Subject knowledge and the teacher 3 – The National strategy

English across the sectors

The major change to the secondary English curriculum in recent years has occurred at Key Stage Three, developing from the Primary phase National Literacy Strategy and its centrally embedded Literacy Hour. The National Strategy: English Strand, as the National Literacy Strategy insofar as it affects English has become, now profoundly influences all three years of Key Stage Three, and has significant and wide-ranging implications too for subsequent phases in the English curriculum. Perhaps ‘influences’ is too weak a word in this context, however: certainly all English departmentsareinfluenced, but in some schools and some LEAs the English curriculum as it has hitherto developed is in danger of being subsumed by the Strategy.

Essentially the Strategy, in terms of its recommended pedagogy, is based around

  • Identification of prior knowledge
  • Teacher demonstration of process
  • Shared exploration through activity
  • Scaffolded pupil application of new learning
  • Consolidation through discussion / activity.

Clearly there is little to take issue with here. Effective English teaching acknowledges students’ immense linguistic experience and knowledge as its starting point, building collaboratively with appropriate leadership, modelling and scaffolding towards deep learning. The main danger may be in too narrow or restrictive an interpretation of these laudable aims.

English teachers are now required to have a far more rigorous and detailed knowledge of language, particularly in terms of grammar and spelling, than previously, both for textual analysis and for improving pupils’ conscious awareness of their own writing. There is too a far greater emphasis on non-fiction, signalling a move away from cultural heritage and personal growth models of English towards more functionally-orientated conceptions of the subject, as noted previously. Further, English teachers are now having to accept that the teaching of reading, often at quite a basic level, is not the responsibility only of primary phase teachers, and that it involves techniques previously seen only in Special Educational Needs departments in secondary schools, if indeed there. Again, in all three of these broad areas, there is a distinct opportunity to extend meaningfully (and sharpen) the English curriculum; but again, so much depends on enlightened interpretation of the possibilities.

The essential structure is along the lines of three distinctive variations of language analysis: at word level, sentence level, and text level. At text level especially the Framework seeks to influence all three National Curriculum facets (or Attainment Targets as National Curriculum-speak somewhat oddly has them) of English, namely reading, writing, and speaking and listening. A measure of integration is clearly intended: ‘The list of objectives does not imply that teachers should approach them in isolation or teach them in a reductive way. Objectives benefit from being taught explicitly and from being identified and deployed in context. Planning should draw together objectives from Word, Sentence and Text level. … Teachers are encouraged to find ways of clustering together complementary objectives’ (DfES 2001: 11).

In terms of fostering pupils’ writing practice, building on Key Stage Two literacy experience, English teachers are advised to specify purpose above all, as defined in ‘triplets’: ‘imagine, explore and entertain’, ‘inform, explain and describe’, persuade, argue and advise’, and ‘analyse, review and comment’. The rest of the Framework document is really an exposition of how to implement this structure in some detail. Much of what is written emphasises good practice in English teaching – but there are some elements which for better or for worse have given, at least for some English departments, pause for thought. Among these could be included the emphasis on objectives-led planning, on teaching that is ‘direct and explicit’ and ‘distinguished by a fast pace and strong focus’ (ibid: 16), and on the four-part lesson.

You will find that opinions of the Strategy among English teachers vary considerably – some supportive, others very hostile to the literacy strategy. This is also reflected in the research literature which we will be examining during the year. Here we just present some background so that you can start to think about some of the issues.

Some extracts from the Framework (www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/keystage3/strands/english):

‘The notion of literacy embedded in the objectives is much more than simply the acquisition of ‘basic skills’ which is sometimes implied by the word: it encompasses the ability to recognise, understand and manipulate the conventions of language, and develop pupils’ ability to use language imaginatively and flexibly. The Framework also encompasses speaking and listening to support English teachers in planning to meet the full demands of the National Curriculum, and to tie in the development of oral skills with parallel demands in written text’.

‘The Framework extends the Word, Sentence and Text level organisation of the primary Framework. The purpose of the Word and Sentence level objectives is to secure proper attention to the skills of spelling, vocabulary, sentence construction, grammar and style, which underpin excellence in Text level work. There are however links to be made between objectives in each column. ‘

‘Reading and writing objectives have been laid alongside each other in the Text level column to reflect the growing demands of this section of the curriculum, but this does not diminish the importance of the Word and Sentence level. A further column contains objectives for speaking and listening. These objectives build on the specific expectations for primary pupils in the Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA) document ‘Teaching Speaking and Listening at Key Stages 1 and 2’.’

Literacy lessons, and English lessons generally insofar as they have been influenced by the Strategy’s pedagogy, may be different from the English teaching you received at school. A useful starting point for thinking about the literacy strategy is to reflect on you own experience as a learner. How did you learn to write? What were the strengths/weaknesses of your own experiences in English lessons? Which aspects of literacy may be shared with other curricular subjects? Is a distinction between literacy and English in any way helpful?