What is English?

English is a subject suitable for women and the second- and third-rate men who are to become schoolmasters” (Professor Sanday, 1893)

School Subject of English

Everyone knows what English is, don’t they? Say “I’m an English teacher” and everyone’s pretty clear what you do. But the subject “English” is an amorphous, nebulous thing. Brilliant minds have tried to quantify it for almost a hundred years, since the Newbolt Report (1921), through Bullock’s “Language for Life” (1975), and on to Kingman (1988) and Cox (1989). The first National Curriculum sprang from the work of Cox in particular, and since then successive governments have laid out what they believe English to be.

English is a vital way of communicating in school, in public life and internationally. Literature in English is rich and influential, reflecting the experience of people from many countries and times. In studying English pupils develop skills in speaking, listening, reading and writing. It enables them to express themselves creatively and imaginatively and to communicate with others effectively. Pupils learn to become enthusiastic and critical readers of stories, poetry and drama as well as non-fiction and media texts. The study of English helps pupils understand how language works by looking at its patterns, structures and origins. Using this knowledge pupils can choose and adapt what they say and write in different situations. (Introduction to The Importance of English (2000) – from National Curriculum for English (2000). See also KS3 English National Curriculum 2007 for a slightly revised version)

We are now at an important – nay, critical – juncture in the definition of English in secondary schools. Michael Gove has laid out for consultation his proposals for a national curriculum, with specific details for English at Key Stage 4. Here’s the new take:

English has a pre-eminent place in education and in society. It is a subject in its own right and the medium for teaching; for pupils, understanding language provides access to the whole curriculum. Through being taught to write and speak fluently, pupils learn to communicate their ideas and emotions to others; through their reading and listening, others can communicate with them. Through reading in particular, pupils have a chance to develop culturally, emotionally, spiritually and socially. Literature, especially, plays a key role in such development. Reading also enables pupils both to acquire knowledge and to build on what they already know. All the skills of language are essential to participating fully as a member of society; pupils, therefore, who do not learn to read and write fluently and confidently, are, in every sense, disenfranchised. (Purpose of Study from Draft KS4 English Curriculum (2013))

There are obvious changes in emphasis here. Gone is the mention of international aspects of English, reference to media, specific references to creativity and imagination. In their place a greater emphasis on knowledge, the notion of English as a carrier for the rest of the curriculum, and that deliberately political reference to franchise.

But this isn’t why this is such a critical juncture. We’ve had national curriculum redrafts before (see National Curriculum Comparisons) but since I’ve been a teacher we haven’t had the freedom and independence that we have now. As Michael Rosen noted in his brilliant letter from a curious parent recently, the new national curriculum does not apply to academies (or free schools or independent schools, for that matter). If you are a subject leader in an academy, you can start with a blank sheet of paper and you can decide what you think the English curriculum should be. Of course, exam specifications at Key Stage 4 and post-16 will still straitjacket your curriculum to an extent. But you can write your own rationale and develop a curriculum in English that’s right – right for you, right for your context, morally, spiritually,politically and culturally right.  This is an opportunity unprecedented in my career.


I am not a subject leader in English any more – but I was. And I have been thinking long and hard about this opportunity. Here’s what I feel “English” is:

English is reading

Reading for pleasure, of course. Reading with discrimination and the ability to infer and deduce. Reading widely across genres and forms. Reading multi-modally, to understand and assimilate the web of links behind online and multimedia texts.

English is writing 

Writing confidently, fluently, skilfully. Writing accurately and clearly. Writing with craft and attention to detail. Writing creatively. Writing for self-expression. Writing for purpose. Writing in many voices, genres and forms. Writing multi-modally. Writing for pleasure.

English is speaking and listening

Speaking confidently, fluently, skilfully. Listening sensitively, thoughtfully, carefully. Speaking formally and informally. Speaking to present, discuss, perform, share, explore, explain and argue.  Listening to different voices, perspectives and views. Listening to understand, learn, and grow.

English is functional

Students need to understand the mechanics of English. They need a metalanguage to be able to explore and analyse how the language works. There is a knowledge base that needs to be taught in order to achieve this. The application of this knowledge supports the understanding needed for effective and critical listening and for powerful and purposeful speaking and writing.

English is cultural

English language and literature documents culture. Students need to explore that cultural heritage widely and with an understanding about the threads of common humanity that transcend time and place. The English cultural heritage is important, but the place of England and English in a wider British and global culture is equally so. The great richness that our history, present and future as a multicultural melting pot has brought to our language and literature is critical. And the use of various Englishes globally to express multiple cultural realities is essential.

English is humanising

In 1868 the Rev. G.G. Bradley, Headmaster of Marlborough school, said “I would give unusual weight to the teaching of English language, literature and history, to attempt to humanise and refine a boy’s mind”. Whilst I think his agenda was somewhat different to mine, there is something vital that happens in the English classroom that must not be lost. Somewhere in the collective experience of exploring the thoughts and feelings of other people through the language they use, we all learn more about what it is to be human. We learn about empathy and understanding others, and about self-expression, and through this combination we learn about ourselves and who we are.


It’s no wonder we struggle with effective assessment in English. With a subject as diverse, culturally and politically loaded, and profound as this, any assessment can only possibly look at small fragments of it. Planning the delivery of a curriculum like this is a monumental task, and actually teaching it a staggering responsibility. But what a pleasure and a privilege it is. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

6 thoughts on “What is English?

  1. Love it, Chris. I taught English for thirty years and always felt that, well-taught, English was about educating young people’s imaginations and helping them to develop their souls.

  2. Pingback: Canon Fodder | Teaching: Leading Learning

  3. This is a great read. I’m currently writing my MA dissertation with a focus on the teaching of context within the current GCSE English Literature specification. This piece really addresses some of the same key issues I’m considered; it was nice to read someone else’s take on it. Thank you!

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