What’s the point? By Jill Carter

I have noticed that students often don’t know why they are studying English Language or the overall requirements of the final exams they are approaching. They have a vague notion that they have to get a GCSE in English but they have no real idea of what they should be doing or what their everyday lessons are leading up to. This could be because they haven’t been listening in class or it could be that, in the maelstrom of the curriculum and the exam specs, we have forgotten to tell them and or assumed they know. I have definitely been guilty of forgetting to mention the whole point of the thing. This is a bit like setting off on a journey with no clue about why you’re travelling.

Sometimes I ask my students:

  • Why are you being asked to analyse language and structure?
  • Why do you have to be able to evaluate what you read?
  • Why summarise the key points in a text?
  • Why compare viewpoints and attitudes of different writers on the same topic? 
  • Why do you need to be able to write your own texts?

The answer is generally ‘I don’t know.’ Fair enough. Have they ever really been asked to think about it or discuss it or do they simply plough unwittingly through a syllabus, hopefully doing as they are told to do by their teachers without ever really connecting with the point of it? How often do we, as teachers, really consider the point of it? We plan meticulously and ensure that all the ground is covered but sometimes it is difficult to see why we have been told to teach what we are teaching in English Language.

So let’s consider just some of the ideas you could discuss with students about the main point behind the questions in the language exams. This is something we could do much lower down the school – imagine how interesting some of the Year 7 responses would be!

Why are you being asked to analyse language and structure?

To notice that the material you read is very carefully designed to affect or influence you. To see that word and language choices are manipulative. To understand that the order and style in which things are presented changes the way you feel or think about them.

Why do you have to be able to evaluate what you read?

To make judgements about your encounters with the written word, decide what you like and don’t like, consider how and why you are affected by you read.

Why summarise the key points in a text?

To learn to locate what is important in a piece of writing and how to refer back to it or use it to add to your own ideas about an issue or idea.

Why compare viewpoints and attitudes of different writers on the same topic? 

To identify information, bias, misinformation, helpful ideas. To understand that there are different ways of thinking about a topic.

Why do you need to be able to write your own texts?

To empower yourself; to produce your own blog; to present clear reports to your boss; to write a convincing argument for keeping your job; to show that you can also manipulate the written word; to express yourself more creatively; to sell items more rapidly on the web; for the fun of it?!

Obviously, there are tons more responses that would have value. It might just be worth exploring some of them before embarking on a route through the syllabus. Or you could present these ideas as and when you do each of the relevant questions so that even the more reluctant students feel there is some point to what they are learning and doing.

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