Teaching English

March 24, 2016

I became an English teacher because I loved reading and hoped to be able to pass on some of my love and enjoyment of literature to my students: we all start off very idealistically! But, beginning from this enthusiasm meant that reading was always at the core of my work as an English teacher, and everything else grew from it. This approach was encouraged in the – now much-derided – past, long before the National Curriculum, datasets and all the other craziness which drives people out of the profession, by my first Head of Department.

Every class had a class reader, which the teacher chose, and as many as possible of the different aspects of English arose from that reader: vocabulary and dictionary work as well as new spellings, creative and analytical writing opportunities and speaking and listening work, which could and did obviously include cross-curricular themes. You would aim to get through a book a term, and would hope to read the entire book aloud in class. Everyone could read aloud, and this also offered opportunities for weaker readers to practise.

It wasn’t a perfect approach to teaching the subject – you still needed to bring in grammar and punctuation exercises and comprehension practice at various points, but throughout my career I never came across an improvement on it: certainly I ran a mile from any scheme that offered an English course from a textbook.

We did end up having to do rather more preparation than we otherwise might have done, because all the activities we wanted had to be created de novo – they weren’t available in a textbook or via pre-produced worksheets. But within a co-operative department resources and ideas could be and were discussed and shared, even co-produced. And once you’d created them, you had them for future reference, which meant that over time, as you developed a repertoire of texts and activities that could work with particular classes and ages groups, preparation became far less onerous; this made it easier to taken new texts on board from time to time. With suitable tweaking it was an approach that worked at Key Stage 3 and also at GCSE, and the methods could be applied in slightly different ways to Shakespeare and other drama, and poetry too.

OK, I liked this approach, but what about the students? I have to say that, once I’d ruled out books that didn’t work, my classes seemed to like what they got. They enjoyed the books, admitting they liked them, even while saying that they were not books they’d ever have chosen to read themselves. That was fine: I was extending the range of their reading, and stretching them to boot. They seemed to learn: their grammatical knowledge, their comprehension ability, their range of writing and their confidence in speaking and listening progressed as it should have done, and they achieved the exam results they were capable of. And we all got along pretty well: job done.

Picking the books I used was crucial: I never used a book I didn’t like, or that I felt we ought to read, because it would be good for them, or because it was a classic. I would never inflict Dickens, or the Brontes or other such weighty and worthy tomes on my classes. This doesn’t mean we read lightweight tosh, either: there are lots of good, well-written books suitable for young adults, or even specially written for that market. Anyone – this includes you, Mr Gove – who thinks you raise standards by force-feeding young people classics as if they were French geese just doesn’t get it.

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