When considering the motivations of any teacher, one of the first assumptions that comes to mind is an enthusiasm for the subject. Indeed, it must be reasonable to suppose that teachers enjoy the subjects they teach and are able to encourage the same level of interest from their pupils. The reality is that many teachers will inevitably have to teach things that are outside of their core interests. That doesn’t mean that these lessons will be a failure. Good teachers will find a way to get more interested in what they are teaching and to make things more interesting for their students. It requires a little more work, a little more imagination, and maybe even a little acting ability but it can be done. Olson states that ‘When we discover and explore our passions about teaching and learning, and begin to share them with others, doors are opened, and the possibilities are endless,’ (2003, p.305). There can be no doubt that pupils are more likely to enjoy a lesson delivered by a passionate teacher but is it possible to maintain this when the education system has become so assessment focused?
The difficulties with assessing progress in English are many. Depending on the pupil, what appeals to one might terrify another and there is no accounting for what a child will naturally excel in. A pupil could, for example, spend the entire term at the top of the class when studying non-fiction texts, but struggle to meet expectations in poetry. In this instance, the pupil relies on the skills of the teacher to inspire them as well as guiding them to meet objectives. However, there is no obligation for a teacher to have a deep-rooted love of a genre, simply an aptitude to teach it. In fact, Ofsted observed that ‘Teachers, who were confident as writers themselves and could demonstrate how writing is composed, taught it effectively‘ (Ofsted 2009: 5) This doesn’t necessarily account for a teacher’s personal preference or enthusiasm, only the fact that if a teacher understands a subject well, then they are able to explain it fully and effectively to their pupils. Unenthusiastic teachers will eventually lead to indifferent pupils.
Georgia Heard points out another fundamental problem in her book ‘For the good of the Earth and Sun: Teaching Poetry’ she states that “Most of our encounters with poetry have had the life squeezed out of them. We’ve been asked to memorise, analyse, write and answer questions about poems we don’t even choose to read”. This idea can be applied to all areas of the English curriculum. It would appear that, as Heard states, the lack of choice and the claustrophobic way of teaching certain genres, is having a negative effect on pupil achievement. This further supports the theory that assessment focussed teaching is stifling the creativity of teachers and the resulting effect is that if teachers themselves are losing their zeal, so are the children.
The question now is, to what extent is teaching for assessment a bad thing? It is easy, for an English enthusiast to make the assumption that all genres should be appreciated and not simply something to get through on the way to assessment. Paul Black notes that “In a classroom, teachers are likely to look for feedback to confirm the success of their own performance.” (1998:112) This can be in the form of summative or formative assessment but both are present in the back of one’s mind as a teacher.
It is possible to suggest that a teacher has a responsibility to nurture a child’s enjoyment of different genres. However, that is making the assumption that all pupils have one. Very often it is the case that a class will be broken into two groups of pupils, those who enjoy the subject and those who do not. Faced with this scenario the teacher’s priority turns to challenging those who are keen, while still working to develop those less able and more significantly, less willing.
The notion that an entire class will develop a deep appreciation for a wide variety of literary genres seems farfetched. Indeed, rather than criticise, we must surely applaud those resourceful teachers who have found a way of unifying the class under the simple mantra of “you need to know it for the test”. In fact, teaching towards an exam could be a unifying idea that provides inclusion for the entire class.
For those students, who are willing and excited about developing their skills, there is plenty of scope to do so. Equally, for those apathetic pupils or those who lack confidence and/or ability, there is a safety net in assessment. No teacher wants to encourage any pupil to do the bare minimum, however, the knowledge that there is a method and a set of success criteria that, if achieved, will result in a pass, can be very reassuring for the latter group.
For those predisposed to literacy, an appreciation will develop organically. To compare with a subject like history for example; is there an expectation that a History teacher will nurture and encourage every single aspect of history in their lessons? With so much to cover, a history teacher is forced to condense the entire history of World War II, for example, into a number of weeks; giving the pupils enough knowledge to pass an end of unit test. This seems to be an admirable method to adopt and any pupil who develops an enjoyment of World War II is free to engage more outside the classroom. If this style of teaching is acceptable for other subjects, why is it frowned upon in English?
John Taylor, an American poet and critic of contemporary European writing, said that poetry in particular, ‘lends shape and meaning to our experiences and helps us to move with confidence in the world we know” (Brindley ed: 1994:210).
