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‘Real English’ Versus ‘Exam English’ – The Case For Authentic Experience of the Subject

This article by Barbara Bleiman appears in the latest issue of The Use of English, the English Association Journal for Teachers of English. (Volume 69, No 3, Summer 2018). The editor, Jane Campion, has kindly given us permission to put it up here as an EMC blog.
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At EMC we are in the privileged position of meeting many hundreds of secondary English specialists every year. They come on our one day training courses, we meet them at conferences, in our work with our own PGCE students and when we go into schools, either to deliver CPD or in working collaboratively with them on projects such as ‘It’s Good to Talk’, our group work project. What this means is that we are closely in touch with the daily realities of classrooms and the huge pressures on both teachers and Heads of English. But we also have two aspects of our lives that distinguish us from many English teachers. First, we are not actually in the classroom. We’re not subject to those intense – sometimes overwhelming – pressures. We have the time to read research, draw widely on expertise from both within and outside our own team, have extensive conversations with people whose views also count, such as Subject Officers in Awarding Bodies, colleagues in Higher Education, young adult writers, academic educationalists and so on. This gives us opportunities to think broadly and draw on pedagogical and theoretical understandings about knowledge, language and learning and developments in the subject itself, whether it be changing practices around literary theory or new understandings about how pupils’ reading is best developed and nurtured. It allows us to weigh ‘what works’ and ‘what gets results’ against ‘what’s good for students’ education’ and try to find accommodations and methods that achieve the former without sacrificing the latter.

Another benefit for us is that we have been around for a long time. EMC was set up originally in the 1970s under the ILEA, as The English Centre. One or two of us at EMC still hail from that period, remembering going on EMC courses as NQTs and in our early careers and being fuelled with resources, ideas and intellectual energy, in the way that we hope we can still do for current teachers. This gives us a long perspective, and an overview of what’s been happening over forty years of English teaching in the UK and beyond. It allows us to think about changes, not just in assessment, text choices, what’s valued in the subject and what has taken a back seat, but also on what teachers of English understand the subject to be, what they feel confident about and, conversely, what they feel uncertain of, or frustrated by.

This article draws on some of that, to identify a few underlying issues about the subject, the way in which English teachers perceive it and their role in teaching it to students. It is not a comprehensive account, nor is it based on research, but hopefully it will raise some ideas that are worth thinking about, and it might provide the basis for departmental discussions about what we’re doing when we teach English in the current climate and with the current assessment regimes. It might also stimulate some more detailed research that could feed into these discussions.

In 1991, Professor Brian Cox was tasked with the job of writing a report on English teaching in schools. It was called English for Ages 5 to 16 . It identified five different ways of understanding what the subject English should provide for students:

  • Personal growth
  • Cross-curricular
  • Adult needs
  • Cultural heritage
  • Cultural analysis

It didn’t advocate one over another, or prescribe what it should or shouldn’t be, but just set out what teachers and the educational community understood the role of the subject to be and recognised the importance of each of all of these things. Different schools, departments or even individual teachers within a department, might give greater weight to one or other of these aspects of the subject and that seemed to be tolerated, in those more ‘permissive’ times. Personal growth perhaps looks like a rather dated phrase now, not just because there’s been a swing away from that kind of language in relation to education but also because the focus has shifted somewhat from ‘what students get out of the subject’ at an emotional level – whether they like it or not, what it does to them as an individual – and more towards what knowledge they have obtained – what it has taught them in purely academic terms. It doesn’t necessarily mean to say it’s still not considered by some to be important, but perhaps it’s become subsumed to some extent in newer terms like ‘creativity’ or ‘critical literacy’ and maybe its seen more as a prerequisite for learning knowledge, rather than a ‘good’ in its own right. What isn’t on that 1991 list at all, however, is ‘Assessment’ or ‘Passing GCSEs and A Levels’. And yet, in the current climate of high stakes testing and accountability, surely this would have to appear, probably quite high up in the minds of the students themselves, as well as their teachers.  We all have anecdotal stories to tell about Year 7 classrooms in which a GCSE question is up on the board as the starting-point for learning about poetry, or where students are thinking about what they will have learned before they have learned anything at all. Local authority adviser, James Durran, quoted an example on Twitter recently that can stand in for all of these kinds of experiences. On going into the classroom of a really good teacher and asking a Year 7 ‘What is English?’ the student said, ‘Analysing texts’ and when asked ‘Why?’ the reply came ‘To prepare for tests.’

Amanda Spielman has noted this shrinking of educational horizons to assessment and only assessment. In a key speech in June 2017 at the Festival of Education at Wellington College, she said:

One of the areas that I think we lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum.[ii]

The teachers we encounter at EMC seem to feel as if they’re between a rock and a hard place. They want their subject to be the enriching, rewarding and intellectually challenging subject that they themselves found it to be. They want it to fulfil many of Cox’s purposes. But their school’s regimes for tracking pupils and the pressure towards results seems to run counter to that and departmental time is taken up with targets and data rather than allowing them to develop a consensus on what they want the subject to be for their students. On the courses we run, for GCSE and A Level (and now increasingly at KS3), there is always that tension between what teachers would like to be able to do and what they feel they have to do.

