Combining GCSE Preparation with Real Education

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Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

GCSEs are fiddly. There’s no way around it. They contain multiple question types which demand slightly different things of pupils, and they are marked according to rigid criteria, often by examiners who lack the deep subject knowledge to make nuanced judgements. This means that knowledgeable and able pupils can lose marks unless they have been trained to serve up ‘what the examiner wants’.

Therefore, although it is not the same thing as education, schools cannot avoid doing test practice. And because it must be done, we need to think about ways of making this test practice as educational as possible. We need to make the test practice as coherent as possible, and pay as much attention as possible to building cultural capital that is retained in long-term memory, even while we are addressing the dreary and anti-educational issue of ‘what the examiner wants you to do in paper 1 question 3’.

If we can crack this issue, we can make GCSE preparation more than just a joyless, soul-destroying exercise in ticking the exam board’s boxes.

Let’s take a look at GCSE English language. However much I deplore the very existence of this non-subject, it’s part of our current educational reality, and so it must be addressed. How might we prepare our pupils, for example, for GCSE English language paper 1 section A? In this part of the exam, candidates are required to read an extract from 20th or 21st century fiction and answer a series of question types which move from fundamental understanding of content to critical evaluation of literary techniques.

The exam boards provide anthologies of extracts for practising these question types, but I would advise English teachers not to use these, because they are not created with any coherent knowledge goal in mind. If we want to make the best use of the time spent doing test practice for GCSE English language, we need to come up with our own anthologies so that we will not simply be reading any old thing in order to ‘practise comprehension’.

Let’s look at some specific examples. If you are studying The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for English literature, you could gather together an anthology of extracts from gothic fiction, such Frankenstein, Dracula and Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. If you are studying An Inspector Calls, you could gather together an anthology of extracts from other twentieth century socialist writers, such as John Steinbeck and George Orwell. Or you could gather together some Edwardian fiction, such as E M Forster, to give a better understanding of the time at which the play is set.

The same principle can be applied to GCSE English language paper 2 section A. The two linked non-fiction texts you use could be related to the literature you are studying. I recently pulled together a resource pack for Inspiration Trust English teachers focused on The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, using a piece of 21st century journalism looking at the history of the novel’s reception, along with a contemporary review of the novel from the 19th century. These two non-fiction texts contain a wealth of knowledge and vocabulary which has intrinsic value. They are actually worth studying for their own sake.

If you’re going to use rich, satisfying and challenging texts for the purposes of GCSE test practice, then you will need to teach these texts explicitly. You’ll need to leave behind the idea that each lesson can be a mini-mock, and explain key ideas and words to pupils before they attempt the questions. They’ll still be getting familiar with ‘what the examiner wants’, but they’ll actually be learning something into the bargain, instead of muddling their way through and retaining nothing in long-term memory due to cognitive overload.

Once you start thinking about it, there are so many possibilities for using test practice as an opportunity for building rich knowledge and vocabulary and enhancing pupils’ study of literature. So take the leap and abandon the exam board anthologies, which are based on the false notion that it doesn’t matter what material you use for practising the generic skill of comprehension. Comprehension is primarily based on knowledge and vocabulary, and we must not waste our time delivering lessons that are not focused on building retention of these in long-term memory.

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Primary Literature: Telling Stories

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Boy Reading (1843) by Albert Tikos (1815-1845)

I’m currently working with primary teachers across the Inspiration Trust to develop a content-focused approach to literature. I spoke to the whole primary staff about this project back in October – you can read my talk here. In this post, I’ll be looking at why a content-focused approach is more accessible, more equitable, more effective, and more joyful.

But firstly, what do I mean by content-focused literature teaching? Very briefly, I mean teaching that has as its goal the retention in long term memory of the content of literature: its plots, characters and themes. This goal is distinct from the goal of practising decoding to fluency, which is of course a necessary part of primary education (and sometimes of secondary too). It is also distinct from the goal of practising generalised ‘comprehension skills’ such as inference and prediction. I’ll argue later that a focus on content actually enables better inference and prediction anyway.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is accessible

A strong focus on the plots, characters and themes of literature is more accessible because fundamentally, it is about knowing the story well. Everything flows from this. Stories are the most memorable and interesting thing, for everybody. As Daniel Willingham has pointed out (in Why Don’t Students Like School), the human brain seems to be set up specially for the retention of stories. They sink in and they stay in the mind more easily than anything else.

