English in Education, Spring 2019

Writing is the theme of this issue of English in Education. It’s an excellent collection of thoughtful pieces by English teachers and academics. The editorial sets the tone immediately:

Trying to develop excellent writing pedagogy in a system dominated by standardised, politicised assessments makes the task even more challenging.

The editorial, by Dr Jenifer Smith and Dr Mari Cruice, points out how the importance of the “primacy of meaning” in children’s Writing has been downgraded over the last 30 years. Towards the end of they make the point that teachers are looking back to the writing of educators from the 60s and 70s (something I’ve been doing increasingly) or drawing on their own practice as writers (something I’ve always done). The editorial ends with a warning:

Meanwhile, in mainstream classrooms, the dead weight of a prescriptive and reductionist viewpoint is hard to shift. And yet individuals, especially amongst the young, have learned somewhere that writing is a vital human activity and that it works for us in many different ways. It has a moral and humane heft, it underpins critically, it is inventive and visionary, it can anchor us. Of course, writing resists “mapping onto levels”, but the failure to take writing seriously as a fundamental element of human growth has become a failure to take responsibility for children’s intellectual growth and moral becoming.

Overall, the view of English teaching and Writing in particular is that our subject is in a pretty awful way. I agree!

I found the following articles in this issue particularly interesting and useful:

English and Meaning by Gordon M. Pradl – absolutely excellent presentation of the tradition of English teaching which I see myself as part which is child-focused and balance the “skills” and “cultural heritage” view of English with that of “personal growth” (enriching children’s social and cultural lives). There’s a terribly good section about the role of the primacy of meaning in the post-War teaching of English and its contrast with the present models: “[T]he current push for product accountability being imposed on our schools – where outcomes are often mandated by persons far removed from the actual learning encounters between students and teachers – can threaten the core ‘meaning making’ principle of our discipline. Meaning, it seems, remains resistant to measurement, especially of the short-term variety. Pradl focuses on the work of James Britton and David Holbrook.

Teaching Bad Writing by Myra Barrs – argues persuasively that current teaching of Writing at KS2 does not improve the quality children’s writing. She believes that current assessment prioritises form over content. One piece of research conducted by Barrs points out the disparity between what teachers think are the elements of good writing (meaning) and the comments they write on children’s work (all about form). She demands that there needs to be a course-correction and that English needs to be recognised in relation to the Arts.

“Death by PEEL?” The Teaching of Writing in the Secondary English Classroom by Simon Gibbons – Gibbons identifies the way that children’s writing has increasingly “constrained and constricted” by ever-prescriptive teaching. He says that teachers do not like structures like PEEL but find them a necessary evil (“necessary to arm pupils in their battles with assessment systems”). He concludes that “the teaching of writing is in a sorry state in many English classrooms”. There’s an excellent review of the history of Writing. Gibbons asserts that his experience doesn’t find the same issues in other English-speaking countries. He recognises that children’s experiences of learning to write are “a less than fulfilling experience”. Gibbons seems quite downbeat to me and ends on the hope that “Tides turn; times change”.

English Teaching and Imagination: A Case for Revisiting the Value of Imagination in Teaching Writing by Helena Thomas – I found myself agreeing with Thomas’ argument about the value and importance of developing children’s imaginations in the English classroom. Thomas sees teachers working in a climate of “unprecedented accountability” where “teaching is dominated by a policy discourse that shuts down debate”. She advocates for teachers to view themselves as practising creative artists and I found the section on “A brief note on implications for practice” excellent advice.

Additionally, the references of the articles offer a tremendous treasure trove of lost knowledge for English teachers (or for me, at least).