The Problem with English

Medieval illustration of a Christian scribe wr...Image via Wikipedia
Medieval illustration of a scribe writing
Or “Why I Wish I Were a Maths Teacher

The problem with teaching English, as a subject, not as a second language, is that ability in English is nearly impossible to quantify and grade.

Take this example of “Assessment Focuses” that English teachers should use in assessing pupil’s progress in writing ability in the UK: “Assessment Focus 5: vary sentences for clarity, purpose and effect”, a level 8 (quite a high level) is:

Across a range of writing... variety of sentences deployed judiciously across the text to achieve purpose and overall effect”.

A level 7 in the same Assessment Focus:

Across a range of writing... sentence structure is imaginative, precise and accurate, matched to writer’s purpose and intended effect on the reader...

Do these focuses mean anything? How do you measure “sentences deployed judiciously”? If anything I would have imagined sentence structure that is “imaginative, precise and accurate” to beat sentences that are just “deployed judiciously” whatever the hell that means.To be fair though, I didn’t quote the entirety of the level 7 “descriptor” - tacked on to the end of the descriptor, as if with a Post-It note, is the qualifying condition “with rare loss of control”. But to my mind this last caveat exists solely to differentiate level 7 as a lower level than level 8 - when your sentences aren’t being “deployed judiciously” they’re being deployed [obviously] with “rare loss of control”

As an aside, how do you lose control of a sentence anyway? It’s not like it’s a tiger or snake or some sort of sentient being that wants to take control of your words and force you to do horrible things with them! Whilst admittedly my teaching career is only just taking-off, I’m yet to hear the excuse, “sorry Sir, I just lost control of my sentence there”.

But the question that ought to be asked is: are those people who create “education-ese”, that horrible pseudo language known only to pedagogues, to be trusted with dictating how English should be taught? I say “those people” but in reality I haven’t the foggiest who they actually are - academics? politicians? bureaucrats? teachers? or more specifically careerist teachers? who knows? Some combination of all of the above most likely. Whoever they are, can they really be trusted with the language in general when they blight the teaching profession with ugly words like “descriptors” and “focusses” and acronyms like AfL, APP and PPA.

The rule of thumb that the creators of education-speak follow when mangling English into their bastard jargon seems to be: “Express simple ideas as awkwardly as possible in order to obscure their meaning”. Because of course an idea which is hard to understand must obviously be an intelligent one. How else can you explain school libraries’ transformation into “Learning Resource Centres” and then transforming again into LRCs? An honest English word with a distinguished Latin pedigree, which everyone understands and has pleasant connotations becomes the bland acronym LRC which no-one but those “in the know” understand. Following this rule of obfuscation, verbs are replaced with phrases and sentences are padded-out with redundant adjectives and adverbs that don’t really add anything to their meaning.

For example Assessment Focus 1 in reading: “use a range of strategies, including accurate decoding of text, to read for meaning”. Is “accurate decoding of text” not the same thing as reading. And if you’re not “reading for meaning” then what the hell are you reading for? In fact, we get a long-winded “descriptor” which sounds vaguely technical but really just means “uses a range of strategies for reading”. If you were expecting the strategies such as use of context clues or use of semantic cues for example to be described or outlined somehow in the level descriptors then you’d be wrong - level descriptors are far too abstract to provide anything so useful as that.

I could of course indulge myself picking apart the whole English framework document for similar examples, but the real point is how do you quantify something as subjective as “good writing”? At the moment there exists a framework which gives the illusion of rigourous assessment and standards that are applied across the board. However, as the example quoted above illustrates, the different levels amount to little more than a subjective opinion of the degree of hyperbole appropriate in describing any given piece of writing (for example “judicious” vs “precise and accurate”).

My own feeling is that the key to this question has something to do with the practical applications of writing and less to do with subjective definitions. My own rough guesses on student ability is usually more based on concepts to do with clarity and understanding. How well a student understands the difference between “quoting” and paraphrasing and how carefully a student uses the two with an eye to exactness of meaning. Or how well a student understands the fundamental difference between factual statements which can be checked for veracity and subjective statements which can be neither proved nor disproved.

I would one day like to see a set of assessment criteria for English that were focussed above all on clarity and made no attempt to pass a grade on subjective or abstract notions such as how “imaginative”, “thoughtful” or “judiciously chosen” words might be. To this end we could do a lot worse than to follow Orwell’s instruction for the “defence of the English language” as prescribed in his essay “Politics and the English Language

The defence of the English language ... is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one's meaning clear ... or with having what is called a "good prose style." ... [It] is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one's meaning. What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.
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