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  • Writer's pictureDiving Bell

A Broken Subject Produces Broken Brains and Book-Bashers

Every teacher has a hobby horse. It's the topic that senior classes get you onto last period on a Thursday when everyone is just over it. Mine is the evils of high school English teaching and how I'd do it better.

What really horrifies me is how much English puts many - if not actually most - kids off reading for life. What mystifies me is why we haven't stopped this, since our reading levels are actually getting lower as we pile on more of the same teaching style. At the moment, New South Wales is about to have yet another pop at improving the high school English syllabus. I doubt anyone holds out much hope for something really new. What's sad is the effect that more of the same has on the adults who have been put through the system. I've lost count of how many students say that they liked a text, but after it had been vivisected in the English classroom - often by a teacher whose own last experience of creative writing was in high school - they just hated it. I do wonder if our love affair with mobile phones is because so many people have been so comprehensively put off books.

The idea that high school English is mostly literature is also miserable for those of us who genuinely love literature and teaching. And there's an important difference between the literature-lovers and people who did English units at university because they couldn't think of anything else to do. It's a similar difference between those who read Tristram Shandy for fun, and those who became English teachers in a mood of resignation and a cloud of bafflement over participial clauses. Just because Shakespeare does it for me doesn't mean that every kid wants to be brought to it at 2pm on a warm Tuesday, under pain of a telling-off. All this does is make Tommy-who-wants-to-be-an-influencer loathe English, feel stupid and emotionally incompetent, suspicious of complex language, and resolve never to touch a book again.

Most high school English syllabi explicitly reject the idea that we learn to read and think at our own pace, and without someone standing over us insisting on the finding of 'meanings' like some swami on speed.

Instead of English classes, I think students should be issued with a list of some 500 books when they enter high school. It would be broken into levels, but students would be expected to 'level up' each year and have read around 60% of the list by the end of Year 10 (age 16-ish). Every term, they would sit a three-part assessment: a brief oral discussion with a panel, a written paper, and a self-designed project. (For those who say 'but how do they acquire the writing skills to achieve this?' I'd point to the drop in writing standards over the last fifteen years as well. They would acquire language skills in other subjects, and in the old-fashioned expectation that they had 'improving' conversations with parents and adult friends, and/or by watching and listening to examples of great language use).

These assessments would be pass/fail, thus alleviating the embarrassing attempt to game a marking system with 'sophistimicated English'. We've all read essays in which a thesaurus is regurgitated and ideas are nebulous (if actually present) - what's ridiculous is the extent to which the use of a bell-curve marking system pays these woeful pieces. A pass/fail approach to clear, concise language use in an unseen assessment situation solves a lot of problems and reflects the world in which students will live. If your lawyer makes no sense, you don't pay them more because they use big words. You find another lawyer.

If the student failed these assessments, they would have to attend remediation classes for the following term. Otherwise, they'd be left alone to read their way through the list, making their own reading choices, developing their own pace and approach.

In senior high school those interested in literature would be able to choose to study it, and those who had passed a minimum-standards test of literacy and language would be mercifully released. The money saved on staffing large (and invariably unhappy, under-skilled, and under-read) English departments could be spent on libraries, teacher-librarians, and remediation specialists. Students could leave the flensing knife at home and might even become readers.

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