When the teacher is focused on the story as they teach literature, she is using the most powerful and the most accessible tool for transferring knowledge to their pupils, whatever their ability level. When the teacher reads the story out loud to the class and explains it to them, she opens up new worlds to pupils of all abilities and backgrounds.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is equitable

This follows naturally from accessibility. A teacher-led lesson focused on literary content allows the whole class to share in the story. The whole class is building cultural capital. The whole class is building shared meanings that will stand them in good stead as they mature and encounter more sophisticated texts. No one is left behind.

This is always the paradox: when we insist upon differentiation, we embed disadvantage and make our education system less equitable. When we insist that everyone in the class listens and learns the same material, we reduce the gap between the haves and the have nots.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is effective

When the focus is squarely on the content of literature, children’s knowledge and vocabulary will grow, and this is the primary means by which comprehension can be improved. While there is some benefit in general strategies for improving comprehension, they are, as Willingham points out here, easily learned and do not require much practice. The vast majority of our ability to comprehend is based upon what we have stored firmly in our long term memories. So focusing on this in our primary curriculum is the best way to ensure success in the short and the long term. It will lead to better SATs results, but more importantly, it will lay firm foundations for a lifetime of better understanding and ever increasing knowledge.

Our brains, tuned as they are to stories, naturally infer and predict, and their ability to do this accurately is primarily based on how much knowledge is stored in long term memory. The conclusion is obvious. If we want our pupils to be able to infer and predict effectively, we must give them more knowledge.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is joyful

If we want to inoculate our pupils against literature, the best way to do this is to turn every story into a vehicle for practising comprehension strategies or doing SATs test preparation. But when we forget all that dry, dull and empty formalism, we find that there is a wealth of fascinating stories that every pupil can enjoy. Content-focused primary literature teaching becomes a journey of discovery which includes everybody in the class, even the teacher. And you get better SATs results into the bargain.

Top Ten Posts from 2017

2017 was a rather quieter year on the blog. I moved to work for the Inspiration Trust in September, and much of my writing energies have been focused on producing resources for Inspiration teachers to use. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to start to put into practice the ideas I’ve been arguing for so vigorously over the last few years.

Next year, I’m hoping to write more posts about the work I’m doing for Inspiration. They will be more reflective, and less polemical. But I’ve no doubt there’ll still be a few broadsides in good old-fashioned style.

These are the ten posts which received the most hits in 2017. All but one of them (‘What Is a Traditional Teacher?’) were written during 2017.

  1. Direct Instruction Transforms Behaviour.
  2. The Importance of School Culture.
  3. Learning from Eton.
  4. What Is a Traditional Teacher?
  5. How Not to Prepare for Reading Tests.
  6. Should Young Children Learn Through Play?
  7. Whole Class Instruction Enables Targeted Support.
  8. The Michaela Inspection Result Is Good News for Everyone.
  9. Knowing How Bad It Is.
  10. How Much More Evidence Do You Need?

How Not to Prepare for Reading Tests

Can you prepare for an ‘unseen’ reading test – a test in which you will have to read something you’ve never encountered before, and answer questions on it? To answer this question, we need to consider what is required to succeed in such a test.

Reading consists of two key aspects: your ability to decode – to turn the squiggles on the paper into the sound of language – and your knowledge and vocabulary. Clearly, decoding is crucial, otherwise a reading test will be the equivalent of being asked to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Beyond that, you need knowledge and vocabulary. Your ability to understand a text depends upon your knowledge of the domain with which the text deals. Most of the readers of this blog probably consider themselves to be good readers, who would perform well in a reading test, but they would struggle to make sense of the following passage:

‘We demonstrate a bandpass amplifier which can be constructed from common electronic components and has the surprising property that the group delay is negative in most spectral regions. A pulse propagating through a chain of such amplifiers is advanced by several milliseconds: the output waveform precedes the input waveform. Although striking, this behavior is not in conflict with causality, as demonstrated by experiments with pulses which start or end abruptly.’

