The idea that English is a skills based subject has become axiomatic. Most English teachers of my acquaintance accept it unquestioningly, as did I until a few years ago. How do we know English is skills based? Because it depends on the skills of reading and writing. And, in turn, reading depends on such skills as inference and analysis, while writing depends either on the skill of making points, using evidence and explaining it or on the skill of using language creatively and persuasively.

From this certain things have followed. If English is skills based then it obviously makes sense to teach these skills. So, to train students in the skill of inference teachers give them a text (any text will do because it’s the skills that matter, so why not make it a fun and accessible young adult novel?) and ask them to make inferences about some aspect of the text. The simpler the text, the easier students will find it to make an inference. Then they need to practice analysis so, again, the normal procedure is to introduce students to texts – the simpler the better – and get them to talk about the possible meanings of certain words or phrases. Teaching writing is similar – give students a prompt, preferably one with which they already have some familiarity and get them to use ‘wow words’, fronted adverbials, rhetorical questions or whatever else is deemed to be the technique du jour. In this way, children up and down the country are taught English day in day out.

How do we know it works? Because some children are successful. What about the ones who aren’t? Well, what can you do with kids like that? This is precisely the same kind of critical analysis that led pre-scientific doctors to believe that the blood-letting was an effective form of treatment: it obviously worked because so many patients recovered. It was all too easy to ignore all the dead ones because they don’t have much to say on the subject. The misconception that underlay this way of thinking was that by bleeding patients their humours would be rebalanced. We now know that the four humours don’t actually exist and so we’ve abandoned the idea they can be balanced.

If we were to look at students who’ve been taught a skills based English curriculum I’d predict that those who are successful are those who come from more affluent backgrounds. They already know enough to be able to make inferences and analyse meaning. Their vocabulary and implicit understanding of academic English allow them to write well because they’re also able to speak in the same way. They do well despite not because of the way they’re taught. Less advantaged students don’t know enough about the world and are not able to speak using a more formal academic register and so the ‘skills based’ approach bounces off them; it’s like trying to build on sand.

I’ve heard Daisy Christodoulou tell the story of her attempts to teach inference. She gave students a simple story about a man who gets on an airplane and, shaking and sweating, takes his seat and downs several whiskies. Her students were able to infer that the man was nervous – perhaps he was afraid of flying? He’s drinking a lot so maybe he’s an alcoholic? Could he possibly be a terrorist who’s planted a bomb? Some time later her students sat a mock exam in which they read an extract from a science fiction story set in a post-apocalyptic London. The world is frozen and the character in the story is all alone. He hears a banging and creaking sounds in the distance and climbs an abandoned tower to see if he can see what’s going on. When he finally gets to the top he sees that the noise is being made by an approaching glacier. Students were asked to say whether they thought this was an effective ending. Sadly, they were unable to use the skill of inference because they didn’t know what a glacier was. Many of them inferred that the noises were being made by a tribe of savages. This mirrors my own experience.

Like reluctant medics who slowly became aware that the world wasn’t organised the way they supposed, English teachers need to understand that skill in English is based on knowledge. The ability to read is composed of many thousands of individual pieces of knowledge which organise into schemas which allow us to automatise a hugely complex process. As reading becomes increasingly automatic it becomes effortless, and children are likely to read more. The more they read the more they learn about the world. The more they learn about the world the easier it is to connect new ideas to things we already know about and so inferences are made and analysis becomes possible. Likewise, if you spend time at home talking about current affairs and having middle class dinner table conversations, you will be practised in modes of speech that transfer easily to writing, whereas if all your experience of speaking is informal, you will struggle to write in academic English unless such structures are explicitly taught.

The point of all this is probably obvious: if we want children from more deprived backgrounds to perform better in national exams we have to stop wasting our time teaching non-existent skills and instead give them the knowledge they need to be successful. This knowledge includes phoneme-grapheme relationships, vocabulary, types of stories, word classes, grammatical structures, literary conventions, rhetorical techniques, critical modes of thought, and general information about the world beyond students’ immediate experiences. Thorough knowledge of all this results in expert performance. Because we fail to recognise the extent of what we know, we mistake our expert performance for skill and, wrongly assume that students simply need practice at what we can do without learning the stuff on which our skill depends.
Some students come to school with a fair bit of this knowledge, others have little or none. If we fail to teach a curriculum that prioritises the knowledge needed to be skilful in a subject like English we advantage the advantaged and further disadvantage the disadvantaged.