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9 March 2021
By Zoe Enser

The Power of Knowledge in English

Knowledge in English is an interesting topic. For many years many have regarded English as a skills-based subject, or even an Art, and that makes it difficult sometime to understand where knowledge fits in. If we are a subject which is only about skills, then does it really matter what students are reading and writing about as long as they can read and write? Equally, if it is an Art, then how much influence can we have over their outcomes beyond showing them what to appreciate and hope some of them develop a certain talent which gets them through?

However, knowledge is a a key element in all we do and without it, we would struggle to read, write, speak, and even think. Let us begin by thinking about what we mean by knowledge.

Substantive Knowledge

First, we have what is called substantive knowledge. These are the facts which are linked to our topics, everything from when to use capital letters to what Lady Macbeth says when she hears Duncan is on the way to her castle. Some may see this knowledge as arbitrary and fit mostly for pub quizzes or winning on University Challenge from the comfort of your armchair. But this is essential if we want our students to be able to delve into the intricacies of the subject. Think about what it means to use a range of punctuation and syntax as required on GCSE specifications; what kind of knowledge is required to be able to do this well? Some students might be able to use this range by sheer luck, subconsciously picking up on what good writers do (knowledge, just hidden knowledge) or by emulating what they see elsewhere (still knowledge). But what should we do for those who haven’t ‘picked it up as they go along’ or managed to retain knowledge of structures they aren’t even aware of existing? If we give students the opportunity to talk about these substantive elements, understand how they do and don’t work, and where these rules can be broken, and experiment with them, we are giving them knowledge to be great writers. If we don’t have the opportunities to talk about them though, then the chances of us doing it are going to be limited.

Disciplinary Knowledge

Then we have the disciplinary knowledge. That is understanding how we look at things in English. What is it that literary critics and linguists do? What about writers and poets? How do they think differently? How do they plan and write? What lens are used to do this or is it simply ‘I think’? If we want students to be able to read and write well, it is important that they have this knowledge available to them too, and there is a really strong argument here for introducing critical theory well before they bump into it at A Level. When we ask students to write an essay, they need to understand how that differs in English Literature from what is needed in History and how it differs from writing a narrative. Much of this forms the basis for what we do day in day out, but I wonder how much we have considered this carefully ourselves and conveyed it explicitly to our students? I have an interesting conversation with an Art teacher recently who said she doesn’t start the lesson with something which links obviously to the lesson, but instead she gets students to look at a piece of Art. I disagreed that this didn’t link to the lesson. She was, in her own words, preparing their eyes to look like an artist would, and I would say she was preparing their minds to think like that too. It made me wonder if we do that in English? Do we give them opportunities to shift their thinking from the last lesson where they were required to think and see like an artist, a historian or mathematician, to thinking like a critic or a writer or do we just assume they know what that means?

How Does Approach to Knowledge Affect Assessment in English

These issues around knowledge, and specifically how we can isolate it, makes assessing in English particularly difficult. When we ask students to write an essay, a paragraph, or even a sentence, to show their understanding, it leaves them and us with a lot to unpick. Did they not do well in their response as there was a gap in their knowledge of the text (substantive), or was it because they didn’t know the right way to convey it (disciplinary)?  Written responses also rely them on having the basic understanding of how to write. That requires a lot of procedural (the act of doing something e.g. writing) and tactic knowledge (things we have developed to fluency). To do this well in English, they also need to do them quickly and efficiently.  Without having these kinds of things available in the blink of a eye, greater pressure is placed on the valuable space in their working memory, the area where all of the higher order thinking, such as analysis, will be taking place. Even seemingly simple things like letter formation and reading C-V-C words, requires them to have embedded this information into their schema and to be able to do this not only fluently, but automatically. If there are gaps in this knowledge or they have practiced the wrong things to fluency (capital letters!!!), something we often see with students who have literacy issues, then they need to wade through all of this before they even reach the substantive and disciplinary knowledge. And we have to wade through it in our assessments.

Wider Curriculum Knowledge

Finally, there is the issue of wider curriculum knowledge. How often have we seen capable English students freeze when confronted with a non-fiction or transactional writing topic? This isn’t as they couldn’t write, they know how to do that. It is all too often as they struggled to have something to write about. I am sure I can’t be alone in finding this, so we need to consider how we can build knowledge about the big questions and topics so students can literally have something to say about them. Topics of power, morality, philosophy and religion are all topics which can be approached from many different angles, using a huge range of texts and approaches, and these empower students to write about how they relate to them. High quality and challenging curriculums, not only in English but across the school, will also support students to do this well. If they are thinking about these things, they will be able to write about these things.

As schools return from lockdown, we know this is a time when we need to be even more forensic in finding out what our pupils do and don’t know and what they can do with it. It is only then we can decide on what their next steps may be and if there are any gaps, how we will fill them. During lockdown, teachers have used an amazing array of approaches to find out what students that they can even see know and can do. From Google and Microsoft Forms using multiple choice questions, to jam boards and Padlets, teachers have already been mining for the rich information which tells them what those next learning steps are. But as we do this, it is even more important to consider what that knowledge is we really need our students to know.

Therefore consider:

  • What are the hinge points which may derail students? What are the threshold concepts that they need to be guided through?
  • What is the substantive knowledge we need students to fluently retrieve?
  • What disciplinary knowledge do we need to cover explicitly?
  • What procedural and tactic knowledge do we need to get them to practise?

If we are really clear on what we need them to know, we will have a firm basis ourselves on how we can get them there, and ultimately, we will reap even greater rewards as we return to normality in our schools.

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