10 Feb 2021
Gwen Nelson finds a book with a lot of common sense that will be particularly valuable to early-career English teachers
How do you corral English, a core academic subject with a vast knowledge base, into a 350-page guide, or manifesto, for its teachers? If we want to teach “the best which has been thought and said”, what does that mean in English teaching and English curriculum planning?
As challenges go, Didau’s attempt to answer these questions is a tricky one. The vastness of English as a subject makes it all the tougher. And the target audience – English teachers, who can be likened to belligerent angry badgers high on stress and caffeine – are not an easy crowd to please.
At just 350 pages, Making Meaning in English is remarkably concise, indicating that Didau has made many tough choices on our behalf about what to include in (and exclude from) a knowledge-rich English curriculum. The book’s organisation is a particular strength. The early chapters provide a detailed rationale for the purposes of this text, why it is necessary, and where it is going. These concentrate on shifting English curriculum thinking away from a skills-based subject (although exam board GCSE mark schemes state explicitly that English is skills-based) to one that is rich and broad in purposeful subject knowledge.
The middle chapters discuss what could be called Didau’s tenets of English as an academic subject. Among them are Metaphor – Didau’s enthusiasm for his subject matter seeps through every page here; Pattern – containing a really useful section on poetic meter; and Grammar – an annual hot potato for well-known authors with a disdain for fronted adverbials, and the inclusion of it is absolutely necessary.
Didau does not shy away from controversial issues
The final chapters draw all this curriculum thinking and subject knowledge together into some key stage 3 programmes of study that are cross-referenced against Didau’s central pillars. Readers are also given access to online curriculum resources via his website.
In making his case, Didau does not shy away from issues such as “decolonising the curriculum”. In his closing section, he justifies really clearly why a knowledge-rich English curriculum is more inclusive than it is exclusive.
Each chapter takes between half an hour and an hour to read and will be of particular value to early-career English teachers, who will get a helping hand in what really matters in terms of their own subject knowledge. Experienced teachers will recognise the book’s core ideas with comfort while also learning some useful nuggets along the way.
I have very few niggles with Making Meaning in English, but the Story chapter in particular felt quite unbalanced. Many of its pages are given over to the discussion of different types of plot structures, along with a much-needed discussion of characters as narrative construct. All well and good.
However, this is at the expense of one of the most useful, productive and illuminating aspects of narrative to teach: narrative point-of-view, narrative voice, and audience positioning. This is discussed right at the end of the chapter, but all too briefly for my tastes. Experience tells me that all kinds of interesting worlds, ideas and areas of critical thinking open up to students when effort is made to focus on authorial choices for narrative point of view, and how we as readers engage with the text as a result.
So, has Didau achieved what he set out to do? Yes, I believe he has. At the end, he makes no bones about knowing that “some of you may like it, some of you will not”. As an English teacher himself, he understands that disagreement about our subject is in our DNA. But, agree or disagree, he has carefully prioritised English subject knowledge that will allow all secondary pupils to access and appreciate “the best which has been thought and said” in our subject.
This is a book which contains much common sense, which is no bad thing. Is it good? Yes. Did it knock my socks off? Not quite. Am I pleased I read it? On the whole, yes.