English Language Essays - English Teaching

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Discuss the practice of English teaching, in terms of both language and literature, has undergone dramatic changes since the vernacular origins of Old English in Anglo-Saxon Britain.

The practice of English teaching, in terms of both language and literature, has undergone dramatic changes since the vernacular origins of Old English in Anglo-Saxon Britain.  Considering the fact that primary education, or elementary education as it was referred to in the nineteenth century, was not compulsory until 1880, it is particularly interesting to note the rapid evolution of English teaching between the end of the nineteenth century and the end of the twentieth century.  The twentieth century itself was characterised by an extreme level of social and political upheaval which necessarily exerted an influence not only on the day-to-day use of the English language but also on the way in which it was taught in the primary-school classroom. 

Until the end of the nineteenth century, education in general was reserved for a privileged few and the study of English was deemed a lesser academic pursuit than the study of the Latin and Greek classics.  However, according to Mercer and Swann, the influence of the Industrial Revolution and the huge economic advancements it gave rise to placed an emphasis on the need for “more widespread literacy and high levels of literacy” (Mercer & Swann 1996:168) among the British population.  Nevertheless, due to the hierarchical nature of Victorian society, language served as a means by which class boundaries could be rigidly defined and maintained.  This is evident in the literary works of many nineteenth-century writers such as Dickens who often employed different registers to inform the reader of the social status of his characters.  Indeed, the confusion and controversy that surrounded the teaching of English at the end of the nineteenth century regarding what should be taught to whom, and by what methods, directly concerned the changing socio-political fabric of British society.  As education became available to more and more people and the establishment of English as a subject became more respected, it became increasingly evident that widespread reform was required.

Despite the fact that, by the latter part of the nineteenth century, the necessity of teaching English in primary schools was generally accepted, there were many disagreements regarding its purpose.  While the prevailing fear in the higher echelons of society was that universal literacy would lead to discontent among the working classes and consequent rebellion, there were others who believed education “a means of social and economic advancement” and “a means of breaking down the old class barriers” (Mercer & Swann 1996:168).  While the political debate raged on, those children who attended primary school were often the recipients of an unimaginative curriculum which, nevertheless, increased the level of basic literacy for a much greater proportion of the population.  The teaching of reading was often conducted by reading around the classroom and learning pieces of prose by rote.  For some pupils, learning to read meant little more than a memorisation task, while other pupils benefited from the highly structured exercise of repetition and correction.  In contrast to the focus on personal development and imagination that characterised the teaching of English a century later, children were issued with “graded readers” (Mercer & Swann 1996:177) that were of a didactic, moralistic nature and were designed as much to instil primary-school children with core Victorian values as they were to teach them to read.  There was very little emphasis on the child as an individual, and a considerable amount of concentration on the child as a member of a society with firmly established ideologies.  This was particularly apparent in the way in which Celtic languages were dismissed as inferior.  As Mercer and Swann highlight, the suppression of Welsh and Irish and Scottish Gaelic in favour of English “undoubtedly led to greater standardization in the English language” (Mercer & Swann 1996:173) which, in turn, led to the suppression of Welsh, Irish, and Scottish cultures.  While this clearly paved the way for the standardisation of the curriculum that took place in the 1980s and extended the consideration of English as a scholarly subject worthy of respect, it raised many questions about the imperialistic activity of imposing the English language and culture on all primary-school children.  As the British Empire and the values it represented began to disintegrate, therefore, English as a taught subject became a significant way to unify the country.