(From https://www.physics.ohio-state.edu/~wilkins/writing/Handouts/abstracts_ajp.html)

I’m willing to bet that only those with a relatively advanced knowledge of physics will be able to derive much meaning from the above. A famous experiment along these lines is mentioned in Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School, in which a passage about baseball is given to pupils who have previously been tested on their knowledge of this specialised subject. The supposedly ‘poor readers’ with good knowledge of baseball understood the passage better, and did better on the test.

By far the most important component, therefore, of performance in reading tests is knowledge of the domain contained in the text to be read. This presents teachers with a problem, because they do not know which domain of knowledge will be important. The text could refer to anything, although test designers do try to avoid topics which are particularly obscure. In the absence of specific knowledge to be mastered, how can schools prepare pupils for reading tests most effectively?

The answer must be to teach as much knowledge and vocabulary as possible, and this is the responsibility of every teacher in the school. Every single lesson is preparing pupils for doing well in reading tests, if that lesson is building their knowledge and vocabulary. English teachers cannot take either the blame or the credit for the grades of pupils in their English Language GCSEs; most of the preparation has been done by others.

Given that building knowledge and vocabulary must be the priority, English departments must be realistic about what their role can be. The key knowledge which they can provide is knowledge of literature, but this is only one piece of the puzzle. Unless other departments (and primary schools) are providing a curriculum rich in knowledge, through proper teaching of a broad range of subject disciplines, many pupils will never perform very well in reading tests. Those who do particularly well without a knowledge rich curriculum succeed because of the knowledge and vocabulary they have acquired outside school.

Of course, outside the teaching of literature, there is something which English departments typically spend a large amount of time doing, especially as GCSEs approach: test drill. Many lessons are spent doing exercises that are more or less identical to the reading sections of the English Language examination: pupils are given passages they have never seen before, and required to answer a series of questions modelled on those posed by examination boards. Putting to one side the tedious and dull nature of this sort of exercise, which is likely to convince pupils that English is a very boring subject indeed, let’s ask whether these sorts of lessons are even likely to achieve their intended effect of increased GCSE grades.

I would argue that grade increases will be marginal, because the only likely benefit of this exercise is to build familiarity with the question types which pupils can expect to encounter. Pupils are very unlikely to acquire much new knowledge or vocabulary, because their working memory will be fully occupied by the simultaneous challenge of coping with an unseen text and answering questions on it. When the working memory is fully occupied with complex tasks like this, pupils can be working very hard for long periods of time and retain no new knowledge after the lesson, because their attention is completely taken up with the complexity of the task, and so there is no capacity remaining for transferring knowledge into long term memory.

The main result of spending large amounts of lesson time doing test drill is that pupils are more likely to perform at the level they were already at. In other words, they are more likely to be able to apply effectively the knowledge and vocabulary they already possessed. The lessons themselves are not giving them any new knowledge and vocabulary, and so are not actually increasing their capacity to read with understanding.

English teachers need to ask themselves what they hope to gain from lessons that mimic examinations. Examinations measure performance, but there is no expectation that they will increase performance, because there is no expectation that those taking the examination will acquire any new knowledge. One would hope, on the other hand, that our lessons actually taught our pupils something which they remembered.

Can Schools Make a Difference?

IQ_curve

When studies are made of how much difference schools make, they focus on finding out the main factors which contribute to the variation in academic success, and discover that schools are a relatively small player in this, overall.

But it isn’t only the variation between people that we care about. We care about whether people, generally, are getting a decent education. Even if schools cannot close the attainment gap, they can still move the whole bell curve to the right. Even if, on average, pupils of well educated parents always tend do better than those of less well educated parents, we can still aim to make sure every pupil, whatever their parentage, does not leave school without a solid foundation of knowledge.

