Primary English: Knowledge and Understanding (2nd Edition)

Author(s) Medwell, Jane; Moore, George; Wray, David and Griffiths, Vivienne
Publisher Exeter: Learning Matters
Published 2002
Pages 224
ISBN 1903300533
Reviewed by James McGonigal
University of Glasgow
Review published 1 December 2004

This book was first published in 2001, was reprinted twice in that year and now appears in a second edition. Its popular status owes something to the nature of its intended readership, trainees on PGCE and BEd courses of initial teacher training for primary schools, who must demonstrate secure subject knowledge in English in order to "be confident and authoritative" in their teaching of language and literacy (TTA, 2002, p. 2). Since the teaching of knowledge about language and particularly grammar, perhaps, is an area where many student teachers feel notably insecure, then this text obviously responds to and meets an educational need.

That it does so in such a clear and stimulating way is a tribute to its authors, who write out of a confident sense of their subject and its locus in primary classrooms. Even they struggle somewhat with the combined apparatus and terminology of Qualified Teacher Status, National Curriculum and National Literacy Strategy. But in making a brave sort of sense of it for their students, they also provide a service for those like myself who teach outside the English system, and have watched with a mixture of fascination, pity, admiration and regret various attempts made over decades now to systematize the English language curriculum and its teaching.

What this book offers is a positive framework of knowledge for enlightened teaching of English to take place. It deals confidently with spoken and written English, with Standard English and dialects, with words and their morphology, with the grammar of sentences and their punctuation, with textual cohesion and the particular linguistic qualities of stories, poetry, drama and informational texts. To make this knowledge real and relevant, there are practical tasks inviting readers to apply or discover knowledge about language, and these are often focused on literary and other texts that are used in primary classrooms. There are pedagogical links made too, to the National Literacy Strategy and to writing by and for children, as well as brief outlines of relevant research, chapter summaries of key points covered, and guidance on further reading.

We can admire the way the writers aim to recover advances made in earlier national development initiatives in England, such as those in oracy and writing (which have often seemed sidelined by the newer literacy agenda) and to make links to advances in our knowledge of assessment in its shaping of children's motivation for learning. To that extent, the book moves beyond the immediate concerns of its readership and carries forward the professional history and values of its subject.

Does it transcend national boundaries and the particular concerns that English apparently poses for the English? I think it does, although here we do begin to sense that the demands of the National Curriculum and its orders are exerting their drag. There is little sense of the way that "language awareness" of European and minority languages can inform pupil learning; or even that the other "national" languages in a changing Britain, such as Welsh and Scots and Scottish Gaelic, should have a place in the consciousness of those who teach English to future generations.

But as a coherent outline of what could and should be taught at particular stages of children's language development, this book can work very well with students learning to teach in other educational systems. It enables them to compare different rationales for teaching a national tongue, and to reflect upon the strategies by which teachers can effectively achieve this. Their mentors in schools could benefit too from this effective outline of subject demands.

Students on PGCE Secondary English courses too can learn from the content and the strategies suggested here, to ensure that children's experience of English blends competence with confidence in a progressive way. A renewed sense of the importance of cross-curricular literacy teaching in schools now also means that practical approaches to enhancing awareness of textual structures can provide useful professional development for any teacher wanting to use the context of his or her own discipline to help young people learn its language.