by Daniel Moss


If a driving test examiner awarded passes to learner drivers on the basis of the interesting places they took him to instead of on their driving technique, our roads would very soon become impossibly dangerous. But language use is a learnt skill just as much as driving a car, and every year teachers award high grades to students who can tailor their style and tone to their audience but are unable to form a coherent, grammatical sentence.

GCSE English Language exams usually ask the student to argue a position, persuade an audience or describe an event. This is done in the form of a letter, a newspaper article, a leaflet or something similar. Marks are given primarily for how well the student adapts the tone of the piece to its intended audience. An informal, chatty style would not go down well in a job application, for example.

While there is obviously a need for students to become aware of how language can be used to sway them, particularly in advertising, focussing solely on this aspect of language can lead to a dangerous subjectivity: a belief that all writing is equally valid depending on the audience for whom it is written.  It removes the concept of writing to convey truth, substituting a belief that every author is a salesman, and the best writing is whatever manipulates the reader most successfully.

Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation

Good spelling, grammar and punctuation make for confident use of language and smooth communication. We can be thankful that old 1960s idea that they don't matter has virtually died out. But the temptation to ignore mistakes is still too strong for most teachers. If a student is particularly poor at spelling, grammar or punctuation, a teacher will typically correct a few of the more obvious errors and leave the rest for fear of discouraging the student, or hurting his 'self esteem' with a page full of red ink (although believe it or not, many departments have chosen to mark only in green ink, because they believe the colour red is 'too harsh').

The popularity of mobile phone texting is often cited as heralding the end of 'Standard English', but of course the same could have been said about telegrams fifty years ago, which were as ungrammatical as texting and for the same reason. Similarly, some educationalists say that in an age of computer spellcheckers, young people have no need to learn such things as grammar and spelling. They could just as well say that in an age of lifejackets, children have no need to learn how to swim.

In the same way, handwriting is almost never taken into account in mark schemes at secondary level, unless the work is completely illegible. The thinking is, "if they haven't learned to write neatly by now, they will never learn". But legibility is as important as intelligibility in written communication.

The idea of teaching students to study the parts of speech, to analyse language structure and to parse sentences fills the average English teacher with horror. This is partly because the teachers themselves don't fully understand these things, and partly because they believe them to be boring and irrelevant. For passing exams they certainly are irrelevant, but only in this country. Sadly, the average student from continental Europe today knows more about English grammar than most British teenagers.

The solution to the problem is simple and obvious – make the highest exam grades dependent on good  spelling, grammar and punctuation. Currently a grand total of four marks are given at Key Stage 4 for what is dismissively known as 'SPAG' – spelling, punctuation and grammar. If exam boards made it impossible to achieve A or A* without flawless 'SPAG', standards would improve dramatically at all ability levels.

Speaking and Listening

Speaking and Listening is a discrete part of GCSE English Language coursework. It tests the students' ability to communicate orally in a range of situations, as well as their ability to listen and respond to others. Typically, a group of students will act out a scene from a text they have been studying, or perhaps a student will take on the role of someone from the text, answering the class's questions in character.

As long as Drama exists as an accepted subject at GCSE, there should be no need for this in the English curriculum.


In an ideal world the teaching of English Literature is simple – students are given an acknowledged classic to read, study and discuss; at the end of the year they take an exam which assesses their understanding of the text's form and content.

In the real world, teachers interpret a loosely-defined curriculum so as to give themselves and their students as little work as possible. The requirement to compare and contrast at least two works written before 1914 becomes in reality the reading of two short ghost stories by Dickens and HG Wells. The requirement to study at least one play by Shakespeare becomes in reality group reading the first two acts of Macbeth, and watching the rest on video. Ideally, students should produce six pieces of coursework for GCSE. In reality, with some essays doubling up for both Language and Literature, most students produce only four.

The texts that students are given to read are chosen from a list laid down by the National Curriculum, though this is not prescriptive, and in practice teachers may choose to teach any work reasonably within the guidelines. As most English teachers are female, there tends to be a bias towards more 'feminine' texts.

However, in reading and writing there are clear differences between the sexes. On the whole boys prefer to read non-fiction, or fiction with plenty of action and plot. Girls generally prefer stories that focus on the characters' motivations and emotions. When writing, boys tend to imagine their characters in unusual places and outlandish situations, while girls will often describe people similar to themselves and their friends, focussing on the relationships between them.

To say this is not to pigeonhole or stereotype (and of course there are students who contradict it), nor is it to suggest that one way is 'better' than the other; but in order to achieve true equality of  opportunity in education, these differences need to be understood. English is often seen as 'a girl's subject' and the make-up of the average A Level class bears this out. The curriculum puts such emphasis on 'empathy', 'description' and 'imagining how you would feel' that many male students become alienated, not only from literature but from the whole idea of reading for pleasure.

To redress the balance, more 'male' texts should be introduced. This of course does not just mean works by male authors, it means texts that appeal to the male sensibility. Non-fiction, in the form of biographies and histories, can be just as rewarding to read and study as novels. Teachers can award marks for a skilfully handled plot just as easily as for a fine descriptive passage.

'English' Literature

There is no doubt that some texts, particularly poems, are forced on students not because of their quality as texts, but because of the author's sex or ethnic background. One of the curriculum requirements for GCSE, for example, is to study 'texts from other cultures and traditions'. In practice this means a handful of poems written in African dialect or Jamaican slang, sticking out like a sore thumb from the rest of the syllabus. In my experience this section is the one which students of all ethnic backgrounds enjoy the least.

Does English Literature mean 'literature written in England (or the British Isles)' or does it mean 'literature written in the English language'? Most ordinary people would say the former, most educationalists the latter. If the curriculum takes the educationalists' view (as it currently does), there is no need for British students to know their national literature at all. 

Daniel Moss is a former teacher and now owns a national tuition agency.

Campaign for Real Education, June 2004.


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