How to be an English teacher: designing an English PGCE

From September I will be teaching a small group of prospective English teachers what I think they need to know in order to do a decent job as part of the new BPP University PGCE course. I was very flattered to be asked to be involved, particularly as I have no special expertise and no track record at all in higher education, but thrilled beyond reason at the idea of designing the kind of course I wish I’d be on when I trained to be a teacher back in the 90s.

Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as to claim that this course is unique (I haven’t checked) it certainly sets its face against some of the major tropes of English teaching and represents a volte face from the misguided notion that English is a ‘skills based subject’. Although the way it continues to be examined encourages teachers to view English as a set of generic skills that can be applied to any content, this course will argue that such skills only have meaning as they are applied to a detailed knowledge of literature and language, whereas teaching ‘analysis’ or ‘inference’ leads to an empty, unfulfilling experience. As such, students on the course will be introduced to the idea that what pupils study is of more lasting importance than how they study it.

As a few people have been in touch to ask about some of the specifics of the course, I thought it might be interesting to provide an overview. Not only was it essential to site literary and grammatical knowledge at the heart of the course, every aspect needed to be explicitly linked to our current scientific understanding of how children learn and behave. But, with only six teaching days, brutal decisions had to be made about what to include and what to cut. In the end, I decided on the following sequence:

Day one

  • English as an academic discipline: what is it and how should we teach it?
  • Critiquing the canon – the need for dialectic – the tradition vs. cultural materialism
  • Are there skills in English? Threshold concepts and knowledge
  • The role of national examinations – can we teach what we value?

Day two

  • The Matthew Effect: closing the language gap between the most and least advantaged
  • Building vocabulary – academic language and academic success
  • Castle Shakespeare: why do we teach the Bard?
  • How to teach a Shakespeare play (Macbeth)

Day three

  • Curriculum design: planning what pupils should know
  • What’s the point of lesson planning? Teaching in sequences
  • Making 19th century fiction accessible for all pupils
  • Teaching a novel (A Christmas Carol)

Day four

  • Why teach grammar?
  • Teaching grammar: Does context matter?
  • Feedback: how to help pupils make progress
  • Marking and assessment: how do we know if pupils have made progress?

Day five

  • The art of rhetoric – Aristotle, Cicero and A FOREST
  • How to remember – organising knowledge and learning by heart
  • Teaching poetry – anticipating pupils’ concerns and misconceptions
  • First World War poetry (Sassoon & Owen)

Day six

  • Why some pupils struggle with English – what do English teachers need to know about SEND?
  • How to support pupils without lowering expectations
  • Modelling and scaffolding – beyond the metaphors

On top of all this, students on the course will be given a pretty rigorous subject knowledge audit and expected to fill any gaps. They’ll be regularly quizzed on specific aspects of subject knowledge, and, as well as four assigned pieces of writing, there will also be a terminal examination of what they should have learned over the course.

No doubt this won’t please everyone and will probably upset some, but this represents what I believe every English teacher ought to know and, certainly, what I wish I’d known when I began teaching. Having said that, I’m sure the course is far from perfect and I expect to make all sorts of revisions over the coming year. I’m grateful for all the advice and feedback I’ve had so far, but I’d welcome the support of the English teaching community in making it even better. If you think I’ve left out something you consider to be crucial, do please get in touch with any constructive criticism.

If, on the other hand, you’re upset I’ve not included time to consider the study of emojis, you can vent your frustration here.

50 Responses to How to be an English teacher: designing an English PGCE

  1. Esther Menon says:

    Creativity, writing and ‘playing’ with language is, I think, missing.

  2. paulgmoss says:

    Having just marked 1400 GCSE transactional writing exams, I would add something in there about logic in writing and attending to audience.

    Also, explicit teaching of how to improve sentence construction, spelling, and punctuation would be important.

    Why only six days? Must be very frustrating?

    • David Didau says:

      Did you see the bits about grammar and rhetoric? They’re intended to cover the aspects you mention.

