What makes a good English lesson?

11 May 2022

In reflecting on the design of the curriculum for the English PGDE I will be running from August, it has struck me again how wonderfully complex teaching is. For someone stepping into the classroom for the first time, there is a baffling amount to learn. I’m not sure that there are many other professions that can initially appear to be so intimidating, terrifying and overwhelming.

That triplet might not be my opening gambit when I meet with the new teachers in August. Finding ways to highlight that challenging reality, but also communicate the boundless sense of possibility and the optimism and excitement that comes at the start of any new journey will be one of my challenges.

That excitement, I feel, can be generated through dialogue about what one of the most obvious initial goals of learning to teach is: to develop an understanding of what teaching a ‘good’ subject-specific lesson is.

So, what is a ‘good’ English lesson? I realise that this is an utterly subjective collection of thoughts below, but they are for me some of the essentials that can help make young people invested in English as a subject – and are at the heart of good lessons. I am looking forward to my own narrow thinking being enlightened by more innovative and progressive new teachers from August!

Relationships

One of the most moving and inspiring things about interviewing potential new teachers has been in hearing how often their love of English as a subject was sparked by their own English teachers. In many cases, this relationship completely changed the course of their lives, it made them passionate about reading and in turn made them want to go into teaching. They often talk about seeking to bring some of the qualities of this particular English teacher into their own work in the classroom and with young people, a kind of amazing passing on of teaching wisdom.

That sense of rapport and connection with young people has to be at the core of a good English lesson. Learning is a reciprocal process, and without those attempts to build positive relationships then the quality of interest and indeed learning will not be there.

These interviews have been a powerful reminder to me that you can change a young person’s perception of the subject through your way of being in the classroom. A passionate, warm and genuinely interested teacher, who young people want to be in a room with, seems to me to be part of the magic ingredients. Too often we take that for granted that teachers provide this for their classes – but it is so special and transformative for young people.

Hook and engagement

In a secondary context, the teenager is a disconnected traveller, moving from one space to another, without a moment to really pause. That capacity to capture them as they enter classrooms, to centre them emotionally and intellectually in a new subject and environment has always struck me as really important.

A good English lesson, I think, always has an understanding of the need to build interest and intrigue. It would be arrogant of us to assume interest (or indeed listening), we have to work hard to validate what we are doing with teenagers.

That hook and engagement also has to apply to the process of reading (which will be at the heart of good English lessons). Whatever they are reading it needs to be made to speak to them, to be interesting for them – and that is our role to try to bring that to life for teenagers.

That hook and engagement can happen in so many wonderfully creative ways, and is one of the most interesting things to ponder on when you approach a new topic.

Subject-knowledge

There has to be a clarity of knowledge of the teacher’s part. If this ‘good’ lesson involves the dissecting of a poem, the class need to be confident that you have gone through the process before them and have a incisive knowledge of the poem. That won’t be revealed to them in some kind of didactic lecture, it will be through the gradual unveiling of its complexity and beauty – often through powerful questioning.

They need to feel like they are in the hands of an expert, even if often that projection of confidence and knowledge is for the most part an act. That capacity to ‘act’ grows with experience, but is at the cornerstone of most of what happens in the classroom.

Good English lessons reveal English specific knowledge: they show fascination in unpicking the etymology of a word, or genuine interest in why a word is spelt a particular way, or marvelling in modelling a beautiful piece of writing. That curiosity about subject-knowledge is then passed on to the students, who in turn begin to take delight in the intricacies of English.

Clarity and purpose

I have been lucky enough to see some amazing English teachers in action, in both schools in Scotland and England. For me, what has shone through the amazing lessons I have seen is a sense of utter clarity. That is achieved in a large part through the quality of communication. If I consider the worst CPD I have sat through, my own disconnection was often the result of a lack of understanding of the rationale: what is this for, and where am I going with it?

It helps to create a sense of shared understanding of what the learning experience is for: what are the objectives, the goals, the criteria. For me, good English teachers are also always modelling: turning the implicit into something explicit. They model language, writing, exploration and love the process of unpicking the rationale behind what they are doing with young people. That for me is where the literacy skills, which will underpin all good English teaching, are in a significant part developed.

Achievement

Good English lessons have at their core some sense of fostering a deepening of understanding. That deepening of understanding is often less tangible than other subjects: it might range from having a new enriched sense of the human condition, to the more pragmatic examples of learning how to spell a new word, or craft a descriptive sentence. Either way, good English lessons provide something that can build intrinsic motivation through learning.

There is little point in young people just having a nice experience and ‘enjoying’ something: they need to be challenged to think and to build their skills base as an English student. That will give them the motivation to recognise that in these lessons, they are getting better. That implicit development might need to be made explicit: “let’s just list all the things we have achieved together in the past fifty minutes”.

There will be a wide range of things I have missed out here. That, for me, is one of the most exciting things about having the opportunity to work with new teachers: I’m confident my own knowledge of teaching will grow significantly – as will an appreciation of the variety of ways we can approach English teaching in the classroom. The impact on the young people involved, however, remains the focus – regardless of the style of teaching, is their interest and learning in English as a subject being developed?

Thank you for reading.

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Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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