Tuesday, 9 December 2014


We can all agree that this a subject area that is of fundamental importance in an English speaking country (even if said country is theoretically bilingual like NZ*). However, in my experience, English is neither well taught nor well treated. A large part of this first part is that there is no real way that one can actually teach some aspects of English, the person at the front of the class just has to throw stuff out there and hope the pupils catch it. As a consequence of this, people who write exams for English have to come up with questions which pupils are unlikely to have had time to pre-prepare essays on. That's a bit of a bother for them but it does show that the assessment structures in place are robust enough to provide some room to correct curricula error. I should point out that I achieved average results (7A, 14M, 7E credits) for year eleven and good to very good results for years 9, 10 and 12 in English before dropping it due to no longer liking it... and I have, therefore, not touched English education since 2012.

What do I think the purpose of teaching English is? Well, English is the primary language that we use and people need to be both competent and confident in the use of it in creative and formal writing, reading and speaking activities. While we do need to be able to read for meaning in creative texts, they should primarily be read for enjoyment in a more emotional rather than critical respect. However, reading for meaning in such texts is the overwhelming focus of English in schools and that is even done well. As a rule, my experience suggests, a teacher will select a text, tell pupils to read all of it (or pay attention as they watch it) and not rely on Spark Notes, inform the pupils of all relative aspects of it and then watch as the pupils regurgitate that information in however many exams there are. This is simply fixed by making all assessment require that pupils draw connections between multiple texts of the same type, and teaching each text in the same way they are done now. That is, read, say, Lord of the Flies, discuss it individually and then read, say, Vanity Fair, discuss it individually and then get pupils to answer questions on their selected group of texts. You can do this for films as well. It's not difficult change to make as (for NCEA at any rate) the type of questions already exist for this. In fact, ideally, the pupil must select the additional text individually having run it pass their teacher to check for appropriateness as that would remove the ability of the teacher to regurgitate the meanings of the connections between the texts. I did one standard in Y12 that involved this with four texts as an internal that require the texts to be linked by a theme. The mechanics are already there and the specifics can be worked out. Let's move on to other parts of English now that we've covered reading for meaning in creative texts.

English is so much more than just reading. In fact, I would argue that the ability to create works is the far more important part of English. In this sense, we could retain the current regurgitation issue described and corrected above and fix it by requiring the essays to have some sense of flair/style/grammar that is assessed. So, not only is the content important, but the essays become something specific. So, say, one would say one's answering question 2 on character in the format option number 3 (say, a persuasive essay based on emotional rather than logical appeals... the marker would, I think, expect an engaging essay rather than a more dour factual analysis). Maybe. In general, though, the creative writing aspects are well catered for at the moment. The formal writing has the regrettable tendency to be an essay written for some other purpose that is then corrected for grammatical (and spelling) mistakes rather than a new piece (particularly a new piece written in a formal style that is not a persuasive essay). This is an easy fix and may just have been the result of laziness on the part of my teachers. The response standard that I never understood the point of in Year Eleven occupies (or, perhaps, I feel now as if it should occupy) a sort of middle ground between the reading and the writing... it should be considered as English's equivalent of showing the working in maths: a standard that requires the candidate to explain how and why they reached the conclusions that they did with grammatical and other stylistic choices. Maybe that's what it was and I never got that. Whatever the case, I think grammar needs to be taught to both teachers better and to pupils. With a better grasp of grammar writing outside of the English class' contexts and reading more widely would be easier. It should, in point of fact, do more to solve the long term issue of universities criticising the (academic) literacy of their pupils than anything else.

Creating works also refers to speeches. They are probably the most useful (and theoretically meaningful) aspect of English done in schools combining public speaking, writing and researching (or not, I once did a speech on the subject of which dragons I had made up myself were the best) skills. However, in my last two years of English my teachers went, "Speeches are optional" and probably fewer than half the class in both years got up and spoke. This is simply resolved by making sure it doesn't happen and, perhaps, one could add an additional layer of complexity in requiring the pupil to analyse what they said and did in a manner not dissimilar to what happens in NCEA drama. I believe in Y13 the English teachers made everyone do seminars which obviously embody some similar ideals. I say, include both as mandatory assessments. The seminars as an informative, multi-media presentation and speeches as a purely verbal presentation (although not necessarily a persuasive one). The seminars could be substituted for dialogues which require the further skill of being able to co-create something. Obviously both could be linked with reading for meaning very easily.

Finally, I'll mention unfamiliar texts. While I struggled with this and, indeed, loathed it throughout my two years of NCEA English I now recognise it as theoretically being at least as valuable as speeches. The problem with unfamiliar texts is that the candidates are often left with an unclear idea of what one is to do. Essentially, one must be able to understand how and why the creator of a text used certain techniques. This involves being able to read for meaning and being able to recognise the aspects of writing that one has available... you can't really respond adequately to how and why techniques are used without understanding, first, the point of the texts. Improve the teaching and this will be improved with no further alterations. To my mind, its love of techniques is close enough to the grammatical side that I feel English loses somewhere in the holidays between year eight and year nine.

In summary, more grammar (both as a distinct part of the curriculum and as a part of other aspects of it), greater emphasis on creating work and less emphasis on reading for meaning in creative texts whilst simultaneously increasing the number of creative texts read.

*No love for NZ sign language although it is also an official language along with English and Te Re Maori, sorry.

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