The subject of English
Theory versus practice?
It is inevitable that the great majority of trainee English teachers are suspicious of what they would dismiss as ‘theory’ and with theory they would equate curriculum history. They want, in Schon’s sense to be ‘in the action’ and becoming a practitioner [Schon, 1983]. However, we are ‘training’ them for the future and not just tomorrow. Additionally, and more fundamentally important, we know that they do have deeply embedded theories about everything, the subject of English and how to teach it being one. We also are currently required to assess and develop their ‘subject knowledge’, whatever the faults with this notion, it does provide one means to assist with helping them to understand the relevance of theory.
Subject English has played a prominent place in schooling and universities since the late Nineteenth Century and there are a number of accounts of this history [Eagleton, 1987]. However there has been no significant attempt to research and write the history of the subject as yet. From the trainees perspective the notion of living memory is a valid one, that is, what can serving teachers still recall and draw upon as their lived experience of the profession. There is an increasingly powerful research tradition addressing the narrative of teacher’s lives which is certainly of use to trainees as they encounter the profession as consciously joining it. [see for example Goodson and Hargreaves, 1996].
Starting with ‘living memory’ – the enduring contribution of the 1970s
For trainees The Bullock Report  makes a reasonable starting point, partly because it was driven by the research oriented atmosphere engendered by the work of James Britton, Douglas Barnes and others [Barnes, Britton and Rosen, 1969]; this was also the era of the Schools’ Council, a body that exclusively funded research in schools. This landmark Report recommended ‘Language across the curriculum’ and the ‘every teacher is a teacher of language’, it also recognised that English had become one language amongst many and that all teachers needed to recognise linguistic diversity in their classrooms. It was not the first report of national significance but it does exist within ‘living memory’ and it certainly ushered in a new era in which classroom research and the analysis of pedagogy became central tenants of research and government policy. For trainees it is also valuable to appreciate that the Report came as a response to a perceived crisis of falling reading standards, and was instigated by then Education Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The final point of huge significance is that Bullock, accepting the ideas of Britton and Barnes, really marks the beginning of the establishment of Speaking and Listening within English.
Bullock was about a much bigger picture than ‘English’. Dixon’s ‘Growth Through English’  was much more specific and was his attempt to sum up the understandings about English engendered through the Dartmouth conference of 1966, when English educators were invited [and funded] to meet with colleagues from North America for a month’s discussions. I mention this partly to illustrate the value of a global perspective and also because Dixon had to theorise about the essential nature of English. He was not the first to undertake this, Leavis, for very different reasons, being a particularly influential predecessor, but Dixon’s attempt included a key recognition that English consisted of several ‘models’.
The 1980s – the decade of oral work and course work and a National Curriculum
It is worth trainees knowing that in the 1980s the debate about what defined English continued but more importantly that key practices such as oral work and its assessment and the development of course work, especially at GCSE became established. During this period responses to Literature could also be much more ‘creative’. Again this is a significant period of ‘living memory’. It is partly important for trainees to understand as in a reactive relationship to the present. In the 1980s English teachers had incredible autonomy AND responsibility, they were very powerful professionals and there was no regulation through Ofsted.
Kingman  deserves a mention because his report does have a lineage to Bullock and because his recommendations really did engage and excite English teachers, ‘Knowledge About Language’ really offered a way forward that was rigorous but not a return to ‘old fashioned’ grammar teaching. It generated the Language in the National Curriculum project which stands out, not because of what it managed to achieve, but because its political censorship remains an extraordinary moment in the history of the subject. Its significance being, that politicians no longer had any qualms about controlling English as ‘their’ key subject.
Kingman had, of course, already been overtaken by the National Curriculum of 1989 [Cox, 1989] and by the Cox committee and the subsequent Cox Report. The NC for English was not based on explicit research but had an elaborate rationale of real significance, for example the Cox Report set out cogent reasons for the inclusion of Media Education within English, giving it statutory significance and making teaching about the media mandatory for English teachers for the first time. Cox can be compared to Bullock in several ways especially as their methods of genuinely gathering evidence and consulting the profession, stand out as exemplary approaches, not repeated since.
Models of English
For trainees the key point is the attention given to defining English and to Cox’s five models. These are worth quoting in full:
- A "personal growth" view focuses on the child: it emphasises the relationship between language and learning in the individual child, and the role of literature in developing children's imaginative and aesthetic lives.
- A "cross-curricular" view focuses on the school: it emphasises that all teachers (of English and of other subjects) have a responsibility to help children with the language demands of different subjects on the school curriculum: otherwise areas of the curriculum may be closed to them. In England, English is different from other school subjects, in that it is both a subject and a medium of instruction for other subjects.
