Wednesday, 15 October 2014

How do we teach English?

For my Ed.D, I'm looking at English, culture, books, why we think all these are important, how we teach them and ultimately, do we need our children and young people to have prior knowledge of well, just about everything or a certain set of things in order to get the most out of their reading experiences? 
Thirty odd years ago, an American academic, E D Hirsch published his Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.  This makes for an interesting read; setting down everything that American children should know which will allow them to get the most out of their education and become successful and useful citizens.  This notion of needing to know things, that we get the most out of learning when it links to something that is already known, is something that many conservative (also labelled, traditional) educationalists over here in the UK, believe to be key in teaching English in our schools. In this case, familiarity does not breed contempt and certainly, in modern children's and YA literature, series fiction along with  novels derivative of so much that has gone before are fantastically popular. 

Hurrah, young people are reading!  it doesn't matter what they read, as long as they are reading.  Right? That's what I've always been told and it is certainly something that I have told parents, worried that their children never read 'proper books' but are content to read online gossip and comics or football and style magazines. But actually, maybe this is not the case.  What if, in not encouraging children to read a 'canon' of literature which will set them up to really get the most out of everything that they read, what if we, as educationalists, are actually dooming them to never being able to gain control of their own language and reading experiences?  This is certainly an accusation laid down by Michael Gove at the door of Michael Rosen after he (in an eloquent register, edited to an acceptable degree so that he was communicating in a discourse universal to educationalists and politicians), suggested that it was wrong to subject children to rigorous grammar, testing and an assumption that there is a correct sort of English that should be used - a canon of 'good' literature that has merit and worth in its study.

As you know, I love YA novels and I love their film adaptations.  I can argue for their place in any young person's personal literary canon until the cows come home.  But now I'm beginning to wonder if my ability to stand up for Twilight and see the best in The Bunker Diaries and Divergent, to marvel at the ingenuity of Malorie Blackman and the twisting gender roles in the Chaos Walking trilogy is because I recognise in them many elements of older writing and authorship.  I can bring a prior knowledge that makes the 'new' seem tangible and solid where their detractors see fluff and poor plotting.  I am beginning to think differently and I like it.  The more I read, the more I find out.  So it's back to the reading.  And the finding out.

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