Number 7

Issues in English Number 7

100 Years of English Teaching: the problems that can't be ignored, by Sue Palmer, Geoff Barton and Peter Barry

With so much venting of spleens, so much opinion on so many issues, it can be hard to tell the important issues from the trivial. Here's one that isn't trivial - growing evidence that something is going profoundly wrong in the way we teach English. It isn't just that progress towards national targets has stalled. It's as if we are squeezing the life out of our most important subject.
Take Ofsted's report on English published a year ago. They reported the following:

  • The 2003 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) found that, although the reading skills of 10 year old pupils in England compared well with those of pupils in other countries, they are less interested in reading than those elsewhere.
  • An NFER reading survey (2003), conducted by Marian Sainsbury, concluded that children's enjoyment of reading had declined significantly in recent years.
  • A Nestlé/MORI report highlighted the existence of a small core of children who do not read at all, described as an 'underclass' of non-readers, with families where reading is irrelevant.

One hundred years ago the English Association was founded to further the knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of the English language and its literatures and to foster good practice in its teaching and learning at all levels.

Back in 1922 school inspector and writer George Sampson complained that the fledgling subject of English was seen solely as something that could be "examined, tested, marked." That obsession with testing remains an enduring characteristic of English here at the start of the twenty-first century. It has led to a narrowing of the curriculum and an apparent loss of confidence by teachers in how to teach the subject in a way that ignites the enthusiasm of youngsters.

In an age of internet knowledge and global competition on the job market, we cannot afford to lose the critical reading skills or passion for literature of a generation. A feel for language that goes beyond the purely mechanical was never needed more than now.

That's why Sue Palmer, Peter Barry and Geoff Barton have written a polemical pamphlet to mark the English Association's centenary. It's not just another of those whinge-fests, bleating about how awful the world has become. Instead it is a serious attempt to step back and take a detached look at the state of primary, secondary and higher education English.

It's a plea to scrap micro-control of the curriculum and to reignite the core of creativity that ought to characterise English teaching.

We believe it's a debate we cannot afford not to have.


'The Swing of the Primary Pendulum' Sue Palmer argues that a politically-motivated tests-and-targets approach to literacy has been counter-productive, and is now damaging children's ability to speak, read and write the English language.

'The View from the Secondary School Prison Yard' Geoff Barton suggests that, rather than a mechanical utilitarian curriculum, students in a multimedia world need English teaching that inspires and equips them to become discriminating users of the English language.

'English in Higher Education' Peter Barry expresses the conviction that, beneath the growing mountain of useless red tape, the spirit of English survives in Higher Education - just!

ISBN 0 900232 277 20pp

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