English For Tomorrow


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English for Tomorrow, Sally Tweddle, Anthony Adams, Stephen Clarke, Peter Scrimshaw and Shona Walton, Open University Press, 13.99

This book marks the end of some kind of era. The English, Language and Education series from the Open University Press concludes with this, its fifty-second volume.

Its heyday was probably the mid- to late-1980s, when it helped us to grapple with narrative and taught us a whole range of new phrases to slip into pre-dinner conversations at courses and conferences . Narratology, authoring, paradigms and the politics of representation: you cut your teaching teeth on terms like these.

The series always had nobler aims than telling you how to teach. It was an attempt to encourage us to become that ideal of teacher trainers - the 'reflective practitioner'. I had a line of the yellow-spined books on my shelves in the early days of my career, until at some point one began to merge into the next. I could never quite recall whether I'd enjoyed Reading and Response or Reading for Real or Reading Narrative As Literature. I just knew it had Reading in the title.

As the series burgeoned it chartered deeper waters: Reading Against Racism, Literary Theory and English Teaching and Lesbian and Gay Issues in the English Classroom.

In a bizarrely undemocratic twist, its downfall was that the series always felt to be written by the same people for the same people. If you weren't a loyal adherent to the views of the National Association of Teachers of English - and attendance at their conferences suggests that many English teachers aren't - then you always felt a bit excluded, like the person at the party worried about the noise-level.

The current volume shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of those earlier books - chiefly, a kind of subversive optimism which, in the current climate, feels bracing but unreal. It is full of breathless excitement for the opportunities offered by new technologies. Students using image, music and text side by side, 'authoring' their work from home via email - all part of the brave new world on offer.

To illustrate this, there are lots of gee-whiz references to the way the book was, er, authored by a sprawling team of Editor Writers, Core writers, Contributing Writers and Reader Writers. The ISDN lines of academia, you imagine, hummed with the ricochets of idea and counter-idea.

The book begins with a survey of the current state of English and ways in which new technology is changing reading and writing, Later chapters go on to explore future possibilities: "students will merge speech, music, images and readable verbal text, and the whole product will be a reflection of the collaborative imagination of the learners". This is a world in which "messaging becomes more and more crucial".

The issue of quality is frequently fudged:

"English will not lose its essential concern with criticality, but we have to envisage a future in which no one can any longer expect any one set, genre or privileged type to be the paradigm example of an assessable text" and, as a result, English sometimes seems a cul-de-sac on a sprawling estate of media studies, with

It isn't just that the prose here is impenetrable and ugly. Nor that it feels so far removed from the hair-tearing practical realities of using computers in lessons. But English itself seems reduced to a bleak and soulless cul-de-sac on a sprawling estate of media studies.

For me, all the speculation is marred by a failure to confront some issues central to teaching English. In my experience the Internet is awash with information but little knowledge. How precisely will we encourage students to discriminate between what is worthwhile and what is not, what is objective and what is biased? How will the new technologies encourage students to communicate more precisely, as opposed just to more adventurously - given the truism that placing students at a word-processor immediately evaporates their capacity to spell correctly.

For all its zeal, English For Tomorrow presents a narrowly distorted utopia, one that seems unlikely to enhance the personal identity or moral awareness of students, to sharpen their critical skills, to engage them with literary traditions, or to improve their capacity to read, write and speak more precisely.

And my worry is that as teachers we might actually be accomplices in this - casting our students adrift in the moral vacuum of hyperspace, devoid of human contact, of civilised face-to-face discussion and of the essential humanity that English has always stood for - and will, I hope, tomorrow.

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