- An "adult needs" view focuses on communication outside the school: it emphasises the responsibility of English teachers to prepare children for the language demands of adult life, including the workplace, in a fast-changing world. Children need to learn to deal with the day-to-day demands of spoken language and of print; they also need to be able to write clearly, appropriately and effectively.
- A "cultural heritage" view emphasises the responsibility of schools to lead children to an appreciation of those works of literature that have been widely regarded as amongst the finest in the language.
- A "cultural analysis" view emphasises the role of English in helping children towards a critical understanding of the world and cultural environment in which they live. Children should know about the processes by which meanings are conveyed, and about the ways in which print and other media carry values.
Researching the models
This was a key moment in my own development as a researcher and I do not intend to discuss ‘Goodwyn’ in the third person and I hope that a brief discussion of some of my work is of use to other researchers in our field. I was struck by Cox’s assertion that these models were recognised by all English teachers and given equal weight, feeling very sure that this was not as neat as Cox described; he did not offer any evidence apart from the consultations of the Committee.
Over several years, through a combination of questionnaires to schools, questionnaires to PGCE students and their tutors, lesson observations and interviews, it became clear that the Personal Growth model was absolutely the preferred model of the profession. Of course this was the ‘espoused model’ but we did also find evidence through practice. Equally ‘Cultural Analysis’ was coming through and challenging ‘Cultural Heritage’. English teachers initially viewed the NC for English as matching their priorities but, by the mid 90s when it had been substantially revised, they saw it as opposed to their priorities. Another interesting finding [linking back to Bullock] is that they universally rejected language across the Curriculum as a model of English, being adamant that it was a model essentially for other teachers. My use of the Cox models and my research methodology has been usefully [and quite rightly] challenged by others, most notably in Bethan Marshall’s book length study [Marshall, 2000]
The arrival of Literacy and Strategies – what next?
By 1997 the National Literacy Strategy was underway and we have moved from ‘memory’, almost into the present tense. It is striking that one of the most salient criticisms of the NLS was that it had neither a rationale nor a basis in research. Its justification and the research evidence were published retrospectively, [Beard, 1999] leading to a considerable debate. This pattern was repeated for the Framework.
However, 1997 is almost a decade ago and certainly History for the youngest trainees. [My change to the word trainee is deliberate at this point as other changes such as the establishment of the Teacher Training Agency, the redefining of HMI into ‘Ofsted’, and so on, have become part of the educational scene]. My research agenda changed at this point to examine the ways in which secondary schools were preparing for the ‘Literacy Hour’ generation [Goodwyn, 2002], I was partly interested in ‘Literacy across the Curriculum’ notions and whether schools would adopt a Bullock style working party model to review their situation and plan ahead [certainly many did]. Another interesting finding was that secondary English teachers were spending time in primary schools, learning from their primary colleagues. And then the Framework for English was in place and I was concerned to find how English teachers adapted/resisted, accommodated/subverted this new juggernaut. My earliest finding was how much they detested the training; to their credit the trainers soon, themselves, adapted their style. One question I pursued was the status of the term ‘Literacy’, how did it fit with ‘English’? This was partly worth asking because in other countries, notably Australia and the USA, teacher organisations began to talk of teachers of ‘English and Literacy’, making them both distinct and complementary. My most recent findings are that in England, at least, they are seen as to some extent oppositional. Overall, I can say, based on several years’ research that more experienced English teachers are not convinced by the Strategy, their key attitudinal word is ‘pragmatic’. They find the prescribed model of Literacy both limited and limiting, they regret the lack of attention to literature and to whole texts.
Where is English going? Has English 21 made a difference? Will functional English dominate the future? We need some research:
Beard, R. (1999) National Literacy Strategy, Review of Research and other Related Evidence, London, DEE.
Bullock, A. (1975) A Language for Life: The Bullock Report, HMSO, London
Cox, B. (1989) English for ages 5-16 (The Cox Report), DES, London
Dixon, J. (1969) Growth through English, Oxford, Oxford University Press
Eagleton, T. (1983) Literary Theory and Introduction, Oxford, Blackwell.
Goodson, I. and Hargreaves, A. (ed) (1996) Teacher’s Professional Lives, Falmer Press, London.
Goodwyn, A. (1992) ‘English Teachers and the Cox Models’, English in Education, 26 , 4-10.
Goodwyn, A. (ed) (2002) Improving Literacy at KS2 and KS3, London, Paul Chapman Publishing.
Kingman, J et al.(1988) Report of the committee of enquiry into the teaching of the English Language (The Kingman Report) HMSO, London
Marshall, B. (2000) English Teachers – The Unofficial Guide: Researching the Philosophies of English Teachers, Routledge Falmer , London
Schon, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner, Basic Books, New York.