Instead of looking at sets of pupils within the same education system, we should compare whole education systems, and consider whether one education system means, on average, that everyone knows more, even though there still remains a large variation, and even though this variation may be largely dependent upon genetic inheritance or social class.

There are education systems in the world in which the vast majority of primary pupils become fluent in basic mathematical operations. There are other education systems where they do not. Does that mean that in the more effective education systems which do build this fluency, everyone becomes a mathematics professor? Of course not; there is still going to be variation in individual outcomes, even in the most effective education system.

France provides an excellent example of how different systems affect outcomes for everyone. Prior to the loi Jospin of 1989, overall outcomes were better, as well as being more equitable, but that does not mean there was no variation. Outcomes were still significantly better for those from more affluent backgrounds. After the loi Jospin, which mandated constructivist approaches to curriculum and pedagogy in primary schools, outcomes worsened for everybody, but they worsened most for those with the least cultural capital. One system was better for everybody, but neither system led to equal outcomes for all. One system was more equitable, but no system can be completely equitable, and neither should it be. We would have to hold some pupils back deliberately if we wanted total equality of outcome.

One of the things which really doesn’t help the cause of education reform is the talk of ‘closing the attainment gap’. Teachers cannot work miracles. Pupils come to school with vastly different processing equipment (fluid intelligence) and prior knowledge (crystallised intelligence), which means that there is no way that outcomes are going to be the same for everybody. The genetic and cultural inheritance of a child outside of school is always going to make a huge difference.

But this does not mean that more effective schooling cannot have a significant impact, on everybody. A more coherent curriculum and more explicit methods of instruction will help everybody make more progress. But it would be odd if that progress were not even more rapid for those with sharper intellects and more prior knowledge than it is for those who are less gifted.

People are not the same. But an effective education system will help everyone to fulfil their potential. What matters is whether everyone is doing better.

[Image from Wikimedia.]

Literature: What Is It, and Why Do We Study It?

Screenshot 2017-10-20 at 18.15.54This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave to all Inspiration Trust primary staff on 20th October 2017.

This morning, I want to examine what we mean by literature as a subject. How is literature different from other kinds of reading? How does it connect to literacy? And what exactly is the substantive knowledge within the academic subject called literature? By substantive knowledge, I mean factual, or know-that knowledge, as opposed to disciplinary, or know-how knowledge, such as the knowledge of how to write an essay on literature. The two are always intertwined, of course.

Let’s start with out overall vision. We need to ask ourselves, where do we want to be in five years’ time? We want to have pupils who love literature. What do we mean by that? We mean that they are interested in the types of stories that they find in great novels and plays. They want to read them, because through them they enter into other worlds which have great significance for them.

We all love stories. We tell stories and we listen to stories all the time. We tell stories about each other and we listen to them. Films and television are full of stories. We don’t have to persuade our pupils to be interested in stories. They naturally are. But we do need to build their curiosity about the kinds of stories they find in great literature.
How are we going to build this curiosity? How are we going to reach the situation where our pupils have a hunger for reading more high quality fiction? Where they want to read all seven Narnia books, not just one? How are we going to convince them that the plays of Shakespeare are full of rich meaning for them?

Firstly, we need to understand what curiosity is. It is not immanent – it is not something that you just have inside you, to a greater or lesser degree. It is emergent – it grows and develops, depending upon how it is nurtured. People in general, including children, are curious about things with which they have some familiarity. For a young child, this is quite a limited range of things. They are curious about the world that is immediately surrounding them, so curious, in fact, that it can be dangerous, as any mother of a toddler will tell you.

It is our job as teachers to develop and nurture the curiosity of children by giving them more things to be curious about. We do this by introducing them to areas of knowledge with which they were previously unfamiliar. You can’t be curious about something if you know nothing about it.

This is why reading aloud to young children is so important. When we read them classic tales, their minds are opened upon many different and fascinating worlds. But when they hear stories that are based only around what they already know, they remain in that limited sphere.

