English teachers slam ‘restrictive’ curriculum

English teachers have called for more creativity in the curriculum, saying ‘knowing’ takes precedence over ‘know-how’ when it comes to reading a range of texts.

Jonathan Morgan, director of NATE, the main English subjects association, said the revised curriculum at Key Stage 4 was “particularly restrictive”, while KS3 was often used as a “stepping stone” into GCSE.

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He said many English teachers are preoccupied with an “obsession with vocabulary and technical terms” rather than a thoughtful debate about “the philosophical view of the text”.

“Having knowledge is more important than applying it,” he said.

Mr Morgan said English teaching was increasingly focusing on narrow interpretations of characters and “bolted and fast” historical context to meet exam criteria requirements.

Dr Francis Gilbert, head of the PGCE English course at Goldsmiths, University of London, said a narrow focus on subject terminology limited student responses.

“It’s a real problem – you go to a lot of classes and the kids don’t engage in reading in a meaningful way.”

Dr Gilbert said ‘technical spotting’, where students rush to spot comparisons in a text, has resulted in ‘imitation learning’ where ‘there is stuff in their books’ but little indications that students really understood what they read.

He said that in one lesson he observed, the students read an unseen passage about Sherlock Holmes. Many students identified literary devices, but the majority missed the crux of the passage – someone was dead.

“They were looking for onomatopoeia,” Dr. Gilbert said. “They hadn’t absorbed it.”

Barbara Bleiman, a consultant for English and the Media Center, said English teaching was too focused on learning vocabulary at the expense of a comprehensive understanding of texts.

“They [the pupils] need knowledge, knowledge, knowledge – before they reach the book,” Ms Bleiman said.

The emphasis on linguistic analysis made students dependent on their English teachers.

Reading widely, Ms Bleiman said, should be like “walking through the gallery”, stopping to look at different works of art.

“You can watch the brushstrokes, but you also have to see ‘what’s on offer,'” she told the NATE conference this month.

Some PGCE course leaders have said they welcome some of the changes to the curriculum, such as increased teaching of literary classics, but only as part of a broad and varied curriculum.

Dr Elizabeth Rawlinson-Mills, who teaches the PGCE secondary English course at the University of Cambridge, said that while canonical writers such as Shakespeare and Dickens “are often taught in an incredibly engaging way”, there were ” missed opportunities” in KS3 programs that lacked news written by BAME authors.

“Dead white men (and some women) don’t have a monopoly on ‘the best that’s been thought and said,'” Dr Mills said.

“We know that reading for pleasure is key to students’ futures – Pisa found that reading for pleasure was more important to students’ academic success than their socio-economic background.”

Clare Feeney, an English teacher at St Thomas More RC Academy, North Shields, said creativity was “absolutely key” in teaching English.

“It reminds us of all that is important about our subject – creativity, personal response, empathy and criticality. These are things of real value to young people,” Ms Feeney said.

Not all English teachers agreed that the changes to the curriculum had hurt creativity.

Nikki Carlin from the Team English Twitter group said: “We like to be creative and have found more space to do so with the new spec.

“When it comes to linguistic analysis, the new specification allows for really in-depth analysis of texts and creativity in responses is encouraged. My team and I have really enjoyed teaching students how to respond creatively to poetry and language of Shakespeare in macbeth for example.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “We know that many teachers use creative ways to teach the English curriculum. We deliberately do not stipulate how lessons should be taught in the curriculum – we simply describe the topics that need to be covered – to allow teachers creative freedom.

“At KS3, students learn imaginative writing and many schools use stories, scripts, poetry and other creative ways to teach it. There are also greater opportunities for creativity with the upcoming national competition poetry recitation: we expect students to be able to participate starting in fall 2019.”