What is the purpose of teaching English?


Whenever I see this poster, I am reminded of what we have lost sight of in the English education system. Progressives continually tell themselves that by making learning ‘relevant’ and ‘engaging’ for their students, they are helping to enrich and inspire the minds of young people. This is the biggest lie in education today; the progressive agenda is doing exactly the opposite. By denying children the right to truly great works of literature, we are preventing them from having access to vital cultural capital.

Cultural capital is important for two reasons:

  1. It enables better language comprehension. Those who know more learn more; those who know less learn less.
  2. It introduces students to things that are external to their immediate sphere of influence.


Language comprehension

E.D. Hirsch’s position on knowledge is that fundamentally, those who have more knowledge learn more, and those who have less knowledge learn less. This is what he refers to as ‘The Matthew Effect’, and is something that I see in action every single day in my classroom. Those who know more, learn more. They can spot patterns and links far more quickly than those who have less knowledge.

For example, the headline ‘mass exodus of Jews from Krakow’ requires several pieces of knowledge in order to be properly understood:

a)    The word ‘Jew’ refers to the Jewish people.

b)    You need to know at least some basic facts about Jewish people (e.g. Judaism is a religion)

c)     The word ‘exodus’ means a mass departure of people.

d)     ‘exodus’ also refers to the departure of the Israelites from Egypt.

e)    ‘exodus’ is a book in the Torah, the Jewish holy text.

f)      ‘Krakow’ is a city in Poland, in Europe.

g)    Krakow was home to one of five major ghettos created by the Nazis.

I could go on. There are huge bodies of knowledge underpinning our ideas, even seemingly straightforward ones. This might be the kind of headline a student might be asked to ‘analyse’ in a GCSE English language exam paper. Without any of this knowledge, they won’t have a clue. With some (let’s say they know parts a, b and f) they will be able to provide a fairly rudimentary analysis, but will not be able to provide the levels of analysis that are required for the higher grades. If we continue to teach ‘analysis’ as an outright skill in English, and don’t think carefully about the content we teach, it doesn’t matter how many times they practice it. They will only be able to analyse in depth if their knowledge of the content is good.

Obviously, the scope of this is huge. English teachers cannot be expected to impart such huge bodies of knowledge in the run up to the exam (although it may feel like it sometimes!) This takes years and years to build. Children who have a wider access to cultural capital are invariably miles ahead of their peers.


External to their immediate sphere of influence

We need to challenge students to go beyond what they already know. If they already know lots about football, why bother teaching them about football? Their ability to understand language is necessarily underpinned by what they know; they need to know more in order to understand more. Teaching a ‘relevant’ curriculum, although well intentioned, denies students the access to the knowledge that they need. It traps them within a prison-world of their own narrow horizons. If we instead give them a range of texts that include the canon, we are actively broadening their horizons. Teaching ‘Stone Cold’ is fine (if you really must!), but it will only build a limited amount of cultural capital.


The English curriculum

What is the purpose of teaching English?

We need to ensure we are building cultural capital in our students. This will enable them to have a deeper understanding of the texts they read. It will also teach them about things they don’t already know, therefore giving them larger reservoir of knowledge to draw from and improving their comprehension further.


“For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

9 thoughts on “What is the purpose of teaching English?

  1. Tessa, reading this my worry is that this is not a useful mode of debate if you honestly want to sort out the problems you’re seeing. With all this Hirsch stuff you seem to have innocently stumbled onto a massive political football (as it were). If you’re honestly concerned, and have no-one around you to speak to, then I’d recommend speaking to teachers outside your own department.

    My mum, now retired but still in touch with many fine colleagues, including other current English-teacher/head of dept relatives of ours, said ‘no teacher worth their salt would do that’ when I asked her about the attitudes you describe. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, obviously, but it’s not general, and whatever your personal experience, it isn’t helpful to present it as the norm everywhere as you have done.

    Your vocabulary has hardened somewhat from your previous post (you seem to have internalized Hirsch’s views) and it concerns me to see you adopting American terms such as ‘progressives’ in a pejorative way, and applying sweeping generalizations to the profession on that basis. The debate over there is very different, as is the history of our education system compared to theirs, and also the demographic and race issues that they have needed to address.

