Back To School: Literacy vs English and how learning could be different…


First the wide open days of summer narrow towards September; then the half-exciting half-boring rush of practicalities (new shoes, pencil case…); and then, after an early night, the first day back – nearly always a day of pure late gold.

What I also notice now, in my own children, is a readiness to get on with things after the long holiday and a new willingness to experience school afresh.

If only at that moment, our education system allowed teachers to really seize the inherent hunger for learning and doing that is within children, just think what young people could do!  Instead – from very the top down – teachers are hampered by too much emphasis on targets and levels, pressurised to teach to the test, and inevitably driven by outcomes rather than the journey itself.

And somehow, somewhere, an opportunity is missed.

And that ‘missing something’ approach begins way before, in early primary school, and is somehow captured for me in the concept of ‘Literacy’.

I don’t know when Literacy was introduced, or what the thinking was (maybe someone can tell me?).  Only that when my son started primary school 10 years ago, it had already happened.  He studied Literacy every day.

And why for me is it indicative of things that are wrong in education?  Because literacy, as the Oxford dictionary explains, is the ‘ability to read and write’; a ‘competence or knowledge in a specified area’ – in this case, the English language.  It is learning spelling, grammar, punctuation. It is rules: rules for how to write a good sentence (‘use connectives!’, ‘use adjectives!’) and a good story (‘write a plan!’, ‘give it a good beginning, middle, end!’).  As a result, it’s something you can be constantly marked on and assessed against.  And it’s everything that Labour and now Mr Gove have been telling schools to do.

But the real subject to be learnt – let’s call it English but it’s not the name that matters, it’s what it includes – is far, far broader than that.   English is our shared language, with all its variations around the world. It’s what we are born and grow into – or learn into. It includes cultures, histories, peoples. It includes the possibility of creativity, innovation and change.  It is our language and we need to enjoy it, feel at home in it, feel good and confident enough to use it well in whatever ways we need.

And – unlike with literacy – the way to do this well is to grow, from an early age, a love of language in our children.  At home and at school, we can do this in many ways: through rhymes and songs; talking and telling; stories told, read, invented and written; books read and talked about; ideas and questions explored, discussed and debated.  And just through encouraging children to discover, enjoy, experiment and feel good in this language that they will live and work within throughout their lives.

Which do you think should come first at primary school age? It still frustrates me, even though my children have moved onto secondary school, that 9 year olds are being taught how to do a timed, assessed piece of writing – a magazine article or a perfectly planned, structured story – and made to feel it is right or wrong, when they still need to be exploring and creating within their language.  They’re 9 years old for goodness’ sake!  That can all come easily, better, later.

And then I read an interview with the wonderful writer of children’s stories Phillip Pullman in The Guardian in August and I thought YES, someone important is speaking out:

I’m convinced” he says, “that these (stories, rhymes…) are the foundations of all subsequent language skills.  These are the fundamental things, the real basics.  Our politicians talk about ‘the basics’ all the time, but what they mean are things that you can correct at the last minute on your word processor: spelling, punctuation, that kind of thing. But the most basic thing of all is your attitude to language….A sense that language belongs to us, and we belong in it, and that it’s fun to be there and we can take risks with it and say silly things in it and it doesn’t matter and it’s funny.  If your sense of language is that it’s something you’ve got to get correct and you mustn’t get wrong and your’re going to get marked on it, judged on it, well… That’s a poor show.”

Which is why I am so grateful for my 70’s primary education and the endless 15 side stories I was allowed to write in the times that were set aside just for that; and how it always felt such a free, creative, flowing, almost personal and private time.  And yet such important learning was taking place.

As the poet William Butler Yeats said (and as most teachers feel at heart) “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”



2 thoughts on “Back To School: Literacy vs English and how learning could be different…

  1. EXACTLY!!!!! Perfectly put – it makes me spitting mad too – once a child is put off and made to feel they are ‘failing’ – at 5/6 or 7 – that can last a lifetime and lead to lack of confidence etc etc – it is so short sighted and misguided and WRONG. All children have something creative, interesting and persinal to say and they must feel it is valued – you need confidence and interest and the ‘rules’ will come later. As it is too many children will ‘shut up’ , clam shut and decide that they are failing and they can’t do literacy.

    • I know. It’s a depressing thing when your 8 year old writes a wonderful, mad, long story that goes in fifteen directions and shows spirit, heart, curiosity and creativity, but the only comment is: ‘Try to use more connectives’.

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