Why Don’t Students Like English?


My year 11s are feeling the pressure. Seven hours of English exams. Four different exams. Extract questions, whole text questions, context, comparisons, evaluations, poetry, memorisation, the Russian Revolution, and their eyes start wandering about like my sanity at this point: it’s manic, exhausting and it makes me wonder why I do it to myself.

Many a wise teacher has said: “A teacher should never work harder than her students.” Well, I’m not sure they worked in the UK’s comprehensive schools. Or if they did, they didn’t work in the schools I know. And it’s not because my students are sub-par or incapable. But culture is all-consuming, right? And a culture of excellence is hard to come by, regardless of the collective, exhausting, all-inclusive efforts put in by the staff at my school, day in and day out. I have worked hard to get my students to this point in their exams. Some of them will do well. Some of them won’t, and I can’t help but find myself obsessed with thoughts on how to help them pass. What will ensure they get those final few marks? What will take them from that 3 to the magic (ok, not a ‘good pass’, but a passing pass) 4? What will motivate them?

The best way to increase motivation is to help students to achieve. But achievement will only come if they can do something. And to do something well, they need some knowledge. Therefore, I have been trying to figure out how to help my students get some knowledge, and keep it in their heads long enough to make it matter.

At this point, the words of Daniel Williamson’s Why Don’t Students Like School hit home for me:

“People like to solve problems, but not to work on unsolvable problems.” (Williamson 3)

Because so many students feel that English presents unsolvable problems (what is an embedded clause and how can it possibly create an effect?!), they are hesitant to try. They avoid the issue, disrupt the learning or flat out refuse to go into lesson in an attempt to self-preserve. I wonder what would happen if we simplified the subject in year 7, ensured that students got the basics right–vocabulary, adjectives, sensory detail, identification of verbs, similes and such–and then added back the layers? I wonder if the unsolvable problems my year 11s are overwhelmed with would suddenly feel solvable? And if a problem is solvable, it’s fun.

“Solving problems brings pleasure…working on solving a problem with no sense that you’re making progress is not pleasurable. In fact, it’s frustrating.” (Williamson 10)

I have so much sympathy for my year 11s at the moment. Some of them look at me as if lost in the depths of the last revision guide they dared to crack open.  Some of them look at me with a glimmer of hope–they’ve been revising, doing the homework I’ve set all year, and passing my increasingly knowledge-based quizzes–and some of them appear entirely too self-assured for my liking (and for the reality of their low mock exam scores).

On the other hand, I mourn the loss on my part of just a little bit of love for my subject! How can I continue to love English when it is so hopelessly misunderstood, so horridly glossed over with analyses that don’t even scrape the top of the text’s meaning? Why am I still correcting people: that Paris is the suitor, Tybalt is the Capulet cousin, and that no, they didn’t have guns in Elizabethan times?

My unsolvable problem is that I can’t seem to make it stick for some students–that I can’t motivate all of them. It is not pleasurable; it’s frustrating!

It’s time to reflect on a change of strategy when teaching English. How can students do well and still love the subject?

But for now, what is to be will be, I suppose. May “he who hath the steerage of [their] course” determine the outcomes. I will be awaiting the results of this first cohort with a horrified anticipation.


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