…in any great struggle of ideas (and the relationship between government and the profession of English teachers has for many years now, alas, been more of a wasteful struggle than a productive partnership) there is always the official story and the unofficial story.
If we accept both the profoundly structured nature of writing and its rolling, unpredictable creativity, we may be in a better position to understand it and, from there, to help our pupils with it.
Ultimately, whatever ‘method’ or ‘methods’… is or are used to teach reading, it or they will fail unless children learn, from the very earliest age, that reading, apart from being a thing of immense use-value, is also one of the principal sources of joy, delight and pleasure that life affords.
In 1974, when I began to teach, the idea was gaining ground that pupil-to-pupil talk, properly handled, is an essential means of learning. The gaining of this ground was not without its difficulties, for ‘talking in class’ had for decades been an act of punishable misbehaviour, rather than ‘an essential means of learning’, and there were still many teachers and senior managers in schools who regarded a silent classroom as a good classroom, and believed that any level of decibels above a barely audible hum emanating from a classroom meant that the teacher couldn’t control the children.
To increase our own and our pupils’ knowledge about language is self-evidently a worthwhile endeavour; but we should remember meanwhile that the magnificent, mysterious reality of language will always elude complete attempts at analysis.
The seven years during which I worked as an English teacher in two London comprehensive schools showed me how impressive was the linguistic repertoire of the children I taught. Many of them had skills as speakers, as storytellers, as improvisers of drama, which I genuinely admired and wished I had, successful product of a selective academic education as I was.
Because so much of [children's] learning occurs within the medium of language, the more we understand about the workings of language, the more likely it is that we will be able to provide circumstances in which children will learn successfully.
The job we do comprises: getting and sustaining a working theory; organising the curriculum in time; devising activities, making and choosing materials; intervening in our students’ work to help them make progress, and describing that progress; explaining to the outside world, especially to parents, what we’re doing and why.
The history of the last 40 years seems to show that, of all the major areas of learning which constitute the school curriculum in the United Kingdom, English has been the hardest to define and describe. It has also been the area which has been most contested; and the contest has many times been conducted before an audience far wider than the active participants in that contest, represented on the one hand by English teachers in secondary schools and teachers of language in primary schools, together with their advisers and supporters; and on the other hand by the government and its officials and advisers.