Rethinking English in Schools: Towards A New and Constructive Stage

Author(s) Viv Ellis
Editor(s) Carol Fox, Brian Street
Publisher Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.
Published 2007
Pages 224
Price £70.00
ISBN 9780826499226
Reviewed by Dr John Butcher
University College Falmouth
Review published 2 July 2008

This edited collection originated in an Oxford conference, “Why English”, at which early versions of the chapters were discussed. The editors and contributors are eminent researchers in English Teacher Education, representing UK, US and Australian perspectives. As befitting its broad remit and radical intention, the book is divided into three substantive sections, 14 chapters in all with an afterword. The three major chapters in each section are followed with a shorter response chapter at the end, as an attempt to provide reflection and coherence.

“Why English? Rethinking the School Subject” frames the book as a range of questions about English, suggesting it is a subject urgently in need of reconsideration and renewal. Rather than the well-worn paths addressing the ‘what’ of English (its content) or the ‘how’ of English (its pedagogy), the book endeavours to question the purpose of English, as exemplified in three vignettes illustrating impoverished English teaching and suggestive of a moment of crisis. This is convincing, albeit it should be recognised that English teachers and teacher educators have a very long history of perceiving their subject in crisis.

Tony Burgess takes the opportunity to revisit Vygotskian theories of learning, language and sociocultural development from the 1960s and 1970s, recognising teachers now inhabit a very different professional culture, of management of targets. He persuasively argues English teachers need to refocus on learners, not just texts, by a charming analysis of transcript of the author ‘playing’ with his four-year old grandson. This argument for holism in English teaching rejects ideas of children as passive recipients.

Fecho’s chapter starts with a proper concern at the dominance of ‘standardised’ assessment across the world. However, his examples of two US pupils represented as marginalised seem to offer an argument based on therapeutic special pleading rather than persuading the reader that teachers divorce literacy practices from the lives of learners. Walsh’s chapter on imperialism and the varieties of English draws on fascinating evidence of the impact of the National School Textbooks used in Ireland from 1831 (so successful that they were later used in mainland Britain), but the chapter pleads only to teach English in its ‘variousness’.

Laugharne’s response is more adept at getting to the heart of the issue, bemoaning the ‘thickets of continual policy changes’. She contrasts the National Literacy Strategy in England as a top down attempt to drive up deficient standards (meaning Standard English) with ‘Iaith Pawb’, the Welsh response which comes from an egalitarian position and advocates plurality. Thus, she highlights the historical tension of functional language skills (teacher delivering a script) versus the aesthetics and creativity of literature.

The second section opens with Misson and Morgan’s argument for a redefinition of literature as ‘aesthetic’, by which a text is open to more interpretative possibilities. They see learners benefitting from an increased emotional repertoire. Usefully, they avoid the temptation to position the emotional above the rational, suggesting instead an intellectual dimension held in tension. Fox’s chapter on ‘comix’ argues for a reading of graphic texts (like Briggs, Spiegelman, Crumb, Dr Seuss or “Persepolis”) as examples which are complete, multi-layered, subtle, and which foreground their own construction. Somewhat contentiously, she argues that political and historical events are better studied in English, through the transparency of affective approaches which extend the capacity to read other texts.

In Chapter 8, Alexander takes on managerialist prose as dangerous jargon, competence in which is used as a state justification for functional literacy. She attacks the National Literacy Strategy as forcing a pedagogy of pragmatism and compliance, commodifying English in a crass model of economic learning. She contrasts this with the argument that form should be an expression of meaning, and that we need to read aesthetically. The reminder that more attention be given to listening to language is welcome.

Dymoke’s short response chapter is a clear plea to release literature from the stagnant backwater of assessment-driven, extract-based work, which she believes has resulted from a surveillance culture in schools. She sees little evidence of risk-taking or creativity, with even Ofsted reporting teachers are concerned that reading is no longer fun. She ends with the trenchant assertion – if literature is to do more than just survive, we must be prepared to resist the manual.

In the final section Street discuses multimodality, drawing on useful curriculum work including the example of a UK Creative Partnerships intervention of artists collaborating in school through risk-taking, self-determination and the posing of questions. Horner and Lu, in contrast, focus on the heterogeneity of language practices, of world ‘Englishes’, of English in flux. Drawing on a US context, the authors reject eradicationist, second language acquisition and accommodationist perspectives, advocating instead multilingual responses which advocate student agency, blurring the boundaries of linguistic worlds. My fear is, given the monolingual assumptions behind the Standards in Teacher Education, England at least is a long way from this aspiration.

Brutt-Griffler and Collins argue English in schools has the potential to become the foundation of multilingual literacy, drawing an intriguing data from Minneapolis and London (in both of which hundreds of languages are spoken). They pragmatically note pupils aspire to pass high status tests, but that those with high level home language proficiency often under perform in English. Their panacea is for schools to recognise the considerable resources bilingual students bring to the classroom. Miller’s response refers to the “No Child Left Behind” legislation in the US, based on narrow definitions of literacy which led to high stake standardised tasks, ironically leaving many children behind. She notes the multi-literacies of the 21st Century mean a mythic Standard English is dissolving into linguistic heterogeneity, and that there is a need to bridge in school and out of school practices.

Ellis’ final chapter takes a familiar run through English teacher education policies, before offering an example of engaged work contributing to rethinking English: ITE English interns writing with a local youth theatre, outside the text, in informal educational settings, an activity he admits open to claims of gestural activism.

And that, in a sense, is both the point and the drawback of this book. English is in crisis. The subject has been hijacked by a government sponsored assessment culture, in which narrow skills are privileged over creativity and imagination. There is chasm between some school teachers ‘delivering’ a monolinguistic government sponsored curriculum, and teacher educators arguing for the need to reclaim the intellectual project of English and develop a new constructive critical and reflective stage. This book, unreservedly recommended for ITE departments as an attempt at galvanising a stagnant subject, may not possess the coherence to offer a clear answer. The authors need to emerge from their conferences and take the policy-makers on, because some teachers are already exploring the digital literacies and multilingual imperatives this book raises.