English is an important subject, since it’s when we teach people to be literate

Most of the great English writers of the early modern period did not study a subject called ‘English’ at school, so we can say with some certainty that no-one has to study ‘English’ to be literate (no-one has to learn any ‘subject’, in fact, to achieve this). If they are very keen to defend their subject (and I’m not at all sure that they should be), Secondary school English teachers should be very wary indeed of attempts to make them the teachers of ‘literacy’.

In many contexts, ‘literacy’ is treated as a binary value – one either has it or one does not (this is how it is treated, for example, in the generation of statistics regarding a country’s ‘literacy rate’). While a little simplistic, this approach has many merits: it clarifies the core skills of comprehending and producing text that is foundational to so much academic learning. It is also pretty close to the general public’s understanding of the word. In recent decades, however, ‘literacy’ has undergone an unfortunate mission creep, taken to mean an increasingly a complex continuum of capacities and domains, and at the same time presented as the responsibility of more and more teachers, particularly English teachers.

By the time students finish primary school, it is generally hoped (in many cases rather optimistically) that they will have come to acquire what I would insist we continue to call literacy. We probably all have a feeling for what’s intended here – you give someone a basic text and they can read it aloud; they can write a simple note or letter. This notion is probably a little fuzzier than the yes-or-no assumption of the World Atlas table of countries may imply, but, to keep things simple, I feel we can safely assume that it is relatively well defined. 

When students start secondary school, though, they continue, rather confusingly, be tested on their ‘literacy’. What I would argue is in fact at stake in these kinds of assessment is their linguistic capacity in a range of academic genres of English. Thus, while the great bulk of what goes on in English-speaking secondary schools is not really literacy, it most emphatically is English: each academic subject is an introduction to what is effectively just one more sub-genre of the language. These genres are defined chiefly by their vocabulary, so that, as they get to know the meaning of specific English words like ‘osmosis’, ‘integrate’, or ‘sacrament’, along also with particular syntactic or pragmatic conventions which govern their use in practice, some students at least come to be able to handle such diverse texts as biological research papers, mathematical proofs, or seventeenth century poems.

It is true that students may be expected to speak and listen to, say, biological English, and there are also a few non-linguistic skills involved in being good at biology, such as a competence with some of the instruments and procedures of biological experiment. But these facts do not detract from the central role played by mastering the written English of biology when pursuing that subject at school, a fact which goes a long way in explaining the ease with which the term ‘literacy’ has been able to insinuate itself into the secondary curriculum.

Some readers might at this point be concerned about the non-English-speaking biologists – aren’t they competent too, despite their inability to communicate about biology in English? Well, while the culture of examination and graded assessment that has taken hold in our schools deserves a good amount of hostility, we must be committed to the idea that what goes on in school should ultimately be structured in terms of some kind of public, or at least observable, performance. This is not because this is the final purpose of schooling – something about which a liberal society should in my view remain pretty agnostic – it is just that only public performance provides the meaningful and verifiable structure around which day to day activity can be organised. Even in some future utopian school where the tyranny of graded examinations has been put to an end, teachers will inevitably rely on language to gauge progress, to such an extent that progress in the education system can only really be understood as linguistic.

Thus, a Spanish student who graduates successfully from school specialising in biology clearly has something powerfully in common with an English student who has done the same – but what they have in common is not that they have been shown to ‘know’ the same truths: rather, they each have demonstrated competence in a particular technical genre of their respective languages. These two genres (Biological-Spanish and Biological-English) have a great deal of connection: their respective vocabularies can be relatively directly and easily translated (a key marker of the more ‘scientific’ genres), and they clearly refer to the same phenomenon in the world. But the students’ school results do not entail that they have the same knowledge – they’ve both simply proven that they are good at similar types of language (if you’re not persuaded, because you thought students were necessarily acquiring ‘knowledge’ of the world when they studied biology, have a look at ‘Knowledge and Skills’ for more detail on this argument). 

Clearly, nobody attains technical vocabularies covering all the range of academic genres on offer, even at school level.  By achieving it in just a few, sufficiently distinct domains, though, it is generally assumed that they will have taken a significant step towards what might be called an ‘educated’ vocabulary. This is what might best be understood as what is expected of graduates – the capacity to handle relatively sophisticated texts, and the confidence and capacity to attain technical vocabularies in previously unmet genres if necessary.

Now, it goes without saying that there are countless genres in which the English teacher is very unlikely to be the most, or even one of the most, conversant members of staff in the school.  It is also far from certain that English teachers are by default more likely to possess an educated vocabulary.  Given these facts, it is evidently absurd that responsibility for this (what is sometimes, and in my view confusingly, referred to as a question of literacy) should be foisted on them. English teachers, in so far as they have any expertise, are experts in just two genres: the analysis of texts (and not their comprehension) and, more specifically, the interpretation of literary texts. There is, perhaps, an expectation that English teachers might also be better able to teach the writing of certain kinds of public texts with greater ease (literature, journalism, advertisements, formal letters). Beyond these, obviously important, genres, though, most technical and academic genres are simply, and inevitably, beyond them.

English teachers should not be afraid to repeatedly point out to their colleagues that they are all in the business of language instruction. In my experience, this kind of argument frequently leads to kick-back: the attachment of many subject teachers to the power, that comes with the notion of ‘specialist knowledge’ can be a significant force. The solution to this impasse lies in the understanding that an educated vocabulary is a multi-variate phenomenon, and that every school contains numerous experts who, notwithstanding their fear of spelling, novels or adverbs, possess particular powers of English far exceeding anything that any mere English teacher could offer.

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