English as a practical subject
English as a practical subject

English as a practical subject

The conversation on and around David Didua’s blog helps me develop and reflect on my practice as a non-specialist English teacher. In fairness, the whole experience of teaching a third subject has been both invigorating and challenging; that’s why engaging with subject specific conversation has been so very important for me (and for my students). It is an environment where I have had to listen attentively, contribute less, and accept that I am often one of the least qualified person in the conversation. It is good to get out of your comfort zone, I hope I am a better school leader for it.

Take the debate surrounding David’s ‘The mathematics of writing,‘ post. There was a lot to digest and I bookmark the post to come back to read it again. I followed it up with a few questions to David, (duly answered) and today I did offer my response. My only reservation is that I am aware of my short coming, and yet I am not confident in the holistic approach to teaching English that I am part responsible for delivering. It would appear that it is leaving David’s AS English group and my Y11 group de-skilled?

As a non-specialist English teacher, I am learning and teaching in all phases of my teaching (planning, delivery and assessment). It can be exhuasting and every week I tried and set aside at least an hour of CPD.

The more I teach English, the more I consider English a practical subject or sport, more like music than say Maths. Most lesson are a production, with real purpose, for a real audience (greater than that of my marking) and I believe in showcasing students work. In this regard I see grammar as one of the ‘basic skills,’ of the production. More recently, this term, I have started to teach in the lower school, in much the same way I coached football at our local Academy.

We introduced strict routines, transition tasks, periods of technical repetition to grove ‘technical ability’ before setting up small practices to apply the technique (very rarely more that 4v4). We were relentless in our pursuit of technical mastery and building confidence in our players (Y6 / Y7s). Every session (20 mins of 80 mins), personal practice (homework) and part of every pregame warm up. We most certainly fostered mastery before understanding, though we always knew that understanding we be developed when their thinking skills allowed it. It was a question of readiness. Even once a skill had been mastered, it sometimes took 6-8 weeks before a player tried a new technique in a game situation and we would have to be very patient and supportive.

What I am trying to say (in a rather long winded fashion) is that within our English dept at least, we tend to teach the game of English and not commit to teaching and mastering the techniques. Passing, control, 1 v 1 to beat / defend a player, creating / closing space; reading, writing, spelling, punctuation, grammar. The more I teach English, the more I feel that repeated teaching SPAG will secure not only English skill but student confidence. Just anticipate that even a concentrated and committed effort to technical mastery takes more time to bloom in free form writing then you would think. I also forecast that it would mean that my Y11 students would get more from the self and peer assessment then they currently do, if they had the technical grounding in grammar.

Right now, sadly, I only have my gut feeling that it has been a positive change, of course I will have my markbook and student feedback to support my hypothesis later on in the year.

As for the image, sorry David. Google image search.



  1. Hi Kristian,

    I imagine the problem you bring to light is the same in most English departments…

    I, like David, am a grammarian, I prefer teaching the technical, analytical side of language and writing. As a result, my students performance in English Language is usually stronger than it is in Literature (marginally). I would argue that most of my students walk away, generally far more confident as learners though, as they write with confidence; with accuracy.

    Many of my peers however, feel far more comfortable taking a more ‘literature’ based approach, spending less time drilling their students on the rules. This is not a criticism but perhaps the result of them having studied literature-based degrees at University. From my experience, most English teachers I encounter have followed this path into teaching. I did not, taking a more ‘Media’-based path – one which required cogent, concise, analytical writing rather than the more flamboyant, literary style I see in many A-Level literature essays.

    The trouble, as you point out, is that if students are better drilled in grammar, sentence structure, linguistic technique and style, they will become more confident writers. A confident writer can tackle any topic thrown ar them, as they do not spend as much time worrying over how to express themselves. This is the value and worth in teaching young people to write well. Moreover, it is why I believe that all people who teach writing MUST be writers themselves. To become a great writer you need to write everyday. Something I observe every morning, when I wake up, for thirty minutes. This gives me the confidence to not only teach writing well but also to write with confidence in the classroom, infront of my students. If my topset Year 10 class are expected to write at A/A* grade, then I must be able to demonstrate that in front of them.

    Some English teachers will find this idea challenging but I believe it one hundred percent.

    1. Kristian Still

      It’s good to hear a balanced yet supportive view. I have found it difficult to present this view for two reasons; first I am a non specialist and second I am in the minority.

      When coaching, we have all the technical skills our players were supposed to be able to execute, in increasing in difficulty. We then introduced small sided games, where they could play, explore and experiment with these techniques. Competitive games where set aside for the players to showcase their abilities.

      We didn’t teach them to be better players.

  2. Kristian, James – you’re dead right.

    Most English teachers are uncomfortable with at least half the subject they’re supposed to be teaching. For me English lessons must be a balance of creativity and analysis. This requires us to teach reading in much more depth than simply enjoying stories and than discussing writer’s intentions. We need to examine the syntax and language of ‘good’ writing and compare it to ‘bad’ writing. This gives students a real opportunity for creativity; anyone can vomit thoughts onto the page, but only an analytical reader can truly be creative because only they will understand the processes & choices they are skating through. I want to teach students to wield the axes that “shatter the frozen seas inside us”. How’s that for a manifesto?

    I feel privileged to have been part of your development as an English teacher. Have you looked at the work Phil Beadle has done on using football skills to teach sentence structure? You’ll love it!

  3. Claire Johnson

    Ah – the old ‘those who can do – those who can’t , teach’ argument. Realistically, most English teachers are into literature – and can write well – some of them may write for publication, but most do not. They know how to write well, and can support students to write well. I disagree that you have to be a writer to teach English, any more than you have to be a practising mathematician or scientist to teach those subjects. For me – as an ex English teacher – the two things which most helped students to improve their output, was developing their vocabulary and punctuation. But there’s something ‘unteachable’ too – like there is with the kid who just ‘gets it’ in English, and in any other subject. And also, having something to say. Thinking, engaging, responding to the world. Taking notice. Bothering with the detail.

    1. Kristian Still

      I not so sure it is the old ‘those who can do – those who can’t , teach’ argument. It is more, I need to ‘do more’ to be able to teach more better (he write, smiling). For me the refinement of ‘how’ comes through practice although I accept your comment, I do think that walking the walk is a positive role modelling action. I will look at investing more time on vocab and punctuation, that is for sure. Lastly, with the less able students, getting them to think, engage and respond to the world, to take notice and bother with the detail – well that is more than half the battle.

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