During the twentieth century, there was a move away from using folk tales and fairy tales in the education of children, towards using stories that reflected their own lives – stories of lost teddies, or of starting school, or of coping with the birth of a younger sibling. It was argued that fairy tales were not worth sharing with children, because they were so far removed from their everyday experience. What children needed was something that was immediately relevant to them.

By removing the fantastical and strange from children’s fiction, we remove precisely what is needed to introduce them to classic literature. If they only hear about lost teddies when they are four, they will only want to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid when they are ten.

This is why our core primary books are based around classics and folk tales. We want to build, from the earliest possible stage, the appetite for what is different and unfamiliar – for other worlds. These other worlds help us to understand our own world, because they give us different points of reference. When we are locked into our immediate surroundings and our present reality, we have no points of comparison.

The desire for escape into other realities will be fed in other ways, if we do not feed it through introducing children to classic literature. It will be fed through films, television and computer games. We all have a thirst for escape into different worlds, just as we all have curiosity. The question in both cases is not whether the appetite exists, but on what does it feed? Just as a child who is not fed wholesome food will be more likely to fill up on crisps and sweets, a child who is not fed classic tales will be more likely to fill up on the escapist fantasies of Disney films and video games.

We have to offer children these alternative realities. We have to be convinced that the alternative realities of fairy tales and classic children’s fiction are more nourishing to their imagination than the latest Disney film or the latest thrilling video game. They are more nourishing because they ‘hold a mirror up to nature’: they help us to reflect on our own lives with renewed wisdom. We do not leave reality behind entirely. This is the difference between imagination and fantasy. In the world of imagination, we build stronger relationships with reality by thinking about it through new symbols that reflect it more luminously. In the world of fantasy, we become the centre of our own private universe, and our connection with reality is weakened. This is preeminently the case in video games, which do quite literally make the player the centre of an alternative universe.

When C S Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the middle of the twentieth century, his publisher was worried at first that it would tarnish his reputation. It was Lewis’ first attempt at writing children’s fiction. He already had a strong reputation as an author for adults. His publisher fretted that such a book would not be popular even with its intended audience, as the fashion was against tales of talking beasts and evil witches, and in favour of greater so-called ‘relevance’.

But as we know, Lewis’ novel was a runaway success, and it remains one of the most popular children’s classics of all time. It is a classic because it is rooted in Lewis’ deep knowledge of myth and folklore. Lewis was a professor of literature, and this expertise was not a dry set of ancient facts, but a living body of stories and symbols which he could deploy in creating his wonderful, magical tale. Lewis drew on the many alternative realities which he knew intimately, in Greek, Celtic and Icelandic mythology, as well as biblical sources, and created something which ran completely counter to the prevailing ideas about children’s fiction. He and his friends J R R Tolkien and Roger Lancelyn Green knew that these timeless stories had not lost their power to tell us something about our own lives. Human nature had not changed, and humans could still respond to the stories told by their ancestors down the centuries.

We need to keep this belief alive as we initiate the young into the world of classic literature. We are introducing them to tales which have a timeless value. Precisely because they are not set in our current reality, but somewhere else, they afford us comparisons and contrasts that help us to understand our lives in a richer way. Just as we cannot understand the present without knowing the past, we cannot understand this reality unless we have access to other realities. The strangeness of fairy tales and of classic literature is precisely its strength.

But how can we most effectively initiate the young into these alternative realities that are so rich in meaning? Firstly, by reading aloud from a carefully selected range of classics. Hearing classic tales from a young age will shape the taste of our pupils. If from a young age our pupils are hearing about dragons and giants, about heroic quests, they will experience vividly the possibilities that classic literature affords. There is real danger and real excitement in fairy tales that is entirely absent from the sanitised, mundane world of books which only reflect what is already familiar.

Building on this familiarity with the world of classic tales, we have selected books which will develop further the taste for alternative realities that are rich in meaning. We need to make the books themselves the centre of what we are doing. The content of the literature needs to be at the heart of our teaching. We want them to know these stories intimately. The more they know about classic literature, the more likely they are to want to read it independently, because curiosity is always based upon what is already known.

