October 25, 2023
By Patrick Cragg
English has a dominant position in the UK curriculum. Most children have an English lesson almost every day, from the start of Reception to the end of Year 11. In this week’s Wednesday Wisdom, English teacher and examiner Patrick Cragg offers an insight into all the different strands that make up English, the unique benefits and challenges of the subject, and how parents can support their children.
“Wherefore” means “why”. It doesn’t mean “where”.
An English teacher probably taught you that, back when you studied Romeo and Juliet at school. In this week’s column reflecting on my own subject, English, I’d like to start with one of the most famous lines ever written, from Shakespeare’s play, the way a student might encounter it in a typical secondary English lesson.
JULIET: O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
(Act 2 Scene 2)
Students need to begin by knowing the plot. Juliet’s father, Lord Capulet, has hosted a great ball, and some young men from the family’s bitter enemies, the Montagues, have snuck in without an invitation. That’s how Juliet met Romeo, and it was love at first sight. The real thing, new and intense and terrifying.
Later that night, Juliet proclaims her love. She thinks no-one can hear her, but Romeo is waiting in the garden below, hoping to catch a glimpse of her.
After the plot, let’s think about vocabulary. Wherefore means why. Why did it have to be Romeo, a Montague? Of all the boys she could have met, why did it have to be one that her family will never accept?
Now let’s look at how this moment fits into the whole play. Juliet is in love, but she’s in some real danger. There’s no question of any romantic or sexual relationship with Romeo outside of marriage: the risk is too great. If her parents found out, she’d be ostracised, quite possibly sent to a convent. However deeply she and Romeo might be in love, every moment they spend together is dangerous. So this line reveals something essential about the play’s heroine. She might have lost her heart, but she hasn’t lost her mind. She is grounded and canny where Romeo is melancholy and over-dramatic.
English teachers also teach context, the ideas from Shakespeare’s own time that made his drama relatable and interesting. One important way of reading older texts is seeing through the eyes of their first audiences. Traditionally, families like Juliet’s would have chosen husbands and wives for their children, but in Shakespeare’s time young people were beginning to expect more of a say in who they married, and to marry for love, albeit with parental approval. So Shakespeare is exploiting that social change to create drama, a conflict between parents who want to control their children, and children who want to act for themselves.
We teach students to analyse language very closely. Shakespeare’s characters very often speak in iambic pentameter: a poetic rhythm made of ten syllables per line, with a repeated pattern of unstressed and stressed sounds. But Juliet’s line has just too many syllables, as if it’s trying to burst out of the correct rhythm with all those repetitions of the word “Romeo”. It reflects the way she can’t contain her feelings. The intensity and the pressure of her infatuation is just too much.
There’s so much to say about one line of a play that has over 3,000 of them! And Romeo and Juliet is just one text that students could study for their GCSEs, or one unit in Key Stage 3.
So the challenge for English teachers and subject leaders is: how do you pack it all in? If you’re a child, how do you keep up? And if you’re a parent, how can you support it all?
English, along with Maths, has a dominant position in the curriculum. English is the only subject with two compulsory GCSEs. It plays the biggest part in school performance measures. Within the last few weeks, compulsory study of English up to 18 has been floated by the UK Prime Minister; already, any student who achieves below a Grade 4 at GCSE must re-take the English Language GCSE in Year 12.
So there is a firm conviction at the heart of our education system that English teaches something very important and essential for progress through school and into further education and work. But at the same time, English is a subject that has trouble defining itself. Many English teachers feel a sense of what the military call “mission creep”: a gradual expansion of what the subject has to cover, until it tries to become all things to all people.
The subject of English in schools must give students a firm grounding in literacy, with a wide vocabulary and a high degree of accuracy and control in their writing. It incorporates elements of critical thinking, of how to follow an argument and how to write persuasively. English introduces students to Shakespeare and Dickens and the “great literature” of the past, while trying to celebrate diversity and the power of literature to give a voice to minorities and vulnerable groups. When we trace literature back to its roots we give a crash course in Classics; when we consider works in their social and cultural contexts we can teach a lesson in History or Philosophy. And that’s not to mention training students in public speaking, encouraging them to read for pleasure outside of school or teaching language analysis!
