The Language Paper is not Fit for Purpose

There is a growing disconnect between what many teachers know to be good practice, what OFSTED says is good practice, and what exam boards are requiring teachers to do in order to ensure pupils pass the exam. It has resulted in a warping of our subject, a watering down of teaching of knowledge, and antipathy toward the actual study of language- linguistics, dialects, and accents– and turns it into generalising author’s intent and tone in a random smattering of texts. 

The OFSTED research review states that there is a ‘presumption that English is a skills-based subject’ and that, overall, the review is rooted in research ideas that challenges this. Hooray! Yes! Knowledge absolutely matters! Why, then, are the GCSE language papers encouraging us to do precisely what OFSTED are challenging?

OFSTED seem to be solidifying the position that ‘pupils need to be exposed to background knowledge in a ‘specific, explicit and sequenced way’’, but in practice this is unlikely to happen. Instead of building complex and systematic background knowledge for pupils as years go on, pupils, especially those at GCSE, are instead fed a diet of texts on randomised topics; in the same week of a ‘language’ scheme of work’, pupils will read texts about ghosts, trains, camping– oh and a restaurant review!– all the while ‘practising’ the skills of Paper 2 Question 4. The exam pigeon-holes teachers into warping the subject, ensuring that we simply train kids to answer question types— I mean read ‘unseen’ 19th century texts. 

Reading doesn’t work like this.  

What is reading, anyway?

Success with reading comprehension depends on how well you can make sense of a text using knowledge, not if we’ve practised those seemingly elusive skills enough.  OFSTED say the same, the report states that ‘ explicitly teaching background knowledge is foundational to increasing pupils’ reading competency’.When we practise finding the main idea, or practise ‘summarising’ students are only able to identify those topics because they have the prerequisite knowledge. Similarly when analysing literature, as pupils have to in Language Paper 1,  having students simply identify literary devices like symbolism and metaphor in a passage does not improve their ability to understand that passage’s deeper meaning, and it’s precisely why so many may struggle to get higher marks– they just don’t know enough. 

These practices tell us nothing about how students construct meaning in or outside of that text, nor how we as teachers can expand their current level of knowledge and understanding to other domains of knowledge in our disciplines. Whether students are learning about the Harlem Renaissance or analysing the unravelling of the narrator’s madness in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, no amount of “skills” practice will make up for meaningful discussion and questioning of the actual components of a text. We already know that systematic phonics is the best approach for the majority of pupils to acquire the ability to read, so I am continually confused why we seem to be forced to take a look-say approach to building schema in the older years. If we want pupils to become successful at reading, inferencing, forming ideas and opinions, identifying author’s intent, they need something concrete to form an opinion about. We have to teach the knowledge. 

The Importance of Schema

In Why Don’t Students Like School, Dan Willingham says that we learn things in the context of what we already know, meaning we can use pupils’ existing schema in order to strengthen new knowledge and context.  Additionally,  and crucially, in Cain et al’s study on Comprehension skill, inference-making ability, and their relation to knowledge,  they found that even with a student’s knowledge base being equal, less skilled readers still had more trouble generating knowledge-based inferences.  In other words, poor comprehenders were constructing incomplete representations of texts because students were not successfully integrating the correct pieces of information to make inferences.  That’s where the missing marks are. Why aren’t more pupils able to be ‘perceptive’? Because they don’t know how to integrate the information.  We can’t teach them how to do this if there is no knowledge to actually teach and from which to model.

As KS3 coordinator for English, I was tasked with preparing schemes of work to ‘teach the skills of the language paper’– what I see those ‘skills’ as are 1) identifying author’s purpose, 2) writing for an audience 3) identifying literary devices and  including inferencesI knew I couldn’t simply ‘teach’ a few lessons on  how to make inferences,  so I based my curriculum in themes through which I could build those skills. 

In Year 7, we wanted to look at London then (Victorian times) and London now (modern). So that’s what we did:

  • Housing – Victorian Slums and Gentrification in the east end
  • The Environment – The Great Stink and 
  • Transportation (The Opening of the first underground line and the opening of the Elizabeth line)

In Year 9, we wanted to study protest speeches, so I grounded the texts in influential political speeches in the last 60 or so years, focusing on rhetoric. We studied speeches on:

  • Immigration 
  • LBGT+
  • Religion

We absolutely looked at ‘how does the writer use language to’ as the language papers tell us, but pupils could say something, because they knew something. 

What Could Language Exams Be

The language exams could be like this. They don’t have to be meaningless, and fruitless, something to endure. One simple way exam boards could follow the research is by following the evidence on reading, perhaps doing something like what I did in KS3, or something below. 

  1. Advance notice of themes and topics to be tested so that teachers can plan curriculum rooted in schema- no advance texts given. 
  2. Anthology of nonfiction texts that are rooted in themes or concepts (similar to how Power and Conflict poems are arranged). In the exam, pupils will compare one of the texts from the anthology to an unseen text still within the same range of topics or themes. 

Truly, anything would be better than what we have now. (You could also always talk to subject specialists on language (linguistics etc) and teach actual language study, but I dream) 

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