discipline, or perhaps the distinction between art and the history of art. Does the study of rhetoric fit more easily into literature? I could imagine a scheme of work focused on knowledge of rhetorical literature?

  2. Dylan Wiliam // 16 June 2014 at 17:57 // Reply

    You might be interested in Bethan Marshall’s “Rough guide to English teachers” which, through careful rigorous empirical work (Diane Reay and I supervised her PhD) showed that there are at least five distinct views of English amongst secondary school teachers of English: old grammarians, critical dissenters, technicians, pragmatists, and liberals. These don’t map simply onto the categories above, but there are overlaps, and what is particularly interesting about Bethan’s work is that she used techniques of literary criticism to elicit from teachers their view about English teaching. Some later (unpublished) work that I did on Bethan’s data showed that teachers with similar philosophies tend to cluster together in the same school.

    • Michael Fordham // 16 June 2014 at 18:00 // Reply

      Brilliant – thanks for the reference. Very helpful indeed. I am very much giving an outsider’s perspective here and there are many people who know far more about me than this! I’ve had Bethan recommended to me on several occasions, so I’ll follow up. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

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