At EMC we have been drawing on our knowledge of the past, our close scrutiny of the full spectrum of examination specifications and our opportunities for broader thinking, to argue that the two are not as mutually exclusive as sometimes appears. Indeed, we’d argue that good results are only possible if students are really engaging with the subject in ways that are valid and legitimate in terms of the wider practices that we know to constitute it, in the academy and in literary and linguistic life beyond the classroom. If English in schools becomes ‘exam English’ or ‘school English’, with no real connection to the ‘real English’ or ‘full English’ that can be found in other contexts, then students will engage in ways of thinking and writing that will neither fulfil any of Cox’s roles for the subject, nor get them the best possible grades in exams.

Let’s take one practical example of this from A Level English – the assessment of students’ use of contextual knowledge to explore literary texts in ways that illuminate the text. There’s nothing wrong with teaching students to think about texts in their contexts. It’s a central plank of much contemporary criticism, alongside the more ‘intrinsic’ critical approaches that are associated with close reading. However, the focus on contexts as an assessment tool, and an explicit Assessment Objective, both at A Level and GCSE, has brought with it a distortion of its true role in ‘real English’. As critics like Peter Barry would argue, large amounts of ‘distant’ historical or biographical context turn English into History, and it is really the ‘adjacent’ contexts, where something is very closely relevant to a particular text, that can shine fresh light on the text itself. Often those adjacent contexts are cultural, or generic or literary – part of the intertextual web in which any single text sits. But sadly, now that context is assessed, with a weighting given to it and a set number of marks, it is in danger of losing its way. Many students understandably come to believe that 30% of marks on context means 30% of an essay spent writing about the context, often a rather distant one, often historical rather than literary, all too often including the kind of historical generalisations that would make a genuine historian turn pale and shudder. We’ve all read those paragraphs in essays in which all women were downtrodden in Shakespeare’s day, every American text can be seen as exemplifying the American Dream and anything that happens to a woman in any Victorian novel is the result of patriarchy.

Interestingly, the examiners’ reports for A Level all recognise the problem, and have done so for a very long time, ever since contextual knowledge first appeared as an assessment objective. There has been a consistent message over the years, almost a plea from the examiners, to put context in its proper place, to value quality over quantity and to recognise that simply telling the examiner a great deal about the world beyond a text will gain students very few marks. For the past 18 years at least, since Curriculum 2000, we have been collecting quotations from Examiners’ Reports to this effect and using them on courses with teachers. Nothing has changed – the message remains the same – except that perhaps now, with a new, higher weighting at A Level, the message has become even more urgent. Talking to colleagues who focus more on GCSE, and in conversation with some of the Awarding Bodies, the same seems to be true there.

So despite the Awarding Bodies’ explicit statements in Examiners’ Reports, and the training done by organisations like our own, there still seems to be immense pressure on teachers to be doing the very things that are neither helpful to their students in getting good grades, nor good practice within the subject itself.

One answer to this, for us, has been to try to encourage the teachers we meet to step back from the assessment and to encourage their students, at the start of the course, to do the same. Just as a Year 7 doesn’t need to see a GCSE question, so a GCSE or A Level student doesn’t need to know that 30% of a component goes on context, right from day one. Rather, they need to start applying contextual knowledge in well-judged ways and learn what it means to do that.  On a recent training day on ‘Contexts and Criticism’, my colleague Lucy Webster and I started the day with a broad consideration of what the subject English is, drawing on the work of academics like Robert Eaglestone and Peter Barry. Eaglestone describes the two fundamental literary critical approaches that characterise the subject, those that are intrinsic and those that are extrinsic.

Some critics claim that intrinsic types of criticism lead to ‘objective’ readings, the idea that texts can be independent of their historical, social and personal context, and that ‘literary-ness’ makes a text a valuable work of art, which is worth studying in its own right […] In contrast, extrinsic methods of interpretation take it for granted that the literary text is part of the world and rooted in its context. An extrinsic critic considers that the job of criticism is to move from the text outwards to some other, not specifically literary, object or idea. Such critics use literary texts to explore other ideas about things in the world, and, in turn, use other ideas to explain the literary text.

Doing English: A Guide for Literature Students, Robert Eaglestone [iii]

We argued that, if students are to understand what is legitimate and insightful use of contextual knowledge, they need to know what place contextual knowledge has in the subject at large. They need to read examples of what it can do to your reading of a text and see how critics can make brilliant use of it, not to show off, not as mere decoration, nor as proof of knowledge, but as a way of reading a text differently and better, constructing an argument that draws on ideas beyond the text.  Before ever mentioning assessment, or AOs, before suggesting that you need to ‘get a bit of context in to score marks’ or say, ‘Contextually,’ in order to draw the examiner’s attention to the fact that you’re talking about contexts, it’s worth offering extrinsic information on a text under discussion and asking students to think hard about the validity and usefulness of applying that information. They ought to be able to reject the idea of using it because it’s not fruitful, as well as deciding that it really does help support a particular interpretation or give a fresh angle on the text. Later, as they begin to get closer to the exams, it will be worth looking at examples of student writing where it’s done really well, in relation to a particular component, essay or mark scheme, at a point where they themselves will have some ideas about what kind of contextual comment really pays its way. But shaping all the teaching around marks and mark schemes is unlikely to produce good writing in any terms – in the broader world of ‘real English’ or in the narrower world of the exams themselves.

