Living language, breathing culture

October 27, 1994

Robert Jeffcoate's article (Back-to-grammar-school, THES, September 30) is an extremely unhelpful contribution to the ongoing debate about the teaching of English.

Most of it is a very tedious list of the technical errors made by half a dozen student teachers. From this paltry evidence, Mr Jeffcoate then offers us two unsubstantiated "conclusions" that course work lowers standards, and that prospective English teachers should follow "traditional" English degree courses.

An exhaustive survey of English teachers' views of course work by Save English Coursework, which has received more than 3,200 responses from the 4,000 secondary schools in England, shows that 95 per cent of respondents support a minimum of 80 per cent course work weighting in the system of assessment of English at 16. There is overwhelming evidence that course work facilitates the learning processes which are fundamental to development in English.

The course work submitted for GCSE and A level over several years demonstrates that the quality of students' writing improves when they undertake tasks that give them opportunities to identify real purposes and audiences, to conduct appropriate research, and to draft and edit their work. If Mr Jeffcoate believes that such opportunities "mask weaknesses", next time he writes for The THES, he should be given 45 minutes and a topic chosen by the editor, be made to sit in silence in a gymnasium with 120 other people, and have his dictionary confiscated.

Mr Jeffcoate's statements about English degrees are equally misleading. "Traditional" universities and former polytechnics offer a wide range of single honours degrees in English in which language and literature can be studied in different proportions and combinations. This reflects the similarly wide range of examinations at A level, and the diversity of views about what English is. It is no longer reasonable for a PGCE English course tutor to expect a group of English graduates to share a common body of subject knowledge or experience. My current PGCEgroup boasts experience of 18th-century women's literature, dystopian fiction, critical theory, children's literature, creative writing, practical drama and modern American literature Because of the welcome proliferation of English language courses and course components, however, the contribution that students can make is a sophisticated understanding of the processes of language that has classroom applications that go way beyond Mr Jeffcoate's preoccupations with spelling and grammar.

So what are the issues that Mr. Jeffcoate has travestied, and are there solutions? It has been suggested, at least since the publication of the Bullock report in 1975, that: "All teachers in training, irrespective of the age-range they intend to teach, should complete satisfactorily a substantial course in language and learning . . . The understanding of language acquired during pre-service training should be regarded as only the first stage in a continuing process, of which the next phase is the induction year."

While the report favoured a shift towards school-based training, with its emphasis on the development of professional competences, classroom experience and research, Bullock defined outlines for demanding language and learning courses which would require more time in the higher education institution classroom than is available for the entire subject studies programme on most PGCE courses.

Bullock also differed from the remedial support offered by Mr Jeffcoate: "In learning about the nature and operation of language, students should be made more explicitly aware of their own practices. Improvement in students' language performance should take place in this context rather than in 'remedial' courses."

The recommendations of the Kingman Report, 1988, are even more rigorous: "All intending teachers of English in secondary schools should undertake a course which enables them to acquire, understand and make use of knowledge about language", as outlined in the report . . . "Before the end of the century a prerequisite for entry to the teaching profession as an English specialist should normally be a first degree in English which incorporates a study of both contemporary and historical linguistic form and use."

If the value of the diverse expertise English students bring to PGCE courses is acknowledged, tight constraints should not be placed on their first degree choices, and the Teacher Training Agency should require intending secondary teachers to experience a substantial language and learning course in higher education institutions.

Such a course would be planned to develop and reinforce the knowledge of the operation and nature of language held by new secondary teachers across the curriculum. It would draw attention to their own language use and also help them to offer better informed support to the language development of their pupils. The need for such courses has implications for the structure of secondary PGCE courses and makes a move to school-based training undesirable.

As my quotation from Bullock indicates, it was also recognised 20 years ago that teachers' understanding of language needs the continuing in-service development which the undermining of local education authorities and the associated decline in their course provision has threatened. Fortunately, higher education institutions, and organisations such as the National Association for the Teaching of English in Sheffield, and the English and Media Centre in London, have been able to meet an increasing number of teachers' needs.

An excellent resource for initial teacher training and INSET courses is the materials exploring language development and the processes of language produced by the Language in the National Curriculum Project. These materials were unsuccessfully suppressed by the government which Mr Jeffcoate considers to be so helpful to the cause of language and learning.

John Moss is senior lecturer in the English department at Canterbury Christchurch College.

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