    I’m sure that there are many English teachers out there who would disagree with your assessment of the profession, *not* because they think that children should be given easy-peasy things to do, but because the picture you paint is unrepresentative. You write as if there is no list of set texts for GCSE or A-Level, as if teachers can choose to teach about Facebook and not Shakespeare or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or whatever. You know this is not true, so perhaps you got carried away by the (appealing but simplistic and US-oriented) Hirsch rhetoric.

    An analogy with the history curriculum might be useful here. The draft curriculum has been seen almost unanimously as deeply misguided, badly constructed, and problematic; but a couple of good things may come out of it in the long run. These are: greater emphasis on placing topics within a chronology, and potentially greater engagement of the history teaching profession as a whole in curriculum development

    Most history teachers have welcomed a tweak to current practice to help children get a better grasp of chronology. But a tweak was all that was needed, not an all-out assault on the curriculum, combined with smears against the profession.

    The same is true of English. There is no need for a political assault on the English profession itself (and the use of Hirsch by Mr. Gove and his advisers does seem, I’m afraid, politically motivated). If there are tweaks to be made, so that the few teachers or departments who have slipped into not-the-best-practice can be clearer about what best practice *is*, then that would be great. But as with History, a full-on assault, with all these smears against hard-working, committed, thoughtful teachers, is a waste of all out time and taxpayers’ money.

    It’s great that you’re keen on change and improvement; but (and I know it’s hard when you’ve a full-time job to do as well), I would really recommend that you read around a bit more; Hirsch is interesting, but he writes within a particular context, and it *is* possible to want good solid nourishing education for children without buying into his particularly prescriptive suggestions for a solution.

    Another suggestion: if you feel that current English teachers’ professional associations are not for you in terms of opening up a debate and getting the profession itself to think about best practice, then why not set something up yourself? The ‘Save School History’ group has managed to get some really great discussions going, just by setting themselves up on Facebook. The internet can be a wonderful facilitator for busy people! :-)

    The main thing is open discussion and exchange of ideas…..

  2. There seems to a bit of an assumption at the start of your post. Is it possible that teachers can make their lessons relevant and engaging without denying their students access to ‘truly great works of literature’? I would have thought that doing one does not necessarily deny the other.

  3. Well it would be great to hear a reflection of all of that in later posts. And I’m sure that’s part of the point of the blog in the long term! But the post I was commenting on seemed very indebted to Hirsch to exclusion of other perspectives. I notice there’s an awful lot of Willingham in your list – he seems to fall very much into the same school of thought as Hirsch, wouldn’t you say?

    I suppose what I was trying to say is that your reading of Hirsch (and clearly of the other things too) seems to me to have led you to make certain assumptions and distinctions which do not necessarily have to be opposed, or mutually exclusive – as Steve Philip has pointed out above.

    At the end I notice you say that these works have helped form your opinion of Hirsch. It’s interesting that you put Hattie in there, but stick with Hirsch’s prescriptiveness.

    If I’m pushing, it’s in order to get at the heart of the ideas. It’s nothing personal to you – I just think it’s really important for the discussions to take place. It’s really good that you’re putting things out there.

    • OK. Perhaps I should explain my interest in the subject of your blog…

      I have: a doctorate in English Literature (from the sort of university which I assume you admire); have taught undergraduates; have recruited the results of the English, Scottish and German education systems to jobs which are intellectually challenging and requiring of depth of thought; have myself trained some of those recruits in research methods and editorial skills; and have listened for years to numerous teachers of English and other subjects, not just my mother, discuss the ins and outs of their courses and methods, some in high-achieving state schools, and some in very, very difficult ones. I also have small children who will be entering the state schooling system, and therefore an interest in its improvement.

      All of these perspectives have led me to be surprised and worried by your choice of vocabulary, your focus on one controversial US theorist, and the ways in which you have made sweeping and shallow derogatory statements about the status quo in English teaching, of the sort which very closely echo the claims of corporate education reformers both here and in the US.

      I have been quite open about my knowledge of teaching in schools being second-hand, and sympathetic to your frustrations. If all you can do, when I ask you why Hirsch, is to try and use the same denigrating tactics with me, then that’s very disappointing.

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  7. I’ve just stumbled across this blog after following some links from the Echo Chamber. I am unfortunately shocked. The poster above offered some interesting challenge to your theories, yet your response is simply snapping back that you have read more books, without attempting to engage with the issues. This is petulant at best, if not rude.

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