Problems in English

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

Chapter 2: Problems in English

This chapter defines English as a “folk discipline” where its teachers have limited understanding of effective approaches. Didau dismisses “skills-based” teaching and, instead, proposes a “knowledge-based” approach. He also shows concern that students practise the wrong things. Much of the later part of the chapter involves examples of approaches to teaching aspects of English.

  • Didau focuses on the issue that “we don’t have a codified body of knowledge of how to achieve these aims” of how English should be taught. He suggests that “English has become a folk discipline with craft knowledge passed down in individual departments without much recourse to empirical observation or evaluation.”
  • Regular marking is identified as part of the “folk discipline” that Didau (citing Newbolt) consider “counterproductive” and praises systems for whole-class feedback.
  • Didau draws attention to the “axiomatic beliefs” he views as misguided:
  • The “skills-based” subject assumption. This is, he feels the cause of many problems in teaching English. Didau cites Michael Oakeshott in suggesting that only detail can be taught (not general principles). From this, Didau asserts: “We can’t teach skill; we can only teach knowledge”. He suggests that disadvantaged children are most failed by a “skills-based” approach:
    • “The students who seem most resistant to this type of teaching are, on average, the less advantaged. They fail to acquire the skills we teach not because they’re less able but because they’ve done a lot less reading. Because they don’t have as much relevant prior knowledge they sometimes seem to possess the equivalent of intellectual Teflon: new knowledge has little relevant to grip onto.”
    • Didau’s contention is that only knowledge can be taught: “Although students need to acquire a range of skills, we can only teach them knowledge. Different kinds of knowledge may be taught differently: some things you can explain, others you have to point out during practice, but as all this knowledge accumulates, it begins to chunk together. To start, each item of knowledge is known inflexibly but, through repetition and practice, items become increasingly flexible the more they cohere with other related knowledge. Knowledge becomes skill through application within the area in which we hope to become skilled.” He uses the example of teaching use of quotations to illustrate this.
    • Next, Didau explains how skills become tacit and cites Michael Polanyi suggesting that “proxies or maxims” can be articulated (but can’t be used to teach the skills). Didau: “Everything we know explicitly depends on a more tacit understanding.” What is essential is understanding that: The idea that skill can be imparted without the hard work of teaching all the requisite knowledge is an illusion born from being unable to remember how we went about acquiring our own expertise.”
  • The practice assumption. “Practice makes permanent, not perfect” Didau asserts. He looks at children’s acquisition of reading skills and points out that “If students fail to automatise the ‘mechanical’ aspects of reading – decoding and word recognition – progress in reading stalls.” (I’m quite interested in Didau’s point about oral skills: “You might be persuaded that the best way to improve students’ reading comprehension is to teach oral comprehension skills but there is no evidence that this makes any difference to children’s reading skill. The best bet for improving comprehension is to spend more time reading.”).
    • Didau appears to argue that there aren’t such things as comprehension skills and goes on to claim that inference, analysis and evaluation can’t be practised. He uses an extract from Finnegan’s Wake to show how teaching “metacognitive strategies” (inference in this case) don’t work.
    • Instead, Didau argues that “All inferences depend on knowledge. Students may spend hours of lesson time successfully practising the skill of inference only to come completely unstuck when they encounter a text about which they know little. If we genuinely want children to become better at inferring, analysing, evaluating or any of the other so-called ‘skills’ on which success in English depends then they need to read much more widely, acquire a greater breadth of vocabulary and generally know more about the world around them. Being skilled is indistinguishable from being knowledgeable.”
    • He sees “strategies” rather than skills as having merit and gives the example of skimming and scanning. There’s a very good section where Didau explains how to teach skim and scan (involving identifying “head nouns”).
    • Didau also points out that students also ” have only a vague idea of what academic writing is supposed to look like – they know the sorts of words and phrases they should use – but they may have little understanding of the underlying content and therefore whatever they write is likely to be superficial at best and fatuous at worst.”
    • He has a term for the student writing – especially for exams – that is empty of significance “cargo cult writing”. Didau also suggest that students write less: “A radical-sounding suggestion for solving the stamina problem is for students to write less for longer.” There’s no point writing students writing essays if they can’t write a paragraph.
    • Citing Daist Christodoulou, Didau suggests that retrieval tasks (eg. Multiple-choice questions) based on texts builds knowledge and argues that: “instead of writing lengthy, summative paragraphs, time would be better spent in debating ideas and practising writing excellent sentences. Regularly writing analytical sentences about the content being studied demands that reasons are provided and consequences explained, and it provides excellent opportunities for expressing ideas clearly and succinctly.”
    • Another suggestion he makes is that the technical aspects of writing should be automised. He argues that teachers should not accept missing capital letters and that there should be “some sort of sanction” that encourages students to be accurate. He sees this as part of maintaining high expectations.
  • Didau challenges a “clockwork curriculum” where there is “a mechanistic conception of English in which texts are in danger of being reduced to lists of facts to learn and retrieve.” He points out the need to teach historical information “judiciously” so that it is relevant. He identifies the scope of “essential context” as:
    • “the place the text we’re studying has in the wider literary conversation. Is it part of a particular tradition, or is it responding to other texts?”
    • “We should also consider what else a writer has written: is this text typical of their output? Can we see the development of particular themes throughout their oeuvre?”
  • Didau is critical of knowledge organisers (“they suffer from being crammed with stuff that is unlikely to be particularly helpful”). He sees useful information for a knowledge organiser as being: historical context, stylistic features and terms, themes.