      As far as I know, our teaching time is limited by financial constraints.

      • paulgmoss says:

        Well I hope that you can cover it in the allocated quarter of a day. Seems like it would be a bit rushed for helping to prepare brand-new teachers for an important aspect of the course.
        Btw, I think the concept of what you’re doing is excellent.

  3. davowillz says:

    Looks great. Will someone else be teaching how to teach spelling or have incorporated that into building knowledge? 🙂

  4. Dominic Oakes says:

    1. Could you add links to (your) posts on the assertions you make in para. 2
    2. How would you feel about changing ‘…current scientific understanding…’ to ‘…current scientific & experiential understanding…’
    3. To what extent do the ‘brutal decisions’ you had to make suggest that giving you just 6 days is not enough?

  5. Alban O' Brien says:

    It is so arrogant and based on politically inspired misinformation to imply that Faculties of Education are a knowledge free zone. Traditional PGCE English courses in a University Faculty of Education teach this and much more. Your potential students would be much better looking for the tried and tested rather than the experimental and politically motivated ‘modern’ based on a misrepresentation. Apart from that I wish you every success.

    • David Didau says:

      I have not implied that Ed faculties are “knowledge free zones”. I’m not sure why you have inferred this. If ‘traditional’ PGCEs teach all this and more then so much the better.

    • teachwell says:

      I imagine those teaching “tried and tested” courses in the old teaching colleges felt the same way about “experimental and poltically-motivated” ITT courses when they first started out. They were right. If you’re criticisms are genuine then you would not have failed to notice the problems you outline with other ITT providers. Yet it seems you are oblivious. Even if one adopts the most uncharitable interpretation of what is going on, it still only amounts to playing you at your own game.

  6. […] important, area for debate (and helpfully some clear indication of this is already available for English and history). I think knee-jerk responses of “this must be rubbish” because of who it […]

  7. Are you going to cover the KS2 grammar content in your “why teach grammar” section? It certainly opened my eyes when I looked at it, and understanding what they come to us with is important at KS3.

    • David Didau says:

      Not as such, although the KS2 content is still mandated at KS4

      • KS2 wasn’t introduced to KS2 in order to teach grammar. It was introduced because Lord Bew determined that ‘grammar’ produced right/wrong questions. This made it a suitable vehicle to assess teachers effectiveness. Grammarians then provided some ‘grammar’ that they thought would do just that. As it happens, some of it doesn’t, as is shown clearly by David Crystal in his latest book, just out, ‘Making Sense’. One example of my own in addition to his: when Schools Minister, Gibb was skewered my Martha Kearney on World at One over subordinating conjunctions and prepositions, the real problem is that some grammarians think that in the example that Gibb was struggling over should not have the distinction the question asked for ie that ‘before’ and ‘after’ should be given a term for use in both phrases and clauses. There is, in other words, disagreement between grammarians. (There are several other examples, as shown by Crystal). The interest then is not grammar but ‘right and wrong’ questions. Another matter altogether.

  8. Carl says:

    6 days to cover that? Talk about a whistle stop tour. Think im going to steal those ideas for my upcoming staff meetings.

  9. The only thing I would add would be their role in tackling the literacy deficit and getting kids reading.

  10. Carmel Gibbons says:

    I’ve been following your debates and reading your books in detail and also Daisy Christodoulou’s book on the Future of AfL and don’t mind admitting that I’ve pretty much changed my mind about teaching, particularly in relation to the key employability skills (that I used to think could be taught through the curriculum). I’m currently retraining to become an English teacher myself and only wish I could come on this one! However I look forward to hearing more about it all. My only comment would be that 6 days of this kind of input seems far too short!

  11. Fiona Thompson says:

    Why focus on Macbeth and ACC? IMO these texts are over taught and ‘stale’, why not The Tempest and Pride and Prejudice? New entrants to the profession should be energising the curriculum not doing the same, tired texts.