This is the key: we need to keep the content of the literature central to what we do. This is not in conflict with achieving better SATs results. When we make the substantive literary knowledge central, we are building the knowledge and vocabulary of our pupils in a highly coherent and therefore highly effective way. It is better knowledge and vocabulary which lead to better reading and better writing, which will mean better SATs results, and more importantly, better educated children, well prepared to go on to more demanding literary content in their future academic careers.

So what is literary knowledge? It is the knowledge of plots, characters and themes in literature, and the knowledge of the language used to communicate these plots, characters and themes. Integrated into knowledge of plot, character and theme is the contextual knowledge which is essential to understanding them properly. But we must not let context swamp text. Our literature lessons should not become history lessons. The work of literature must hold centre stage.

Plot, character and theme sound rather technical, but we could express them as stories, people and ideas. And who isn’t interested in stories, people and ideas?

First must come plot. If our pupils do not grasp the whole sweep of the plot of a work of literature, they are wandering in a mapless wilderness. It is the plot which makes a path through the work of literature. This is how we find our way through it. This is what keeps us turning the page: we want to find out what happens next. We need to ensure that whatever methods we use, we do not lose sight of the plot, because if we do, whatever we teach will lack the satisfying coherence that the plot provides. If we choose to use extracts, we need to make sure that all pupils know at least a summary of what happened between those extracts.

What do we actually enjoy about reading? We enjoy discovering what happens next. If we use extracts that are not rooted in this overall sense of the plot, we are turning the work of literature into a mere tool for practising reading. Our pupils will never become curious about literature through lessons like this. They will see it as a tedious, dry exercise in test preparation. We will have inoculated them against literature, not initiated them into it.

We, as teachers, need to know the plot of the literature we teach inside out and back to front. It’s no good just being a chapter or two ahead of the class. We need to memorise the plot, so that whenever we deal with specific incidents within the text, we can place them effortlessly, and communicate that coherence to our pupils.

Next must come characters. We are all interested in people. That’s why we gossip. The characters of the literary works we teach should become so familiar to our pupils that they gossip about them, or wonder what they would do in this situation. C S Lewis actually brings Aslan into the dreary world of the awful school attended by Eustace and Polly in The Silver Chair, the sixth Narnia book. We want our pupils to imagine Aslan on the playground too, because they know him so well.

We, as teachers, need to know the characters intimately, just as we need to know the plot inside out. These characters need to be familiar friends for us, so that we can confidently introduce our pupils to them. Once you have really got to know someone, you never forget them. Could you ever forget your best friend from school days? These characters need to become our best friends, and our pupils’ best friends, so that they will never forget them.

Then there are the great themes of literature. We shouldn’t shy away from the big questions asked by literature, because it is this which raises it above the puerile, sanitised content of the latest Disney animation. Literature leads us to examine the meaning and purpose of human existence. Frequently, it is a memento mori too – a reminder of our mortality. Instead of being threatened by such deep questions, we need to embrace them, so that our pupils come to see books not as mere escapism, or worse, as some kind of dry academic exercise, but as a source of truth. Yes, I used the ‘T’ word. And why not? Without it, literature is so boring.

A word about poetry. Plot, character and theme are the substantive content of literature, particularly of novels and plays. They apply to narrative poetry too, but with shorter poems, theme may be more present than plot or character. Nevertheless, we can tell a story around a poem to bring it to life for our pupils. There is always a story to tell, because there is always an author, and the story of the author’s life. There is also the story of literary movements: the drama of Romantics reacting against neoclassicism, for example.

Within the framework of this substantive knowledge about plot, character and theme, examples of the language used by authors of great literature become meaningful. There will be no danger of meaningless feature spotting if we make sure that every example of language use is anchored in specific knowledge about the meaning of the work of literature.

Plot, character and theme, or stories, people and ideas: this fascinating content must be at the centre of what we do when we teach literature, and if we make sure that it is, we can be certain that our pupils are building a coherent body of knowledge that has a priceless intrinsic worth, as well as being invaluable for developing their ability to read with understanding, and write fluently, articulately and creatively.

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).