Review by Tabitha McIntosh

Head of KS5 English, Nower Hill High School

3 Apr 2022, 5:00


This book is unlikely to change the nature of teaching and learning in English

The trouble with English by Zoe Helmann and Sam Gibbs

By Zoe Helmann and Sam Gibbs






10 Feb 2022

This is a book which, above all else, is calling for time. Zoe Helman and Sam Gibbs argue  exceptionally well – both by argument and example – that English is time poor. English teachers don’t have time to talk to each other about what they’re teaching about texts or how they’re teaching them. They don’t have time to reflect on and plan for professional development and subject expertise. They don’t have time to keep up with the academic field or the latest on curriculum design. You, dear reader, almost certainly don’t have time to read this book, so I read it for you. You’re welcome.

The Trouble with English and How to Address It is several books in one, the best and most useful of which concerns the ‘concept-led curriculum.’ Using worked examples, educator testimonies and curriculum maps, Helman and Gibbs set out the five ‘deep concepts’ which they see “at the heart of understanding our subject”:

  1. Texts are constructs
  2. They make use of patterns, all of which are conveyed through language
  3. They are informed by the contexts in which they are written
  4. Every text is an argument – texts can influence us (thoughts, feelings, sometimes behaviour)
  5. Readers construct meanings as they read

Refreshingly, these ‘deep concepts’ are not presented as a definitive answer to teaching English either in general or in your specific faculty. Rather, the list is offered as a tool with which to “explore” as you “work through the thinking behind it”. The trouble with English, they argue, is the lack of such deep thinking, and the final part of the book maps out processes for considering this concept-led approach in faculties, increasing and standardising teacher subject expertise and troubleshooting the implementation of the new curriculum.

There are bigger problems than grandiose mission statements

The other ‘books’ contained within Helman and Gibb’s text are less compelling. Or, if not uncompelling, certainly tangential to the purpose of the concept-led model. There is an entire section on using images to elicit class analysis. The pedagogical role of dramatically re-enacting the thoughts of, say, a fired shopworker in 1911 is considered. In what is now an unwritten yet ineluctable law of education texts, Sweller’s cognitive load theory and Ebbinghaus’s curve of forgetting are wheeled out to frame the argument in a cognitive science-y way. Discovery learning and GCSE coursework are ritualistically denounced, as if they had not been buried at the educational crossroads with a stake through their hearts in 2015.

But then, those are necessary conversations. Conversations we need time to have. And that takes us back to the beginning: ‘the trouble with English’ is that we don’t often have that time. In the first line of the introduction, Helman and Gibbs assure us that were we to have it, were we to access “really good continuing professional development” we “might” spark a “glorious revolution in English” that would enable “many more pupils to develop their understanding, en masse, beyond anything that has ever been achieved before.”

The word ‘might’ is doing an awful lot of heavy lifting there. Buying this book might revolutionise your school. It mightrevolutionise your life. This is a glorious revolution, after all, so it mightreorganise our understanding of parliamentary sovereignty while guaranteeing you glossier hair and whiter teeth. 

But there are bigger problems than grandiose mission statements; problems suggested by the authors themselves. The book is predicated on our lack of time, and yet in the absence of time to have a discipline-wide conversation, the authors have chosen to have these conversations by themselves and arrive at conclusions for us. Seen this way, the most compelling aspect of their text risks reduction to a sales pitch for those conclusions and that curriculum – the latest convenient set of do-now tips and tricks for the busy head of faculty.

As such, this book is unlikely to change the nature of teaching and learning in English as we know it. But the concept-led curriculum (and more importantly, the faculty conversations that it requires and enables) is as good a place as any to start.

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