    • David Didau says:

      Whilst the teaching of a text can become tired or stale I’m don’t think the same can be said of the texts themselves. I chose these texts precisely because they are widely taught.

      • Fiona Thompson says:

        Yes but they are so widely taught that there are resources everywhere to support teaching. Why not approach this course with a fresh look at other texts? In my experience, as a senior examiner/HOD, these texts fail to stimulate pupils to achieve the top grades because it is impossible to be original and insightful with a text that is so commonly taught.

  12. ZebaC says:

    I’m wary of commenting on this because it is simply an outline and it doesn’t really explain what each session will deliver in any significant detail. When I think back to my own PGCE, what I missed was a sense of how I was going to negotiate the classroom. I took my PGCE at Sheffield which was then one of the hubs for NATE, an organisation I found then and now to be very positive and helpful in outlook and very much focused on delivery in the classroom. Nonetheless, everything felt notional until we were actually preparing schemes of work and lesson plans for actual delivery in to actual students and it was only in teaching practice that anything began to make sense at all. I think you need to spend less time justifying what to teach and more time in detailed practice of how to teach and how to adjust teaching to different types of school and student in terms of awareness of how whole school policies on e.g behaviour and literacy can affect and shape what we do in the classroom.

    This is in response not simply to this particular set of lectures/teaching sessions but also to the experiences of my husband who has recently completed two PGCE courses, one which qualified him to teach in independent schools only and then a standard PGCE which allows him to teach in both state and independent sectors. The first course was delivered by an independent university and was a shabby money-grubbing exercise that had very limited application in the classroom. The second has been far more rigorous and demanding both in the university itself and in the two schools where he completed his TP. In the second course, he received much more guidance and information about how to teach MFL, plus a free course in Spanish which has taken him up to the equivalent of a GCSE in Spanish in two terms.

    If I were a teacher, I would be very wary of a course such as BPP’s which actually does not provide me with the qualifications I need to pursue a general teaching career as it is not recognised, but that is not to say that it will not be a good course. If I were coming to this course as a mature student with an English degree, I might find some of the early lectures a bit like teaching granny to suck eggs.

    • David Didau says:

      I think you’re labouring under a misapprehension. The PGCE element of Qualified Teacher Status is what’s being delivered by BPP. The SCITT provider will award QTS which will qualify trainees to teach in any school exactly as if they had completed a traditional PGCE.

  13. Patrick Ainley says:

    “What is the price of experience? Do men buy it for a song?
    Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price
    Of all a man hath, his house, his wife, his children.
    Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy,
    And in the wither’d field where the farmer plows for bread in vain.”
    David Erdman and Harold Bloom eds., Collected Poetry & Prose of William Blake (Newly revised ed. 1988 p325 [The Four Zoas: Night the Second: page 35 line14])

  14. Michael Pye says:

    I would be interested in any insight into the order and selection of the topics you selected. Curriculum design is an area in which I would like to improve.

  15. Ben Knight says:

    I’m sure the shareholders of BPP will be thrilled when their dividends start rolling in from this. You should rename it ‘Exam factory: an teachers’ guide.’

  16. Looks like a great tour of the essentials! I think it’d be a good program for most experienced teachers too. Is it a PGCE for secondary teachers? It looks very rigorous but very far away from early years or KS1 in terms of content.

  17. dbarlex says:

    I was interested in your proposals for the Engish PGCE – mirrored very much my experience of being taught English in a grammar school in the late 50s/early 60s – and it was effective in that ever since I’ve been able to appreciate a wide spectrum of Englsih literature genres and write well. But for many teachers in many schools such teaching will represent a huge pedagogical challenge – but then that’s our job as teachers. Would be very interested to see what the chemistry course looks like – my initial teacher education was a a chemistry teacher with Clive Sutton and also to know if there are any plans to offer D&T. Contact me through And as for emojis much better taught by A&D or D&T teachers who are interested in communication via images and have the knowledge base to do this well.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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