English: What is its knowledge?

This is where I placed English on the axes:

Axes (2) - English

Substantive Knowledge

This one really threw me.  What even is ‘English as a discipline’?  The only way I could think to interpret it was as English literature… but this isn’t the entirety of English in schools.  So what on Earth is the substantive knowledge worth knowing?

Joe Kirby helped me out by suggesting this list as a start.  For writing:

  • Spelling
  • Vocabulary
  • Grammar
  • Evolution and etymology of English
  • Rhetoric
  • Non-fiction genres (e.g. biographies, autobiographies, speeches, essays, polemics)

Literary theories would then following in A Level and University study.

For reading:

  • Characters
  • Plot
  • Themes
  • Quotations
  • Theatrical terminology
  • Poetic techniques
  • Literary devices
  • Authors’ biographies
  • Literary, social and historical context

Disciplinary Knowledge

I’m flying pretty blind with this one, so I might guess that the disciplinary work of English is largely rooted in literary analysis.  Knowledge of pre-existing literary theories would be brought to bear in synthesising new analyses and interpretations of literature, or in developing entirely new theoretical frameworks.

An alternative would be to consider the discipline of linguistics.  This one is certainly a discipline, and much easier for me to imagine since it rooted in the scientific method.  But… it’s just so far from anything we usually aim for in English lessons that I’m not sure how helpful it is to consider it.

Why there on the axes?

While I might not be sure to what extent I should be trying to include English as a discipline, and I can at least feel confident about one thing: there is more or less no agreed upon substantive knowledge that English teachers are expected to communicate, and there is an unparalleled focus on what are hoped to be ‘transferable skills.’

At this point, Michael Fordham again notes something useful – he points out that ‘disciplinary knowledge’ is not the same thing as ‘skill,’ or practice.

I’ve interpreted that as the distinction between reading about how to parallel park a car, and actually being able to do it!  Know-how c.f. Can-do.

So is it correct to place English high up there on the axis of disciplinary knowledge?  Are pupils really being indoctrinated into the English discipline, or is their attention being diverted elsewhere?  I suspect I may have misplaced English, but if I have, it becomes all the more worrying, for where else is there to place it but the bottom-left.  Little disciplinary knowledge, little substantive knowledge.  Is that an education at all… ?

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About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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One Response to English: What is its knowledge?

  1. ChristineS says:

    And yet… and yet… surely English is the most important thing children learn at school? By which I mean that ‘it’ – literacy – is the thing they will use every day of their adult lives. There is a huge amount of substantive knowledge packed into those three little words ‘spelling’, ‘vocabulary’ and ‘grammar’ (assuming grammar includes punctuation). To these you might add something like ‘structure’, i.e. how to go beyond writing grammatical sentences to paragraphs and whole texts in various forms. The X should certainly be further to the right. Admittedly, there is far less substantive knowledge involved reading than in writing; what is taught at secondary level are exam skills, such as how to analyse a poem or answer questions on an extract of text. Unfortunately, the tyranny of exams (among other influences and factors which I won’t digress into here) means far too much time is devoted to these latter skills and far too little to the former knowledge.
    As for the discipline of English, perhaps the skills that are taught, of close analysis and interpretation of language, are actually the foundation of the discipline of Stylistics?
    The waters are also much muddied by the failure to teach Literature and Language (i.e. literacy) as separate subjects. This is not like teaching the three major sciences together as ‘combined science’; it is perhaps more like teaching statistics and science as one subject – related, but distinct.

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