Making Meaning in English
Exploring the Role of Knowledge in the English Curriculum
What is English as a school subject for? What does knowledge look like in English and what should be taught? Making Meaning in English examines the broader purpose and reasons for teaching English and explores what knowledge looks like in a subject concerned with judgement, interpretation and value.
David Didau argues that the content of English is best explored through distinct disciplinary lenses – metaphor, story, argument, pattern, grammar and context – and considers the knowledge that needs to be explicitly taught so students can recognise, transfer, build and extend their knowledge of English. He discusses the principles and tools we can use to make decisions about what to teach and offers a curriculum framework that draws these strands together to allow students to make sense of the knowledge they encounter.
If students are going to enjoy English as a subject and do well in it, they not only need to be knowledgeable, but understand how to use their knowledge to create meaning. This insightful text offers a practical way for teachers to construct a curriculum in which the mastery of English can be planned, taught and assessed.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: What is English For?
Chapter 2: Problems in English
Chapter 3: An Epistemology of English
Chapter 4: Noticing and Analogising
Chapter 5: Metaphor
Chapter 6: Story
Chapter 7: Argument
Chapter 8: Pattern
Chapter 9: Grammar
Chapter 10: Context
Chapter 11: Connecting the curriculum
Chapter 12: Into action
David Didau is an English teacher, education consultant and author. As well as having written a range of successful books for teachers, his blog learningspy.co.uk is widely recognised as one of the most influential education blogs in the UK.
‘English teachers are hardworking, committed professionals too often given too little time to grapple with the important questions of what it is to be an English teacher and teach the best of English literature. In ‘Making Meaning in English’, Didau explores the past of English teaching, the problematic present, whilst offering an exploration of a better future. He digs in the rich traditions of the discipline, whilst offering teachers practical insights so that they can notice the artful craft of English and turn it into compelling action.’
Alex Quigley, Author of Closing the Reading Gap and Closing the Vocabulary Gap
‘In this thoughtful and timely book, David Didau identifies all the challenges involved with English curriculum design, which many of us have wrestled with over the years. Through disciplinary practice and substantive knowledge, which he sees shaped by modes of thought such as metaphor, story and pattern, Didau offers a practical means for English teachers to structure their curricula and for students to learn and appreciate the joys of the subject. I only wish this book had been available when I was head of department!’
Phil Stock, Deputy Headteacher, Greenshaw High School, Sutton
‘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, Education Adviser and Writer, Author of The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence
‘Making Meaning in English’ is a mature work, and this maturity can be detected in both its quietly meditative tone and the manner in which Didau, perhaps taking heed of Orwell’s ideas about writing, has absented himself from centre stage in order to allow the material to sing. The voice in this text does not feel the need to make any dogmatic assertions of its rightness. It is more grown up than that. What it seeks to do is to quietly inform you of things that you might want to consider about the teaching of English. It is not the ‘looking-for-the-quick-buck’ of the series of implementable techniques but is more a compendium of interesting pieces of information about the subject that is more wistfully entertaining and informative than it is instrumental. It is punctuated with a host of literary quotations that, not only illustrate the points Didau is making but, of themselves, unlock a landscape of thought and image, and it’s replete with interesting things that you had no idea that you needed to know and which caused this English teacher to consider quite deeply his own lack of knowledge in certain areas. It would be very good company indeed on a mazy, yet melancholy, Sunday afternoon sat on a verandah accompanied by wine, and I do not know a single teacher of English, be they NQT or classroom veteran, who would not benefit from reading this.’
Phil Beadle, Author of The Facist Painting
‘David Didau has written the essential book for every English teacher. It is urgent and important; I've never read anything like it. But it's not a guide on how to teach English. It's a book about making meaning in English and, as David says, it's about reimagining English as a subject concerned primarily with significance. ‘Making Meaning in English’ will challenge you, surprise you, niggle at you, and make you think really hard. As English teachers we're part of an ongoing conversation with our subject; David prompts us to consider how we can guide our children to pull up a chair and join in with the conversation, too.’
Claire Stoneman, English Teacher and Writer
‘An antidote for a generation of teachers inducted into teaching English through technique-spotting and PEE, this book should be compulsory reading in English departments and ITE courses up and down the land.’
Lawrence Foley, Executive Principal, Harris Academy Tottenham
‘David Didau is a singular force in education. It is well known that he writes, speaks, coaches and teaches from a position of restless curiosity and relishes capsizing a sacred school totem if it is an obstacle to young people's education. His publications help readers teach with excellence. With this wonderful, insightful and personal book, Making Meaning, you also learn how much he deeply loves literature too. You will already, but at the end you'll have fresh understanding of why you do.’
Jude Hunton, Principal, Skegness Grammar School
‘David Didau’s ‘Making Meaning in English’ marks a significant, and timely, change in books related to the teaching of English. He looks at an area that has, all too often, been neglected. The knowledge. The ideas. The concepts. Rather than focus on how to teach English, Didau looks at what to teach and when to teach it. What should students learn about?
Refreshingly Didau doesn’t polarise aspects in English to knowledge and creativity or traditional and progressive thinking; instead, he explores the key components of English and rationalises what should be taught and why. There are never easy answers in English. Like Van Helsing in Bram Stoker's 'Dracula', Didau is our moral compass in a confusing world where familiar and beloved things have been transformed out of shape and we can, easily, be seduced and bewitched by a powerful, domineering forces like exams. He boldly places a stake through the heart of ‘teaching to the exam’ and reassuringly covers Years 7 through to 11 with garlic. Thankfully, he stops at chopping people’s heads off.
The book is much more than a book on English ideas. It is an exploration of literature and its history from someone who loves it dearly. Crammed full of extracts and examples, Didau highlights the beauty and the subtlety of the English language in all its forms.
‘Making Meaning in English’ is the book I wished I had when I started teaching English.
And, it is the book I want now as I revise our school’s curriculum and decide what to teach and when to teach it.
And, it will be the book I go back to when I start a new topic in English.
‘Making Meaning in English’ is paradigm shift in the teaching of English.’
Chris Curtis, Head of English
‘Knowing things, in Saul Bellow’s phrase, allows us to open the universe a little more. David’s ambitious mission in this book is to explore what might be a body of knowledge for English, a subject that ironically has too often lacked a convincing narrative for its own existence. Through literature we all must attempt to come to terms with and ‘try on’ a world lived differently, and as teachers, to help students as they start the lifelong process of defining how they see their world. The role of English is to change the way we understand the world around us as well as to unconsciously reinforce the power of Wittgenstein’s assertion that, ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world’. In this insightful book, David does just that. This involves him approaching a wide variety of texts and dealing with their ambiguities and uncertainties, engaging with moral dilemmas and in turn illustrating the craft of writing. Richard Wright comments in Black Boy that he hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing. In this book, David delivers this with scalpel like sharpness, skill and humour.’
Ian Warwick, Founder & Senior Director, London GTi
‘This book is a remarkable achievement. It seeks to relocate the status of literature and English teaching as a vital engine of culture; a noble end in itself rather than a mere preparation for the workplace. It's simply the book I wish I had read when I started teaching English.’
Dr Carl Hendrick, Author of How Learning Happens
‘This book is very special. It’s about the beauty of English as an academic discipline whilst also offering a practical guide for teachers of the subject. Making Meaning in English addresses the subject with a nuance and faithfulness that warns against reductionism and instead celebrates and embraces the intricacies of English teaching. This book deserves a place on every English teacher’s bookshelf.’
Claire Hill, English Teacher, Trust Vice Principal and Author of Symbiosis: The Curriculum and the Classroom