Why English is not a ‘skills based’ subject

The idea that English is a skills based subject has become axiomatic. Most English teachers of my acquaintance accept it unquestioningly, as did I until a few years ago. How do we know English is skills based? Because it depends on the skills of reading and writing. And, in turn, reading depends on such skills as inference and analysis, while writing depends either on the skill of making points, using evidence and explaining it or on the skill of using language creatively and persuasively.

From this certain things have followed. If English is skills based then it obviously makes sense to teach these skills. So, to train students in the skill of inference teachers give them a text (any text will do because it’s the skills that matter, so why not make it a fun and accessible young adult novel?) and ask them to make inferences about some aspect of the text. The simpler the text, the easier students will find it to make an inference. Then they need to practice analysis so, again, the normal procedure is to introduce students to texts – the simpler the better – and get them to talk about the possible meanings of certain words or phrases. Teaching writing is similar – give students a prompt, preferably one with which they already have some familiarity and get them to use ‘wow words’, fronted adverbials, rhetorical questions or whatever else is deemed to be the technique du jour. In this way, children up and down the country are taught English day in day out.

How do we know it works? Because some children are successful. What about the ones who aren’t? Well, what can you do with kids like that? This is precisely the same kind of critical analysis that led pre-scientific doctors to believe that the blood-letting was an effective form of treatment: it obviously worked because so many patients recovered. It was all too easy to ignore all the dead ones because they don’t have much to say on the subject. The misconception that underlay this way of thinking was that by bleeding patients their humours would be rebalanced. We now know that the four humours don’t actually exist and so we’ve abandoned the idea they can be balanced.

If we were to look at students who’ve been taught a skills based English curriculum I’d predict that those who are successful are those who come from more affluent backgrounds. They already know enough to be able to make inferences and analyse meaning. Their vocabulary and implicit understanding of academic English allow them to write well because they’re also able to speak in the same way. They do well despite not because of the way they’re taught. Less advantaged students don’t know enough about the world and are not able to speak using a more formal academic register and so the ‘skills based’ approach bounces off them; it’s like trying to build on sand.

I’ve heard Daisy Christodoulou tell the story of her attempts to teach inference. She gave students a simple story about a man who gets on an airplane and, shaking and sweating, takes his seat and downs several whiskies. Her students were able to infer that the man was nervous – perhaps he was afraid of flying? He’s drinking a lot so maybe he’s an alcoholic? Could he possibly be a terrorist who’s planted a bomb? Some time later her students sat a mock exam in which they read an extract from a science fiction story set in a post-apocalyptic London. The world is frozen and the character in the story is all alone. He hears a banging and creaking sounds in the distance and climbs an abandoned tower to see if he can see what’s going on. When he finally gets to the top he sees that the noise is being made by an approaching glacier. Students were asked to say whether they thought this was an effective ending. Sadly, they were unable to use the skill of inference because they didn’t know what a glacier was. Many of them inferred that the noises were being made by a tribe of savages. This mirrors my own experience.

Like reluctant medics who slowly became aware that the world wasn’t organised the way they supposed, English teachers need to understand that skill in English is based on knowledge. The ability to read is composed of many thousands of individual pieces of knowledge which organise into schemas which allow us to automatise a hugely complex process. As reading becomes increasingly automatic it becomes effortless, and children are likely to read more. The more they read the more they learn about the world. The more they learn about the world the easier it is to connect new ideas to things we already know about and so inferences are made and analysis becomes possible. Likewise, if you spend time at home talking about current affairs and having middle class dinner table conversations, you will be practised in modes of speech that transfer easily to writing, whereas if all your experience of speaking is informal, you will struggle to write in academic English unless such structures are explicitly taught.

The point of all this is probably obvious: if we want children from more deprived backgrounds to perform better in national exams we have to stop wasting our time teaching non-existent skills and instead give them the knowledge they need to be successful. This knowledge includes phoneme-grapheme relationships, vocabulary, types of stories, word classes, grammatical structures, literary conventions, rhetorical techniques, critical modes of thought, and general information about the world beyond students’ immediate experiences. Thorough knowledge of all this results in expert performance. Because we fail to recognise the extent of what we know, we mistake our expert performance for skill and, wrongly assume that students simply need practice at what we can do without learning the stuff on which our skill depends.

Some students come to school with a fair bit of this knowledge, others have little or none. If we fail to teach a curriculum that prioritises the knowledge needed to be skilful in a subject like English we advantage the advantaged and further disadvantage the disadvantaged.

