THE ENGLISH PATIENT Key subject is ailing as exams fail to address grammar and vocabulary failings

The debate on the quality of English teaching has raged since English became a school subject.  Is the balance between the traditional canon and contemporary  literature wrong?  Have formal language skills been jettisoned for creativity?  Is English being ‘dumbed down’?

As a retired English teacher and school manager, I assumed that the debate itself was healthy and so was the state of English teaching in most Scottish schools.  That was challenged when I attended last year’s Scottish Learning Festival.

Two themes emerged.  Language skills remained priorities in English but poorer standards of literacy across society suggested to young people that linguistic accuracy was unimportant.  Secondly, management pressure in some schools for exam passes meant drastically reducing the texts taught and insistently drilling on exam techniques.

Concerned, I spoke to head teachers, university staff and English teachers across a range of Scottish schools, private and comprehensive and schools serving affluent and poor areas.

My first impression was that English was in excellent hands.  Inspiring teachers were consciously disseminating enthusiasm for language and literature.  They valued their subject, taught from a wide range of texts, challenged their learners and developed higher order thinking skills.

Common themes quickly emerged.  The personalised nature of their work allows the English teacher to become familiar with, and relate meaningfully to, each individual learner.  A wide range of texts is used.  The marking makes English a high work-load subject; don’t enter unless you accept this.

That’s the good news but cuts have stripped resources to the wire.   Youngsters raised on IT and instant communication, have limited attention spans; for many, even the brightest, 20 minutes is the limit of their focus.

There have been recent improvements.  S1s arrive from primary skilled in cooperative learning, discussion and group work – but at the expense of concentrated individual study.

More good news: the more able are critically aware, know how literature works and understand media manipulation.  However, while grammar is taught, increasing numbers, across the social spectrum, arrive in the secondary with limited vocabularies and minimal formal language skills.

Two quotations from S1 students illustrate this: “My teacher told me not to bother with apostrophes if I wasn’t sure about them.”  “I don’t do capital letters.”

A common lack of understanding of grammar and a limited vocabulary impact on learning beyond English.  As one head teacher put it, “Literacy is the key to broader learning and vocabulary the key to literacy.  Vocabulary needs to be built and systematically developed from pre-primary days among all learners but so do hard language skills.”

It is not only formal skills which are less developed.  Linguistic and cultural hooks on which further learning hang, such nursery rhymes and fairy stories, are often unknown.

Ian McMillan of CBI Scotland recently asserted that Standard Grade and Higher marking schemes had delivered an “unacceptably low” quality of pupil work.  The Scottish Qualifications Authority rewards the content without penalising mistakes.  McMillan called for deductions for inaccurate spelling, bad grammar and poor presentation.

The issue of how Higher English is marked has major implications for teaching.  The one qualification necessary for entering teacher-training (whether at degree or post-graduate level) is a Higher English pass at C.  But because Higher English can be attained despite inaccurate spelling and bad grammar, these skills have often been deprioritised in teaching it.

The slippage has been gradual, the impact substantial.  There is now a generation of teachers, primary and secondary, many of whom have no formal grammatical skills.  One Principal Teacher stated that “literacy across the curriculum is essential but there remain major pockets of resistance from teachers stuck in their subject silos and, in some cases, under-confident about their own literacy skills.”  To teach literacy meaningfully and effectively teachers require more than an implicit knowledge of language.  How can they teach what they have never mastered?

Overwhelmingly, English teachers denied they would dilute the subject content for exam success.  But what if we are seeing an imperceptible, gradual de-skilling?

One young Principal Teacher however, confessed to having been shocked on arrival at his new school in an area of significant poverty.  There were major vocabulary deficits among even bright youngsters.  Learners had been under-challenged: texts appropriate for S3s had been used with S5s.  “Results were so poor and they’re so important for the school and for the kids and we have to concentrate on improving them,” he said.

The consequent decision was to use more accessible texts as an interim while systematically attacking the language and vocabulary deficits starting at S1.

Former education minister, Peter Peacock, in a broadside against the examination juggernaut (TESS, 13 January 2012) also echoed concerns about content slippage.  “The various pressures lead to increased coaching … to get more pupils over closely defined hurdles, and a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on clearing the hurdles,” he said.

But we do teach to the exams and need to acknowledge that by getting the assessment right.  If we want to ensure that something will be taught, we must ensure that markers mark it.

There was general agreement about the enduring value of Standard Grade English but that Higher has changed for the worse.

Recent and planned changes such as the alteration to the Higher folio, the move from individual presentations and from personal study and the alteration to the final H reading question may all be less educationally valid.

Where then from here?  We should acknowledge the fine quality of most English teaching but fine-tune the curriculum and exams to keep the best of the old as well as to innovate.  We must review what we want from literacy across all age-stages as well as across the curriculum.

Initial suggestions might include reprioritising resources to the nursery sector to tackle language deficits, introducing sanctions for inaccurate spelling, grammar or punctuation in Higher English marking.  Proposed changes to senior qualifications should be revisited, to include external exams with a focus on breadth of reading.

Finally, entry to any teacher training course should require a B in Higher English and if all teachers are to teach literacy, literacy should be taught on all teacher training courses.   Many readers may be surprised to learn that this is not already the case.

This article was published in The Herald on 31 January 2012.

 

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