Tag Archives: English in Australia

English in Schools isn’t what it used to be

It’s often said – nostalgically by some; in a tone of satisfaction by others – that English in schools isn’t what it used to be. Two recent publications and a new publishing project remind me how much the teaching of English (including literature) has indeed changed during my lifetime.


One of these is the latest issue of English in Australia (vol. 49 no. 2), the journal of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English. It’s a retrospective edition, celebrating half a century of AATE activity. For this special number, each previous editor selected and introduced an article from the period of his or her editorship, placing the chosen piece in a context of changing patterns in the English teaching profession. The result is a lively miscellany that begins with a reflection by Judith Wright on the teaching of poetry and includes items by a range of influential educators such as John Dixon, Garth Boomer, Bill Green and Claire Woods.

It also reprints an article of mine from 1982, ‘The Crisis in English Studies’ – which, to quote from Margaret Gill’s prefatory comments, ‘challenged current academic practice and argued for a radical revision of what counted as English Literature and how it might be taught.’ Referring not only to this article but also to my 1984 book The Making of Literature and my work as a curriculum developer, Margaret remarks that I’ve had a fair bit of influence on integrating the critical and the creative in classroom practice. Although she probably overstates the case in saying that ‘Ian Reid initiated a revolution in the teaching of literature’, I’m pleased anyway that this commemorative issue of EinA puts me in eminent company, and sees ideas I’ve espoused as ‘still at the heart of the best of English teaching today.’

But ‘English teaching today’ in schools and universities is not quite what it was in 1964, when the AATE began, or in 1984, when I wrote The Making of Literature. Students tend to read different things now, and are encouraged to read them in different ways. Some of the differences may be healthy, but others are less so. Here’s a dispiriting example of an unhealthy trend: the national curriculum prescribed by ACARA puts a mandatory emphasis on certain ‘priority’ themes (Sustainability, Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Indigenous culture) for English and all other areas of study. Why should those ideologically framed themes dominate student learning at the expense of elements of western civilisation that underpin our country’s political institutions, legal traditions and cultural values?

Earlier in the year I posted some thoughts on Literature and ‘balance’ in the school curriculum, arguing that the original Literature study design for VCE English got it right 25 years ago by requiring ‘a balance between material which responds to students’ current interests and material which expands their interests and increases their knowledge’ so that (e.g.) ‘students should have experience of those texts which have become a part of various established traditions in literature as well as those which have been more recently produced.’


Another perspective comes from English Teachers in a Postwar Democracy: Emerging Choice in London Schools, 1945-65, by Peter Medway et al. A detailed study of English teaching practices and classroom reforms as they developed in three London schools, it uses oral history as well as analysis of teachers’ workbooks and students’ writing. With its focus on the everyday realities of trying to engage students in forms of communication that make sense to them, this book is a salutary reminder that pedagogy, the relationship between teacher and learner, is pivotal for understanding what has changed in English classrooms and what hasn’t.

Something that makes this book relevant to an Australian context is the fact that two of the teachers who figure prominently in it had a powerful international influence: John Dixon and Harold Rosen. (I’ve also written about both of them in my book Wordsworth and the Formation of English Studies, which is cited by Medway and his co-authors.) As mentioned above, an article by Dixon is among the pieces chosen for the retrospective issue of English in Australia.

My third perspective on this topic comes from a book that’s still in preparation, called Conditions of Assent: Literature, Literary Studies, and Subject English. Tim Dolin, Jo Jones and Trish Dowsett are editing it. I know about their project because I’ve been invited to contribute a chapter. The book is based on a database they’ve compiled, called ALIAS (Analysis of Literature in Australian Schools), which collates all texts prescribed for senior secondary English or Literature courses in nearly all states from 1945 to 2005. In Conditions of Assent an assortment of scholars will interpret the data to which they’ve been given access.

