English Language: The Vampire Subject

2000px-Little-vampire.svgMichael Fordham has already written eloquently about how English, as a whole, is a Frankenstein subject, a monster composed of a myriad of vastly different parts artificially stitched together. Within that jumble of odd parts, there are real academic disciplines that can be separated out. The key academic discipline, for the purposes of general education, is the study of literature.

By studying literature, our pupils have their minds opened upon other worlds; they encounter the great narratives that have shaped human thought and culture down the centuries; they gain cultural capital that will enable them to take part in educated reading and conversation for the rest of their lives. Studying literature is a hugely enriching part of every child’s education, and no one should be denied this opportunity.

But there is another GCSE which everyone takes: English language. What knowledge, precisely, does this test? In fact, it does not test anything in particular. It involves being given a more less random selection of extracts and writing tasks, that are supposed to be a test of the pupils’ general ability to read and write.

This might seem like a reasonable idea. Surely we want to know something about whether pupils are able to read with understanding and write accurately? Well, yes, but here’s the problem: once you get beyond the basics of decoding (in reading), and spelling and grammar (in writing), there’s no such thing as general reading and writing ability. Your ability to read and write well about any topic depends upon specific knowledge and vocabulary about that topic. Whatever topic happens to come up in the English language exam will be more accessible to those who happen to have more knowledge about that topic. General tests of reading and writing are always, inherently, unfair, because they can never take this into account.

So English language is a non-subject. If we want to find out whether pupils can read with understanding and write accurately, there is no reason why this should not be done through the vehicle of all the actual subjects that have real, specific substance. If we care about accurate writing and intelligent reading, then we need to make sure the GCSEs in literature, history, geography and science test these things. They can test them much more fairly than the English language exam, because the test will be based upon a specific body of knowledge which pupils are supposed to have mastered. No one will randomly gain an advantage because the test is based on randomly selected knowledge.

The Key Stage 2 Reading SATs suffer from exactly the same problem. They test reading in a general way, instead of basing the test upon specific knowledge which pupils are supposed to have mastered. Therefore, they are inherently unjust.

As well as the inherent unfairness of general tests in reading and writing, their existence and importance creates serious curricular misunderstandings. When high stakes tests are based around general reading, schools tend to spend lots of time teaching general reading, with endless comprehension worksheets and test drill. This has been happening in America for many years, where a very high stakes annual test of reading has led to a hollowing out of the curriculum, with the abandonment of real academic subjects which contain real substantive knowledge in favour of tedious lessons in how to ‘find the main idea’ in random bits and bobs of text. E D Hirsch has pointed out that these reading tests, which he previously supported, have had such a deleterious effect on the curriculum, that they are what he calls ‘consequentially invalid’ (see Chapter One of Why Knowledge Matters).

So as well as being a non-subject, English language (or English language arts, as it is called in the USA) is a vampire subject: it sucks the life out of the curriculum, emptying it of specific content in favour of teaching generic comprehension skills that don’t even exist, because comprehension is always based upon specific knowledge, and generic writing skills that don’t exist, because good writing is also based upon specific knowledge of the topic about which you are writing.

It doesn’t seem likely that the curse of general reading and writing tests is likely to be lifted any time soon, so we have to make the best of this bad situation. For a start, we could scrap most of the curriculum time currently devoted to the non-subject of English language and spend that time teaching pupils a meaningful body of knowledge within proper academic disciplines. If we want them to read and write well, we need to stop doing generic lessons on reading and writing, and do more and more on the rich knowledge and vocabulary that will actually enable good reading and writing. We’ll need a little exam drill in the final run up to GCSEs, because of their fiddly nature, but really, there shouldn’t be much need for English language at all once the basics of decoding (in reading) and spelling and grammar (in writing) are in place. There are effective programmes already in existence to train pupils in those areas, such as Expressive Writing. Implementing those will mean that there should be very little need for any other specific English language lessons at all, so we will be free to teach pupils specific, interesting, coherent content instead.

(Image from Wikimedia).


6 thoughts on “English Language: The Vampire Subject

  1. A word of caution here–with SEN pupils, reading and spelling tests are crucial for tracking progress. The rule of thumb is that most children can understand any text they can decode up to the age of about nine, and after that reading tests are mostly tests of verbal intelligence. There are a number of good cloze tests available, and they don’t take long to administer. Decoding isn’t merely a matter of learning gpcs–for reading longer words, especially those with Greek or Latin roots, a morphemic strategy works much better than a syllabic approach. Although the situation has improved considerably in the last ten years, too many schools still encourage guessing. It’s safe to say that generic reading tests should be used annually at least through KS1.

    In an ideal world, 11+ SATs would test different subjects, but they are so badly taught in primary school that it’s hardly worth the bother. Until ministers are ready to bite the bullet and introduce subject specialists in KS2, it’s pointless pretending that any subject will be taught in any but the most superficial manner. Even Maths is hopeless–I just assessed a bright Yr 6 pupil, and despite having automatic recall of number bonds, he was still using a primitive algorithm for multiplication that was designed largely for kids who still use counting and repeated addition for single-digit calculations. And consistently getting the wrong answer because the algorithm is so cumbersome.

    Spelling is another one of my pet peeves. With what we know about cognitive load, it’s laughable that we’re teaching kids about things like genre when their working memory is struggling to retrieve the spellings of common words, let alone important content words. If we were serious about improving kids’ writing, we’d use standardised spelling tests annually. Sadly, most KS1 ‘experts’ would howl that one down before such a proposal left a minister’s lips.


  2. I agree with most of what you say here, especially about the unfairness of the English language exam. However, I do think there is more to writing than subject knowledge plus spelling/grammar.
    If you take any academic essay, or say an article from the Economist or a popular science magazine, and remove all the subject-specific vocabulary, you find a framework of conventions and language use, much of which could be employed on quite different topics. There are specific books and web sites to teach the conventions of academic writing to foreign language students, and very interesting they are in the way that they reveal these basics of the genre.
    Most fluent writers pick up these conventions through reading, of course. That’s one of the big drawbacks of not getting pupils to read textbooks – they are thus only rarely exposed to the style of academic writing, and so struggle to use the style when they write. But I suspect that these conventions can also be explicitly taught.


  3. Pingback: Combining GCSE Preparation with Real Education | The Traditional Teacher

Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s