Introduction to Making Meaning in English

Notes from Making Meaning in English by David Didau (2021)


David Didau offers a third way that appears to reconcile the traditional and progressive strains within English teaching. He notes how English does not have an agreed body of knowledge or purpose. Didau believes that changes to the academic study of English have impacted badly on it as as school discipline as has a loss of agency (and conviction) by its teachers. His proposition is that English should be reimagined and its focus on teaching children how to determine significance.

  • Didau begins be pointing out that “The anxiety that there’s something rotten in the state of English seems as old as the subject itself.” Then goes on to explain how English has altered while he was a teacher: from one which taught creativity and empathy, attainment targets and drilling to, recently, building stores of knowledge about literature and grammar.
  • Didau asks: “in the rush to reinvent the subject as ‘knowledge-rich’ there’s a risk that self-expression, empathy and meaning may be thrown out along with the admittedly filthy bathwater.”
  • He discusses the nature of English as a school subject: “unlike most other school subjects English does not consist of an agreed, settled body of knowledge. We take our guidance from examination boards. We dwell on the detailed knowledge of a very few canonical texts and attempt to teach and assess a generic set of skills in the forlorn hope that this will equip young people for the vicissitudes they will face in life. But if this is not enough, if our students need more direction in navigating an uncertain world, we are often unprepared to guide them in making meaning.”
  • “At some point” Didau argues in the last 50 years, academic English altered and “the pendulum swung too far” in favour of presenting all discourse as having equal worth which he admits “enlivened and enriched” English but “eroded” our subject’s self-understanding.
  • He sees this change in the nature of the academic study of English as affecting those teaching English: “As English teachers we were left not just lacking expertise, but lacking conviction. Until recently, discussions about what to teach were sidelined by injunctions on how to teach. The curriculum became the business of exam boards and quangos; English teachers were shut out of the debate. Now, with a renewed focus on the curriculum, we are often unsure where to start or how to proceed. If we have been trying to build on a foundation of uncertainty we shouldn’t be surprised if the resulting structure is rickety.”
  • His fear is that “English is in danger of becoming a clockwork version of itself with children learning lists of quotations and tables of techniques but with little sense of how to use these facts to create meaning.”
  • His argument becomes that there is a “third way” between teaching “skills” and what he calls the “technocratic grip of the knowledge organiser” and quotes Arthur Applebee (and the idea of the English curriculum as conversation) saying that what needs to be taught in English is “knowledge of a tradition that involves both knowing and doing”.
  • At the end of the Introduction, Didau sees the role of the English teacher as enabling students to “enlarge and extend” meanings in literature and language.
  • “The aim is to reimagine English as a subject concerned primarily with significance… to reconceive the curriculum as a place where old and new ideas clash, where the canon is wrestled with, and where students are given the intellectual wherewithal to impose their own judgements and meanings on what we lay before them.”