This suggests that English, more specifically poetry, encourages understanding of the world around us, building life skills and an ability to understand others. However, time constraints and exam preparation mean that the exploration of this aspect of English is often neglected in favour of more ‘concrete’ learning objectives that may appear in a test or exam.
In a classroom environment, we explore concepts and discuss, argue and write about how accurate our opinions are. It is entirely possible for a child to enjoy a particular genre but fail to express themselves effectively in a test, resulting in a low grade. Naturally this leads to a lack of confidence in the child, an unwillingness to participate and a gradual decline in their enthusiasm.
Trevor Wright explains this theory in ‘How to be a brilliant English teacher’ when he suggests that pupils will ‘immediately self-censor, ignoring a range of other reactions that they think are incorrect or impertinent.’ (2006:44) Wright goes on to explain how ‘This distortion of their reaction is damaging and it proceeds from a lack of confidence’. (2006:45) Therefore, concentrating on a pupil’s confidence could be the key to securing their enjoyment and, in turn, their achievement. So perhaps it is possible for a teacher to achieve both by focussing first on building a solid foundation of understanding.
Rather than concentrate either on an appreciation for literacy or an aptitude for exams, teachers should develop strategies to include both attitudes, in a way that makes the pupils own understanding and opinion central to the learning process. One solution is the use of acronyms or mnemonics to portray success criteria. These have often been used to remember the order of operations in maths lessons (BIDMAS) and planets of the solar system in science lessons (My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas). Why not in English too? It is possible for a child to create a variety of mnemonics, for example, to aid them in remembering statutory spellings that will feature in their end of year assessment.
Dr. Tom Scruggs, a professor of special education, has co-written articles about mnemonics, including Enhancing School Success with Mnemonic Strategies, and a book with fellow professor Margo A. Mastropieri. Scruggs says that mnemonics work best when they form a very clear link between known and unknown information, and when they are practised routinely. ‘Mnemonics work — although not necessarily better than other mnemonics — when they are personal,’ Scruggs explained. For example, if a child creates their own mnemonic to remember a tricky spelling, they are more likely to remember it.
As practised in class: aerial – angry elephants ride in amber lorries.
Incorporating mnemonics does not limit teaching or compress it into something mundane, rather it compartmentalises it. How a pupil decides to use those compartments is entirely down to them, but at least there is something to work with besides a seemingly abstract or overwhelming idea. Fundamentally important to this approach, is that it allows each pupil to produce something personal to them, while at the same time providing a structure that supports them what they need to pass an exam. Similarly, once a child understands that any task, be it spelling, reading or any other aspect of English, can be broken down into simple, accessible sections, they grow in confidence.
Another strategy used to build confidence is to incorporate partner or group work within lessons. It is important to allow children a chance to learn from and to teach each other. This encourages them to become active rather than passive learners by developing collaborative, lifelong learning skills. Teaching effectiveness and efficiency increases, and as a result there is increased enjoyment of teaching by staff and pupils. It also frees up the teacher to engage in some observation and carry out their formative assessment. So it would appear that group/partner work can both develop pupil participation, confidence and enjoyment as well as progressing towards summative assessment targets.
While group work and acronyms may not be to every teacher or pupils liking; developing confidence does appear to be the key. A confident child is more likely to enjoy a lesson, achieve set objectives, and make positive steps towards success in assessment. In addition to this, the guided support of a passionate teacher with secure subject knowledge is certainly helpful. As such, it seems that, although difficult at times, it is possible to guide a child towards assessment while still allowing them opportunities to explore more enjoyable aspects of English in thought provoking and inspiring lessons.
Black, P.J. (1998) Testing, friend or foe? The theory and practice of assessment and testing.
Brindley, S. (ed.) (1993) Teaching English. New York: Routledge.
Mastropieri, M.A, Scruggs.T. (1991) Teaching Students Ways to Remember: Strategies for Learning Mnemonically (Series on Cognitive Strategy Instruction)
Gipps, C.V. and Murphy, P. (1994) A fair test? Assessment, achievement and equity.
Heard, G. and Calkins, L.M. (1989) For the good of the earth and sun: Teaching poetry.
Olson, D.L. (2003). Principles, impracticality, and passion.
Wright, T. (2005) How to be a brilliant English teacher.
Samantha teaches the English curriculum in the Primary School Department. She is an avid reader and also enjoys visiting new places and sharing experiences with friends and family.