As the editors are well aware, a mere list of set texts doesn’t constitute a curriculum for English in itself. But the ALIAS database, a comprehensive macro-list, can certainly provide a useful starting point for considering aspects of English in Australian secondary schools since the end of World War 2. Predictably, it shows both continuity and development in what has been prescribed for study over that period. What particular changes would you expect to emerge? Less poetry, more pedestrian prose? Fewer canonical writers like Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontes? More books about contemporary adolescent experience? More Australian literature, less British and American? Well, I won’t pre-empt any specific findings here, but some of them may turn out to be surprising.

Of course, no database of texts can yield much insight into English teaching and learning unless it’s supplemented by other information. My chapter will consider how the curriculum for literary studies has been ‘framed’ in senior secondary Australian classrooms by various factors that may constrain approaches to the listed texts. For example, does the syllabus include reference material and recommended resources? Do assessment tasks ensure an alignment between what’s officially set, what’s actually taught and what students eventually learn?


Reading Like a Writer

Reading Like a WriterDuring an exchange of comments following one of my recent posts on ‘Residues of Reading‘, I mentioned a stimulating book by Francine Prose (yes, that’s her real name!), and I’d now like to tell you a bit more about it.

The author, a New Yorker, has written twenty works of fiction and is also well known as a biographer, critic, essayist, and teacher of literature and creative writing. Near the beginning of Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, Francine Prose records in these words an uncomfortable insight that came to her after some years as a classroom teacher who’d begun by seeing her role as a ‘cheerleader for literature’:

I liked my students, who were often so eager, bright and enthusiastic that it took me years to notice how much trouble they had in reading a fairly simple short story. Almost simultaneously I was struck by how little attention they had been taught to pay to the language, to the actual words and sentences that a writer had used. Instead, they had been encouraged to form strong, critical, and often negative opinions…. They had been instructed to prosecute or defend these authors, as if in a court of law, on charges having to do with the writers’ origins, their racial, cultural and class backgrounds…. No wonder my students found it so stressful to read!

So she changed the way she taught. There would be no more general discussions of character and plot and half-baked readers’ opinions. Instead she made it her practice to begin at the beginning and work very gradually through a text with her students. This meant lingering over phrases, considering the effect of sentence structure, and so on.

Her book shows how important it is for a student (or any reader) to slow down and scrutinise the texture of the writing – noticing the subtle nuances evoked by an author’s selection of one particular word rather than another, the different ways in which a sequence of clauses can unfurl their meanings, the significant details of paragraphing, the implications of a chosen narrative point of view, and so on.

EinA coverI’ve adapted those summary remarks above from an article written last year for English in Australia in which I recommended Prose’s book and discussed similar approaches to teaching literature in  Australian school classrooms.

The practical emphasis that I wanted to endorse is on developing students’ sensitivity to connotations of language through close observation of short fictional texts, so that they can become confident about moving from the particular to the general.

(For an excerpt from my article, click on the cover image at left .)

Back to Prose’s book. Reading Like a Writer appeals to me for several related reasons. One is that it pursues its argument through a series of persuasive examples of close reading. Francine Prose astutely analyses a wide range of passages from various fiction writers, including famous names  – Austen, Chekhov, Dickens, Nabokov, Babel, Mansfield, Kleist, Beckett and others…along with several I hadn’t encountered before. Her commentary has ignited or re-ignited my enthusiasm for many stories.

Another thing I like about this book is that it affirms the value of reading heedfully. Although I can absorb a newspaper article in quick time, when it comes to serious fiction my habit has always been slow-motion perusal. I enjoy pausing and re-reading to savour the rhythm of a sentence, question the choice of this or that word, or think about the way a chapter has been constructed. So I applaud Prose’s advocacy of unhurried pacing.

A third virtue of Reading Like a Writer is that its illuminating observations about narrative technique are valuable for those of us who practice or teach or study creative writing. Nobody can write well without learning to read well. The two activities are symbiotic. As writers we hope to find readers who will re-enact something of our creative process by looking up reflectively from the page – as we ourselves do when we shape it – and looking back attentively again, letting the language do its intricate work.

In The Pleasure of the Text (trans. Richard Miller) Roland Barthes says, ‘What I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I look up, I dip in again.’ He adds that a text is most pleasurable ‘if, reading it, I am led to look up often.’ 

Now that’s reading like a writer.