The importance of language in the establishment of national identity cannot be underestimated.  Throughout history, the standardisation of national languages has led to greater national unity, while one of the main aims during the colonial period was to impose the coloniser’s language on the subjugated people to weaken their sense of cultural and national selfhood.  Following the mass destruction and political upheaval of the First World War, then, the literature and language of Britain came to the fore as the government attempted to reinstate a sense of national unity.  The extreme changes occurring in British society as a result of the First World War, the steady disintegration of some class and gender barriers as more children attended school and women won the right to vote, and a general climate of political upheaval, led to the influential publishing of the Newbolt Report by the Board of Education in 1921.  For the first time in British history, the study of English literature began to replace that of the Latin and Greek classics as the significance of the Ancient World to modern British society after the war they believed was ‘the war to end all wars’ was diminishing.  While the replacement of classical texts for English literary texts was resisted by many, the Report advocated their introduction at all levels of education including primary-school level thereby setting the stage for the development of English as a major subject of study later in the century.  Moreover, the teaching of basic literacy skills in primary schools began to develop considerably as speaking and listening skills were added to the already established reading and writing skills.  In contrast to the dismissal of Celtic languages and regional dialects that prevailed at the end of the nineteenth century, the Newbolt Report placed greater emphasis on local variations in language use and their importance within the child’s educational framework.  This was coupled with the Report’s recommendation that the teaching of language should seek to eliminate the conflation of language with class and further standardise the use of the English language in both speech and writing.  This process of standardisation extended to the teaching of handwriting, ‘correct’ pronunciation, and the attainment of certain levels in all of the literacy skills. 

Over the next few decades, the practice of English language teaching in British primary schools remained focussed on the teaching of basic literacy skills,  while the child and his/her individuality and personal development became increasingly important.  At a higher level, the study of English literature was gaining considerable prestige at universities as critics such as F. R. Leavis set about establishing a canon of English literary texts to rival the Latin and Greek classics that had long occupied a prestigious place in British education.  It was not until the century’s second most influential government report on education, the Bullock Report, was published in 1975 under the control of Margaret Thatcher that the practice of English teaching underwent another stage of evolution.  While the Report’s main purpose was to reverse what was considered to be a decline in literacy standards and to impose new or modified regulations on the teaching of English, according to Mercer and Swann it “found no evidence for falling standards in literacy” (Mercer & Swann 1996:181).  Its recommendations, therefore, highlight the socio-political climate of the late 1970s and early 1980s in that it places a great emphasis on individual progress and success and the significance of English for children’s continuation into employment or university.  Its two main recommendations were the development of a “language programme from preschool to school leaving age” and the establishment of reading “as an integral part of the language curriculum” (Mercer & Swann 1996:181).  While the Bullock Report concerned itself with the maintenance of standards, the influence of the Dartmouth Conference a few years prior to the Report’s publication was still highly influential as it combined language practice with literary creativity by encouraging creative writing in primary school.  In contrast to the confused state of British primary-school teaching of English a century before, the establishment of a National Curriculum based on the four fundamental aspects of literacy: reading, writing, listening and speaking in the 1980s brought the standardisation process to full maturity.  In the same way as Celtic languages suffered at the end of the nineteenth century, the concentration on Standard English as the norm in the classroom in the 1980s and early 1990s gave rise to the fear that children who spoke non-standard varieties of English in the home were losing a part of their cultural identity.  As Mercer and Swann report, however, many teachers “have tried to educate children about their own language use”, thereby widening the child’s linguistic and cultural sensibility and education.             

It is evident that the changes that have taken place in the teaching of English in British primary schools between the end of the nineteenth century and the end of the twentieth century reflect the changes that have taken place in the social, political and cultural fabric of British society.  As the boundaries between classes became less of a barrier to education and Latin and Greek texts were slowly replaced with English texts, the practice of English language and literature teaching developed to an ever greater degree.  Whereas the main function of English teaching in primary schools at the beginning of the twentieth century was to teach the basic skills of reading and writing, this had extended by the end of the century to include the study of literature, creative writing, speaking and listening skills, an understanding of the socio-cultural aspects of the English language, and an appreciation of the diversity of language in general.   


Mercer, N and Swann, J (1996) Learning English: Development and Diversity (English Language: Past, Present and Future, London: Routledge in association with The Open University).