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Making Meaning in English – Book Launch

with special guests Christine Counsell and Phil Stock

Making Meaning in English book launch

Making Meaning in English book launch

recorded on 15 Feb. 2021

“This book is a remarkable achievement… It’s simply the book I wish I had read when I started teaching English.”
– Carl Hendrick

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This is a book that invites hyperbole and for good reason. Its scope is spectacular, its details delightful and its provocations powerful. The principles it proposes go beyond English and make it an important read for anyone with curriculum responsibilities who is concerned with creating a proper curriculum. Written with considerable erudition and lightness of touch ‘Making Meaning in English’ is truly impressive.

 – Mary Myatt

The book is a discussion on the role of English as a school subject: What is it for? How has it been shaped? What’s been done in the past? What’s gone wrong and what’s been successful? It particularly examines what knowledge means in English. Clearly the approaches to acquiring knowledge that work in subjects like maths and science are less appropriate to a subject more concerned with judgement, interpretation and value. I suggest there is important disciplinary and substantive knowledge that tends to go untaught and that curriculum time is frittered away in the attempt to teach things that can’t really be taught. As an alternative, I offer a range of conceptual modes through which English can be viewed and with which students can make meaning.

Chapter 1: What is English for?

The book begins with an investigation of what English teachers have done in the past. This history tends not to be discussed in schools (or in university education departments) and so most English teachers have no way to learn from either the mistakes or successes of previous generations. I explore how English has been taught over the decades and find that what’s studied today is surprisingly similar to what was studied in the 1890s. In considering ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ ideas about English the major shift has been from authority to impotence, leaving teachers and students cut off from the roots of what English was once believed to be about.

Chapter 2: Problems in English

Our collective lack of conviction has led to various endemic problems in the way reading, writing and literature are taught. Underlying all the problems considered is the issue that knowledge – specifically knowledge about literature and language – has been systematically undervalued, misunderstood or misapplied.

Chapter 3: An Epistemology of English

Because there is little agreement about what know- ledge in English actually is, it can be difficult for teachers to know how to take a genuinely knowledge-rich approach. I explore the tension between the need for English to be seen as an objective and rigorous academic subject and its concern with the unquantifiable: feelings, beauty, values and meaning. Our focus will extend beyond knowledge; knowing is worth- while when it helps us to shape our place in the world, to establish our relation to the knowledge we encounter and to be able to think about its significance.

Chapter 4: Noticing and Analogising

Our investigation into making meaning focusses on two processes: the ability to notice what is happening when readers read and writers write, and the ability to judiciously select from a store of knowledge to make analogies. These disciplinary actions of noticing what is happening on the page and making analogies to what has happened on other pages also benefit from learning the knowledge shaped by different modes of thought that I’ve called metaphor, story, argument, pattern, grammar and context. Each of these modes deals with the frames through which we ‘see’ meaning as well as what is ‘seen’ within the frame, the content itself.

Chapter 5: Metaphor

Metaphor plays a deep role in how we think: all subjects rely on metaphors to make meaning but in English, metaphors themselves are also the focus of meaning. I not only review how metaphor works and how our thinking changes as we become attuned to the connectedness between seemingly unconnected things, I also suggest what students might benefit from being taught to support their quest for meaning.

Chapter 6: Story

Like metaphor, storytelling also seems to be a primary mode of thought. All subjects use stories to impose meaning on the substance of what they operate on, but in English we also study how different kinds of stories work and what makes them satisfying and successful. Here we focus on plot, character and thought as the most important aspects of story for students to understand.

Chapter 7: Argument

Our instinct for argument is rooted in our need to cooperate with others; where we can we seek to persuade those around us using logic and reason instead of violence and intimidation. Here I discuss how students can analyse the arguments of others and improve their own in terms of rhetoric, dialectic, debate and conversation.

Chapter 8: Pattern

We are instinctively drawn to patterns of similarity and difference. All subjects possess their own distinct patterns of meaning but, again, in English these patterns are also the object of study. Students need to become attuned to the patterns that proliferate in language and literature – sound, repetition, rhyme, metre, form – in order to understand and impose meaning on what they read and write.

Chapter 9: Grammar

Grammar frames our thoughts as well as our speech and writing. Although we have an instinctive facility with morphology and syntax, learning metalanguage allows students to think more deeply about how they and others use language and, instead of being bound by half understood ‘rules,’ are able to ask penetrating questions about the grammatical structures they encounter.

Chapter 10: Context

There is an inherent tension between text and context; how much context is necessary or desirable in exploring a text? How much should students be taught about the circumstances in which texts were written and consumed? Two areas I explore in depth are the role and effects of literary theory, and the notion of ‘the canon’ and how canonical knowledge can be accommodated in schools. This role – as thoughtful curators of the canon – is something we owe to our students.

Chapter 11: Connecting the Curriculum

The potential fruit of this ‘knowledge-rich’ approach to English is planted in curriculum plans but harvested in the classroom. In this chapter I discuss the tools and principles we can use to make decisions about what to teach and suggest that the maybe the best way to conceptualise the English curriculum is as a conversation in which students are encouraged to participate.

Chapter 12: Into Action

If what you’re most interested in are practical resources, you may want to skip ahead to this final chapter. Here I present a worked example that draws all the strands discussed in the book together in a framework that allows students to make sense of the knowledge they encounter.

Order Making Meaning in English here