One very important reason for ensuring that students have an authentic experience of the subject, as the means by which they also achieve highly, is to do with the future of the subject as a whole. EMC conducted a survey in September 2017 into some worrying reports that English A Levels were not recruiting well. There are obvious structural reasons for the dip in numbers that all subjects suffered this September with the shrinking of AS entries, but it seemed, anecdotally, that English might be doing worse than most. Our survey of over 100 schools and colleges, of different types and sizes, suggests that these fears were born out. English Literature, in our surveyed centres, was down by about 16%, English Language by 17% and Language and Literature by 26%. We asked for teachers’ views on the possible reasons for this. The reasons given were complex, and included the view that STEM is being highly promoted in schools, as well at university level, at the expense of English and the Humanities. But there was a fairly significant perception also that, though the new GCSEs were in some ways rigorous and could be seen to be good preparation for A Level, they were also narrow in focus and students had not enjoyed them. The students viewed English as difficult, high pressure and unengaging. The teachers felt that the content of the new GCSEs had, in some cases, been a ‘turn-off’. Now some of this might be the effect of the first two years of teaching and the first set of exams, always a difficult time for teachers and students. Some too might be to do with the pressure on English teachers being passed on to students. But whatever it is, it is clear that for the life cycle of English as a subject (from school to university to degree to PGCE and back into school), we need to address the fact that students may be being switched off the subject.

If the backwash from these new GCSEs begins to be felt at KS3 too, as seems to be increasingly the case, if KS3 becomes no more than an extended period of preparation for exams several years down the line, then we are in serious trouble. Stories of students disliking the subject or being unclear about its value will be heard more and more frequently and will put the subject itself at risk. Our students need to understand what ‘real English’ is, if they are going to want to take it further. They need to have the excitement of entering into the kinds of disciplinary conversations that make the subject what it is. Eaglestone describes this well for A Level students and new undergraduates:

Just as a mathematician (obviously) doesn’t learn all the (infinite) answers to all the. (infinite) mathematical problems but ways of thinking about and solving them, and just as a geographer learns to think about space and locations in certain specific ways, so English teaches students to think ‘as’ critics. This may once have been, but is not longer, a sort of monolithic, fixed identity; it is no longer. Rather, it is a mobile, developing sense of a range of questions and ideas about the literary, widely defined, and […] characterized by dissensus. Learning to ‘think as a critic’ is a process, which is why the second part of [Doing English] introduces long-standing debates and disagreements that have shaped the discipline and how it thinks: over value and the canon, understanding Shakespeare, authorial intention, figural language, narrative and creative writing.

Doing English: A Guide for Literature Students, Robert Eaglestone [iv]

At EMC, we’ve been arguing that this should be the case at every level – at KS3, as well as at GCSE and A Level. So, for instance, when students of all ages learn about poetry, they should be engaging with the big and exciting ideas about what poetry is and what it can do, how it differs from prose and the impact it has on readers – not just using it as a means of teaching literary terms like alliteration and metaphor, as labels to pin to examples. Though they are not examined on their knowledge about language at GCSE, KS3 should be an opportunity to investigate and explore issues and ideas about language in use, in ways that linguists would recognise as consistent with their practices at a higher level, because it will increase their alertness to how language works and give them access to thrilling ideas about language that will spark their imaginations and thinking. They should read widely, read diverse texts and –  as the American educationalist Arthur N. Applebee [v] has said so eloquently – understand much more about the canon by seeing it freshly, through the lens of other, diverse cultures and traditions. If we want students to wow both us and their examiners with the cogency and validity of their arguments, the vigour of their thinking and the integrity of their approach, we need to teach them in that spirit. And we’d argue that that isn’t just idealistic fluff, or the thing that we’d all love to have time for but can’t do. It’s the pragmatic answer to high achievement, as well as the way of making students love the subject, and so safeguarding its future.


The Cox Report: English for Ages 5 to 16 Chapter 2: English in the National Curriculum Paragraphs 2.20-2.27

[ii] Amanda Spielman’s speech at the Festival of Education, published 23 June 2017

[iii] Eaglestone, Robert (2017) Doing English: A Guide for Literature Students, Fourth Edition (London: Routledge) p.50

[iv] Eaglestone, Robert (2017) Doing English: A Guide for Literature Students, Fourth Edition (London: Routledge) p.xviii

[v] Applebee, Arthur N. (1996) Curriculum as Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning Chicago: University of Chicago Press)


The English Association and The Use of English

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A fascinating, timely article and one that speaks directly to universities as well. The response to the new A Level curriculum from students and teachers has had an impact on the undergraduate experience, too. The narrow focus at KS3 and GCSE (and at A Level sometimes) does not help students to develop a sense of enquiry or exploration in the subject. By Colette Ramuz on 05th Dec 2018

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