2.3 ‘English’ as a school subject
In official UK curricula, language appears as a curriculum subject under a range of labels. In all four UK countries – England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – the curricula for the 3–5 years age range (ACCAC, 2000a; DENI, 1997; QCA/DfEE, 2000; SCCC, 1999) include the word ‘language’ in the subject title. In the formal school curriculum, the subject is known as ‘English’ or ‘English Language’ (ACCAC, 2000b; CCEA, 2004; DfEE/QCA, 1999a; SOED, 1991). Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland also have curricula for the languages of Welsh, Irish and Gaelic respectively.
Earlier, you had the opportunity to reflect on your own school experiences of mathematics and science, where it seems that many people recall negative and alienating experiences. Before we ask you to consider your personal history in this area of your education, we would like you first to think about what it means when we refer to ‘English’ as a school subject.
Activity 4: Your experience of English at school
Think about your experience of ‘English’ as a subject in school (if your school used another language, e.g. Welsh, for most of its teaching, make that the focus of your reflection):
What kinds of thing did you learn?
How were these things taught to you?
The course team (all educated in English-speaking schools) did this activity on a ‘first thoughts’ basis. Some thought immediately of learning to read and write, something usually regarded as a priority in primary schools. One described her experiences of English in secondary education as ‘grammar and Shakespeare!’ Reading and writing (including grammar), along with the study of literature, are the mainstays of the traditional curriculum for English.
If your school experience is more recent, maybe you included areas such as speaking and listening, drama and the study of ‘media’ texts. Today's curricula emphasise the use of language for communication and thinking. We wonder if, at school, your English lessons focused on you as a user of language, or if the knowledge and skills you were to learn were seen as things to be ‘given’ to you by the teacher.
Just as people's knowledge in mathematics and science includes elements that are learnt in ‘life’ contexts, it is clear that their knowledge of language includes both ‘school’ and ‘non-school’ knowledge. However, we would suggest that the relationship between in-school and out-of-school knowledge is different in the case of language. In particular, we would note the following points:
We learn a lot about language before we ever go to school. Most under fives develop a high degree of competence as language users, often without any professional or expert support. In fact, children begin to behave in language-like ways (e.g. making eye contact, copying expressions, making speech sounds) almost as soon as they are born.
The language that we learn out of school is extensive and can be very sophisticated. It is very rare for us to have any idea, no matter how complex, that we are unable to express through our home language. People who have never been to school are nonetheless fully competent users of spoken language.
We seem to be programmed to learn language. Some even believe that language is something we are born with (Chomsky, 1965; Pinker, 1994), others that as adults we instinctively support children's language learning (Bruner, 1983). There is no human society that does not have a fully developed language; being human and being a language user go hand in hand.
The English curriculum has traditionally focused on literacy – an aspect of language that is seen as requiring explicit teaching. Of course, spoken language will always be an important part of schooling as the medium through which most learning takes place.
All this makes our attitude to language as a subject quite complex. Many people are happy to say that they know nothing about grammar, just as they might say they are ‘no good at maths’. Studies of the formal language knowledge of trainee teachers (their knowledge of nouns, clauses, etc.) suggest that such assessments have some basis in fact (Williamson and Hardman, 1995; Wray, 1993). Few people, on the other hand, would say that they don't know how to talk to a friend or find it difficult to listen to the radio. Where language is part of everyday life, we are happy to be experts. We often fail to appreciate the range of skills involved in speaking or writing. One of the aims of this section is to highlight just how much you know about language and how complex that knowledge is.