Perhaps because the subject itself contains so many elements, children and parents often seem unclear on the opportunities it offers, or why they should choose English for further study at A-Level or University.
Studying English isn’t just about the books you read, although a number of studies have proven the links between a wide reading diet and literacy skills, academic performance and emotional wellbeing. English opens students to the history of ideas and the imagination, to the common narratives and experiences that have inspired writers and readers for over 2,000 years. Sophocles, Shakespeare and Jane Austen all considered the duty of children to their parents. Wilfred Owen, writing and dying on the battlefield of World War 1, knew Homer’s writing of the Trojan War, and modern writings by Pat Barker, Khaled Hosseini and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie still grapple with the trauma of conflict.
English teaches students to read closely and with empathy, applying analytical methods and comparing across different sources. It encourages both research and originality, vital attributes in any creative field, in law, in business and in journalism. A student of English develops the stamina and resilience to dig into longer texts, not just reach for quick answers from the internet.
In fact, because of the varied nature of the subject and the diverse field of ideas it covers, the career paths opened by English are limitless and rewarding. At A-Level, students can be very quick to pigeonhole themselves into STEM subjects and leave behind others such as English, History and Religious Studies. But consider that a prestigious, science-focused degree such as Medicine at Oxford University only specifies two required A-Levels, leaving space for a Humanities subject such as English. English is the ultimate subject for producing well-rounded candidates, who think about their wider world and their place in it, who can express themselves accurately and with empathy, who are intellectually curious, and who, when they talk about themselves, have something to talk about.
How can you as a parent help children make the most of their English study, and perform well in exams when there is so much content to learn and revise? I think the best approach is to model intellectual curiosity and give opportunities for encounters with lots of different types of writing and culture.
The best first step is to encourage your child to read regularly. Ask for help from a librarian or bookshop in choosing something that will engage them, and make 20 minutes of reading part of the routine every evening. Talk about any reading that you enjoy yourself, and leave your books on display where your children can see them.
Be a role model for their interest in writing. Try to make different kinds of writing and literature part of the home environment. There are many wonderful anthologies of poetry that encourage daily reading: read one each day with your child and ask them about it afterwards.
Consider a trip to the theatre if you can reach one. This doesn’t have to be expensive, even in major cities. The National Theatre in London, Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and the Leeds Playhouse all sell a number of cheaper tickets to each production.
A great book to have on your shelf is an age-appropriate collection of stories from Greek mythology. Some familiarity with these foundational stories can be revelatory for wider reading, or for a trip to a gallery or museum, as children recognise the same characters and situations repeated over and over throughout other art.
Encourage your child to sometimes watch a film outside of their usual interest. This is a great way to model curiosity and the idea that some things are only rewarding when you concentrate on them! Movies like It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Rear Window (1954), 12 Angry Men (1957), E.T. (1982), Back To The Future (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), or Spirited Away (2001) are all rated U or PG and accessible to school-age viewers.
And finally: talk to your child often about the work they do in English. Ask them to summarise the story of what they’re reading. Ask them to read their creative writing to you. Pick one interesting word in any piece of writing and ask them to explain why it was chosen.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Today's Wednesday Wisdom focuses on English as a school subject, but Tooled Up offers plenty of support and ideas for multilingual families. For parents, we have a webinar and tips for raising a bilingual child, as well as a fascinating podcast exploring some misconceptions around bilingualism. Teachers will benefit from our 30 Tips for Supporting Parents of EAL Pupils.
If you’d like to learn more about the benefits of encouraging children’s sense of wonder and curiosity (the ideal platform for the exploration of literature), we recommend listening to our interview with Dr Marina Bazhydai Tooled Up subscribers exploring the resource library will also find written and video tips to engage children in creative writing at home, designed to give their writing confidence and spelling a boost, promote a consideration of vocabulary and nudge them to use ideas from their wider reading and experiences. You’ll also find advice about reading to your child.
If your child is currently studying GCSE, our framework for supporting teens studying Macbeth is ideal for strengthening their knowledge and understanding of this complex play.
Our webinar on Paintings Every Family Should See is a great starting point for broadening children’s cultural awareness.