Subject Knowledge and the Teacher 1 – Introduction

English across the sectors

These pages were written for the Subject Centre by Dr David Stevens of the School of Education, University of Durham. We believe they will be found useful both by students considering careers as English teachers, and by University staff who want to know more about English in secondary schools. We should, however, make clear that, suggestive as they are, these pages do not reflect many features of an educational landscape that in some respects has changed considerably since 2004-5. Enormous uncertainty rests on the outcomes of the Coalition Government’s curriculum review. In the meanwhile, we believe that these pages will still be of great value to those who are thinking about teaching English at school level.

You might like also to read both the report on the 2004 event ‘Using Your Subject Knowledge’ and Who’s Prepared to Teach School English?, a 2010 report by Julie Blake and Tim Shortis, part-funded by the Subject Centre, on the relevance of degree subject to PGCE secondary English courses.


The subject English has always been wide-ranging, inclusive and eclectic: hardly surprising in that it is based on a vividly elusive entity – a living language. There are both positive and negative aspects to this breadth, in terms of the teaching of English: positive in the infinitely resourceful possibilities of the creative English classroom; perhaps more negative in the uncertainty of what precisely constitutes the subject English – what, in these terms, should actually be taught in its name. The purpose of these pages is to emphasize the positive, whilst acknowledging and, hopefully, clarifying the elusiveness of the subject.

Central here is the sense that the development of effective and imaginative English teaching is not merely a series of skills in transferring the teacher’s subject knowledge to pupils. Rather, the best English classrooms are fully interactive places which build on both teachers’ and pupils’ knowledge, experience and reflections on and through language: a fully educative process, in other words. As for all forms of education, preparation for teaching – and, for that matter, subsequent continuing professional development – depends significantly on being a part of a wider community of teachers and learners. It is, or should be, a fully social process, and the fuller the better. In fact it may be more apt to speak of diverse models of English as a school subject, rather than a discrete and clearly identified entity. The subject is continually re-shaping itself – perhaps more than any other curricular subject – with the consequence that notions of subject knowledge change, sometimes dramatically, with each new wave of entrants into the profession.

But this very diversity can also seem dauntingly confusing, especially given the breadth of degree subjects with which English teachers now enter the profession. At its simplest, those whose degree was primarily literature based may wonder how they are going to meet the requirement to teach grammar (particularly if specific knowledge of language was not part their own English curriculum at school). Conversely, students with a language degree may have concerns about teaching Shakespeare or other aspects of literature. Our starting point therefore must be positive; you need to think first about the strengths in English which you bring to the profession before concentrating on areas for development. These strengths need not just be related to your academic qualifications but may derive from diverse interests, walks of life or other professional and personal experience – and in this English teachers reflect and model the nature of the English classroom and what pupils themselves bring to it.

As an initial audit task you might like to go through the list (available as a download in MSWord format below) describing very broad ‘areas of English’, and number them 1 to 7 in terms of your own level of subject knowledge confidence. The task is clearly not straightforward – for example you may have specialised in C19th fiction but feel less confident about the modern novel – and it may be helpful therefore to record any specific observations about areas of strengths or areas for development. Ideally, you should give some thought to your specialist area(s) (the areas you ranked 1 st or 2 nd). How does your specialism relate to the secondary English curriculum? How can you extend your knowledge and understanding in this area? The list will also identify those areas with which you feel less confident, and here you may need suggestions for reading, reflection and activities. These are not intended to provide an extension to your degree studies but to direct you to the type of reading and reflection which might be particularly appropriate for secondary English teaching.

It may be that this brief audit could be followed up with a piece of writing which addresses the following question:‘What contribution does your subject make to the education of the child?’ The range of this topic might include

  • your own experiences of being taught English at school and university;
  • your experience observing and teaching English lessons;
  • discussions with colleague teachers;
  • your own thoughts about the different reasons for teaching English as a subject (the answer to this question may seem at first obvious but if all subjects have a responsibility to develop language and literacy what particular aims does English as a subject have?);
  • your own thoughts about controversies in English – the place of grammar, the concept of literacy, literary hierarchies, and ideas such as personal growth and critical theory.