Making Meaning in English: An exploration of the role of knowledge in language and literature (2023)

I’m pleased to announce that Making Meaning in English is available now. (Quote MME20 for a 20% discount)

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.

I hope you’ll come along and join me, Christine Counsell and Claire Stoneman at the book launch next Monday at 6pm. In the meantime, here’s a few of the nice things that people have said about the book:

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

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

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

Knowing things, in Saul Bellow’s phrase, allows us to open the universe a little more. Didau’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, Didau 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.

Ian Warwick, Founder & Senior Director, London GTi


David Didau2021-02-10T16:23:49+00:00February 9th, 2021|English|

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