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Evidence to the Commission of Inquiry into English

last changed 15 Jan 2007


In Bazalgette, Cary (ed.) 1994. Report of the Commission of Inquiry into English. (London: British Film Institute), pp. 144-6.

Professor Richard Hudson, FBA Phonetics and Linguistics Dept, University College, London

The Tensions
1. Everybody agreed that it was important for children to learn to use English effectively and also to learn about the literary (and media) heritage; but these subject areas seem to involve different ranges of expertise and interest which would be hard to combine in one teacher. (I think of Andrew Webber's comment that he couldn't do any kind of grammatical analysis of the texts he studies.) A related tension is the problem of time: how to fit these two things into a single curriculum subject. It's relevant that English is the only subject that leads up to two separate subjects at GCSE (English language and English literature).

2. We considered two kinds of cultural heritage during the debate: the literary heritage and the linguistic one. But these questions turned out to be quite separate. Everyone agreed that children should learn to write and speak standard English, even if they were also encouraged to study their own non-standard or non-English variety; but when it came to the literary heritage I think most people opposed any idea of a fixed literary canon. Furthermore, we all agreed
that there is good and bad literature (and good and bad media texts), but it's dangerously easy to pass from this view to the view that the standard Language is inherently good, unlike non-standard varieties, simply because it is the medium of good literature. Most people (with the exception of Professor Scruton) seemed to agree that this leap was invalid, but it would be much less attractive if the two heritages were studied separately.

The Proposal
The school subject 'English' should be replaced by two independent subjects, 'Language' and 'Literature'. (Alternative names may be preferable, but these will do as temporary pegs to hang the ideas on.)

Language will deal with literacy skills in English at all levels, plus general understanding of language ('Knowledge About Language'). The over-arching aim is success in communication of all kind, but this presupposes some understanding of how language works.

Literature will cover the literary component of 'English', including the creative media and literature in translation - for instance not originally in English. The aim here is to let pupils explore feelings, morality, and so on, and perhaps also to develop their own creative abilities in this area.

Some Advantages of the Proposed Split

1. Two subjects can claim a larger portion of school time and resources than a single subject can (tension 1).
2. Teachers will be able to specialise and develop whatever expertise is needed (tension 1 again).
3. The role of standard English as the vehicle of great literature will be clearly separated from its role as the dialect which happens to have been chosen as our standard. This will make it much easier for the language teacher to treat local non-standard dialects with respect while teaching standard English as the dialect of school and the wider world (tension 2).
4. The language teacher will be free to deepen the pupils' understanding of language, which will arguably help them in learning foreign languages; this is one of the main planks in the platform of the 'Language Awareness' movement, which I was surprised not to hear mentioned by any speaker.
5. The language teacher will be able to pay some attention to the home languages of bilingual speakers, a gap which was pointed out by several speakers; it is harder to see a home for such work in a subject called 'English'. This too is part of 'Language Awareness'.
6. Literature teachers will be freed from responsibilities for language which many teachers of 'English' must currently find frustrating and irrelevant to their main interests. At the same time, however, it will be possible to bring the language of a text into focus because the pupils will have a deeper understanding of language.
7. The clearer focus on language will build on the existing demonstrated interest in language which has been uncovered by the new A Level English Language paper.

Possible Objections
(a) Other subjects will object to an apparent doubling of the territory covered by 'English', especially if the total resources needed turn out to be more than are currently dedicated to 'English'. However, the increase in work on language will benefit modern languages, and may even be taken from their current allocation since modern languages are where most 'Language Awareness' programmes are currently situated. The language department will be responsible for the children's language development across the curriculum (whereas Margaret Maden suggested that other subjects should take this burden away from the English department). This has been tried out in the Wigan Project (mentioned by Jennifer Chew), and seems to have been extremely successful.
(b) Some 'English' teachers may object to the split in what they see as a seamless whole, as they enjoy teaching language and literature equally. However, this kind of situation can presumably be handled by cross-department appointments. There must be teachers who combine maths and physics, for example. There is no more reason to see the split as a denial of links than there is in the case of the maths and physics departments.