Michael 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.