10 Responses to Why English is not a ‘skills based’ subject

  1. Michelle says:

    Hi David,

    I find this really fascinating. I’ve only been a student teacher in FE since September and can identify with what you’ve written here with regard to young adults on a GCSE re-sit course.

    I had a conversation this week with 2 learners aged 16 and 17 about how they didn’t feel they knew enough about the world to be able to do the GCSE paper and in particular the creative prose writing. I was amazed though when the 17 year old learner made the link and said that he realised he needed to read more.

    It’s hard for me as a student teacher because I’m learning a style of teaching based on teaching towards the English language GCSE but I can see that what you’re saying is true.

    I’m hoping there’s still time for me to make a difference for these learners in preparation for their exams and for life.

    I also hope you don’t mind my mentioning a few minor typos –
    In third para, line 5 – “the blood-letting” the appears redundant
    In fourth para, line 1 – “If we were look at” the word ‘to’ appears to be needed
    In fifth para, penultimate line – “Many of them inferred that the noise were being” – plural of noises or was used instead of were
    In sixth para, line 8 – “The more they read they more they learn” – the second they is used instead of the
    In sixth para, line 13 – “current and having ” – missing the word affairs
    In final para, penultimate line – “in subject like English” – either there’s a mussing ‘a’ after ‘in’ or a missing ‘s’ on subject.

    I really hope you don’t mind my mentioning. I used to be a proofreader several years ago and can’t help it now.

  2. Thank you for this. I once failed (just) an exam because, despite attending one, I did not know what a maintained school was . No-one had ever taught me this, and although I read widely (mostly history or science fiction but not exclusively) I had never come across the term in relation to state schools (and I was unable to make the transfer from knowledge of the term grant-maintained school, because the ‘maintained’ element there had not been taught either). It probably changed the course of my life, for the better, as it happens! – but still I would rather have had the choice that knowledge would have given me.

  3. Peter Round says:

    David, great article. This transfers very well to our context (International School in Khartoum): while our students are relatively affluent there is a high proportion of them who are second language English and often have limited background/cultural knowledge of the contexts/content they are being asked to analyse, discuss and make inferences about…just as your post suggested. This year in our Primary school we began using the Teachers College Readers and Writers Workshop Model (Columbia Uni): the program is quite direct/explicit in its approach and for us it seems to be working. An example of what we are seeing is students reading books from the class libraries at accelerating rates (and enjoying it)…this is not only helping the skills of reading for understanding and fluency, but also expanding contextual knowledge…an upward spiral we hope!
    Peter

  4. Tomm says:

    Very interesting points. I would like to know your opinions about two things if you have the time.
    1) Do you believe English groups should be setted?
    2) How do you think we can reduce the vocabulary gap in lessons?

      • Tomm says:

        Thank you. I read the article and found it very thought-provoking and I have ordered the book. I am very interested in vocabulary acquisition, and I spend a lot of time wondering about how to structure this from ages 11-16. At the moment I make lists of vocabulary for classes to learn which are contributed by students from class readers or their own reading. We end up with words ranging from ‘punter’ to ‘janus-faced’ and it can feel very scattergun, although I do feel pupils gain a love for learning new words and using them… I also feel there could be some advanced algorhythm of vocabulary – words adapted to GCSE exams… a kind of robotic perfectly oiled machine of vocabulary acquisition – phrases such as ‘constellation of stars glimmering hopefully in the …” etc. which would go on to earn full marks in writing exams. It’s like the equivalent of painting a wall one layer at a time, from top to bottom (and the layers will fade) or just throwing paint at a wall and hoping it sticks!

        As for setting, I think your comments were very measured. Personally, I believe in fairly mixed sets, but done with knowledge of the students. For me, it’s about the group chemistry – some students who are perceived as being lazy / not able can thrive in certain top groups. I do believe there need to be SEN groups for students who struggle with literacy / processing – a good teacher can move these students up when allowed to address these issues. In my opinion – and some teachers may disagree with this – it’s too difficult to effectively teach all ability ranges in one class. Maybe in some schools with small year groups it’s possible, but a cohort of 500 spread over 20 classes … it depends so much on the expertise of individual teachers. If a school has good knowledge of the students and the cohort isn’t too big (in my school it is 180 per year) then I think the department can do their best to get ability groupings right, trying to ignore the prejudices about certain ‘types’ of students you mention which I think are very powerful in the minds of many teachers.

  5. […] my last post I argued that thinking about English as a ‘skills based’ subject is counter-productive. […]

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