One Sunday morning at the beginning of March 2020, just before the publication of this book, Barbara Bleiman tweeted a thread of 20 things that matter to her in English. The thread was not only retweeted and liked by many, many teachers and others interested in the state of English teaching, but provoked a sense both of excitement and relief: finally somebody succinctly capturing what English teaching should and could be.
In What Matters in English Teaching – Collected Blogs and Other Writing, these ideas and principles are explored and wrestled with in the context of her work as teacher, writer, researcher and course leader. It’s a collection which addresses the central issues in English teaching now (and in the past), raising and answering important questions, and argues for a rich, diverse and creative experience of English (teaching and learning). It’s a collection which draws on the work of a wide range of educational researchers and practitioners, to offer an incredibly readable and committed exploration of what really does matter in English teaching.
Get a preview of what matters by enjoying the full thread of 20 points, reproduced here:
A few things that 'matter' for me in English teaching:
1. There must be opportunities to 'think' as well as 'know'. Knowing involves thinking.
2. Response is important, before, during & after reading.
3. The exploratory is a route to the formal, critical.
4. Choice matters... to develop taste & pleasure, in reading & writing.
5. Books should be age-appropriate & diverse (the canon, YA fiction & much more.)
6. The creative & the critical should work in conjunction with each other.
7. Dialogic classrooms are essential for many of the above.
8. Talk... about texts should push towards deeper thinking & exploration of meanings, not meaning.
9. Assessment should be properly formative – what does this student really need to move on.
10. Small detail should be at the service of big ideas.
11. Formulae & scaffolds should be... treated with caution & used sparingly.
12. Vocabulary is just 1 element in a whole structure of language, all of which need to be taught in the context of reading, writing and talk.
13. The teacher is expert, guide, craftsperson, collaborator, cheerleader, mentor – all of these!
14. Development of taste for reading should be a core aim.
15. Most things work, in different contexts with different texts – selecting carefully from a repertoire is better than blanket rejection of approaches.
16. Valuing students and what they bring is of paramount importance.
17. Bringing one's own enthusiasm(s) to bear is essential.
18. Opportunities for teachers to talk about the texts they're teaching are essential.
19. English isn't History. The focus should be on what illuminates the text. And...
20. Texts don't always need a lot of front-loaded 'prior knowledge'.
Often they tell you a lot of what you need to know & the pleasure in reading them is learning that from them. What's needed can be offered along the way. I could go on but I'll stop there!
A Timeline – Key Events in English Teaching
Way Back Then – Ruskin Conference on English Teaching 1991
What English Is and What it Could and Should Be
Knowledge in English
Group Work and Talk in English Classrooms
The Creative and the Critical
Teaching the Novel
Teaching English Language
Research, Theory, Practice and CPD
Postscript: Harold Rosen Lecture, 2019
A Kindle edition is available from Amazon – click the logo on the left.Resource type: Paperback teacher book
I tremendously admire the patient challenge to the false dichotomies, quick fixes, cart-before-the-horse notions about necessary prior knowledge with which we’ve been plagued in recent decades. I admire too the careful, critical embracing of both/and rather than either/or in so many areas of English – in fact, across just about the whole waterfront. Barbara Bleiman stands up for the un-pigeon-hole-able centrality of meaning, valuing of the student’s contribution to the culture of the classroom, the necessity of learning by doing and learning in doing rather than learning before doing. Brilliant.
Finally managed to get hold of a copy of Barbara Bleiman's book which arrived this morning. Reading it through, I think that this is one of the most important books on English teaching ever written, intelligent, stylish, and thought-provoking writing. Every English teacher should read it.
Marcello Giovanelli on Twitter, 18th April 2020
Such an important book which captures so much about the current and previous state of English education. It'll resonate with me for a long time, and feature on many reading lists of mine.
Ian Cushing on Twitter, 5th April 2020
It is a complete joy to read and so keenly needed at this moment; a major contribution to discussion re need for urgent English curriculum change; robust argument and evidence showing why & how. So important. Needs to be heard. 'Big' and 'hard' thinkng here. 5 stars.
Elizabeth Draper on Twitter, 6th May 2020