Literature and Literacy: What’s the point of English?

Schools make students take English for longer than any other subject. At the same time, English has become less about literature and more about literacy. Should it be?

When I was in year twelve, on the heels of an exciting assignment in one subject and some less wonderful test results in another, I started to think that I might prefer a career as an English professor to one as a physicist. But this posed a problem; while the value to humanity of unravelling the secrets of the universe seemed readily apparent, I wasn’t completely convinced that allowing myself to be paid to read and write about Shakespeare wouldn’t basically be robbery. I started an English degree anyway, telling myself that education was about more than preparing for work, and that if I did pursue an academic career in the subject, I at least wouldn’t be contributing any less to the world than an investment banker or professional athlete.

By the end of my degree, I had added a major in Education, which came closer to fulfilling my need to be doing something useful. Still, the question of what studying English was meant to achieve continued to haunt me. I wrote essays about the importance of the humanities in education, and sometimes temporarily convinced myself that I was right. I’ve always been aware, though, that I was looking for reasons to justify a belief that I would have held regardless of its logic, and that this was affecting my judgement. Ultimately, the reason why I continued to argue for the importance of studying literature was because I loved doing it.

Most New Zealand schools require students to take English for longer than any other subject, usually through year twelve. Despite our constant bewailing of the emphasis on STEM above all else in our schools, English is actually treated as more essential than maths and science.

This has an impact on what high school English looks like, because for longer than any other subject, English classes are filled with students who don’t want to be there, who don’t see the point of the subject and may struggle with it. Last year I had a student who was moved into my class halfway through the year because she was refusing to complete any assessments in Music. There was no point in her remaining in the Music class if she wasn’t going to do the work, so she moved to a different option and her timetable was rearranged, landing her in my English class. She had no intention of doing any English assessments, either (despite being very able), but she couldn’t simply drop the subject. It was compulsory to be in an English class, regardless of what you were doing while you were there. Keeping such students engaged and earning credits becomes the English teacher’s job, adding another incentive to centre English classes on films and pop culture instead of literature.

So, why is so much importance placed on English? You don’t need me to tell you this: it’s because of literacy.

Despite frequent claims that all teachers are responsible for literacy teaching, and the availability of NCEA literacy credits across the curriculum, English retains responsibility for the actual teaching of literacy skills. When I’m hired as an English tutor, what’s usually wanted is literacy help. It’s English teachers who (hopefully) keep helping students improve their writing skills. It’s in English class that students are introduced to essay writing. English class is the only place where it makes sense to frequently put content on hold to work on the way a student expresses themselves. The lofty status of English in our schools is fundamentally tied to its reputation as a “skills-based” subject; while we can argue that the specific content of any other subject isn’t strictly essential, we have retained some sense that becoming educated entails becoming literate, and requiring students to sit in an English class for four years enables a school to at least appear to meet that obligation.

But what if English class isn’t the best way to teach literacy? There’s plenty of evidence that literacy skills are best taught in the context of learning content knowledge, but English classes (especially those for struggling students) have a tendency to turn into “literacy” classes. A glance over the NCEA English standards or the New Zealand Curriculum achievement objectives for English is enough to see that the study of literature (the content of English as a discipline) is not a priority. And fair enough: while studying literature has some advantages for literacy teaching in terms of encouraging attention to language and high text complexity, literary analysis and writing are very different skills, and writing a literary analysis essay has little in common with day-to-day adult writing tasks. Teaching students to analyse Shakespeare while also teaching them to write about it isn’t actually any easier than teaching writing alongside teaching chemical bonding. Because English teachers carry the responsibility for literacy teaching, however, the chemistry teachers get to continue teaching their subject, while the study of literature is cut out of English class to make room for literacy.

This is a shame, because the study of literature has much to offer students. Literature takes students out of their own heads, broadening their worldview and building empathy. Like other academic disciplines, studying literature builds conceptual knowledge. It also builds cultural capital, allowing students to participate in the wider intellectual conversation. Literature-centred English classes also give students access to the classroom’s most valuable resource – the teacher’s expert knowledge. Most English teachers have degrees in English literature, not literacy development.

However, just because something has benefits doesn’t mean everyone should have to do it. There are similarly strong arguments for the value of history, science, even PE (much as it pains me to admit it, as someone whose decision about which secondary school to attend was heavily influenced by finding somewhere that didn’t require PE beyond year ten). This is is how we end up with a bloated curriculum; we can always come up with a compelling list of benefits for any subject an enthusiastic teacher would like to offer. Literature is important. For some people (the kind who become English teachers), it makes our lives better. But I don’t see any reason why the study of literature – as opposed to literacy development – should be treated as more important than other academic subjects like history and science. In fact, when it comes to being an informed citizen, both of those subjects have more obvious value than knowledge of literature.

So, I’m not saying that high school English should be abolished. I’m saying that we should make room for English to be a subject in its own right, with a focus on literature rather than literacy. In this form, it probably makes sense for English to be equal in status with, say, history — introduced in the junior school, but optional for seniors. Perhaps there should be a requirement for students to take one humanities class, just as many schools require year elevens to choose a science option. Most importantly, this requires a significant increase in literacy across the curriculum. My favourite books on how to make this happen are Hochman and Wexler’s The Writing Revolution, and Mike Schmoker’s Focus. By properly, deliberately teaching literacy in every class (not just assuming that literacy teaching is happening because students have to read and write occasionally), students can spend more time building this essential skill set, and English teachers can get back to teaching the subject they know and love.

Image credits

“old books” by vandentroost is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

“Emptiness” by YuMaNuMa is licensed under CC BY 2.0