From The Victorian To Gove To Greening: How Far Has The English Curriculum Really Come?

From The Victorian To Gove To Greening: How Far Has The English Curriculum Really Come?

“We must not delay! Upon the speedy provision of elementary education depends our industrial prosperity. It is of no use trying to give technical teaching to our artizans without elementary education….If we leave our workfolk any longer unskilled, notwithstanding their strong sinews and determined energy, they will become over-matched in the competition of the world. If we are to hold our position among men of our own race or among the nations of the world we must make up the smallness of our numbers by increasing the intellectual force of the individual.”

In 1870, an Education Act was passed which paved the way for the achievement by the end of the century of compulsory free state education for children between the ages of five and thirteen. The driving force behind the Act was clearly articulated above by W.E. Forster in his speech to the House in February of that year. The education of the masses came also to be seen as a possible and desirable solution to problems of social unrest and rising crime, and to carry the important function of socialization, to be achieved through the inculcation of such moral values as piety, honesty, industry and, significantly, obedience. These principles are surely held good in schools today, though promoted in a different vocabulary.

What has changed, and what remains the same? It’s hardly necessary to point to the similarity between the annual testing carried out by the Victorian inspectorate to enable children to progress through a series of narrowly defined Standards in literacy and numeracy, and today’s high-stakes SATS testing, in both cases linked to payment by results and indicative of political control. This blog post will focus on the state of literacy teaching in the newly established Board Schools of the 1870s, and what primary schools are directed to do in this field a century and a half later.

There is no doubt that the literacy curriculum at the beginning of the 1870s was essentially utilitarian and limited, as defined by the Revised Code of 1861. The Code had set up benchmarks in reading which are depressingly reductionist in nature.

  • Standard 2: Read a short paragraph from an elementary reading book.
  • Standard 4: Read a few lines of poetry or prose (chosen by the Inspector)
  • Standard 5: Read a short paragraph in a newspaper or other modern narrative.
  • Standard 6: Read with fluency and expression.

However, as the decade progressed, the Inspectorate began to complain about the mechanical nature of children’s reading (the legacy of payment by results), and so the Standards were modified to include the phrase ‘read with intelligence’. What I found surprising is that, in a popular series of reading textbooks called the’ Royal Readers’, written for a highly specific audience, mention is made of reading for pleasure:

The lessons are designed so to interest young people as to induce them to read, not as task-work merely, but for the pleasure of the thing. The pieces are calculated to allure the children to read, and to make them delight in the power of reading.

The use of the word ‘allure’ is significant here, and demonstrates a degree of awareness absent from the updated National Curriculum of 2014, which refers (for the first time in its history) to reading for pleasure, but states that it should be taught. How do you teach children to enjoy reading? Creating the conditions for children to realise the ‘allure’ and ‘delight’ of reading is far more to the point. And that is best achieved through the kind of reciprocal relationships which can be established between pupils as readers and teachers as readers themselves, described in ‘Building Communities of Engaged Readers’ (Cremin et al, 2014).

You can read our article on creating a Reading for Pleasure pedagogy here. Incidentally, the requirement in the National Curriculum that children should read ‘fluently and with confidence’ by the end of KS2 ‘in preparation for reading in secondary school subjects’  is very close linguistically to the reductionist Standard 6 quoted above. One might also draw attention to the fact that the Reading Programme of Study for 2014 identifies only two ‘dimensions’ of reading –  comprehension and word-reading.

It is worth mentioning here an article in the Guardian by Michael Rosen, in which he expresses concern that reading “has come to mean something narrow and functional, no more than evidence that a child can read”.  He points to the SATS as “producing a way of reading that is dominated by the ‘facts’ of a piece of writing and knowing the ‘right ’order of events in a story”. Some classroom materials which purport to ‘teach’ and ‘test’ reading comprehension surely contribute to this effect. They use as their tools short extracts or excerpts, albeit from well-known stories, which may well not give encouragement to the reading of whole books. The reading anthologies of the 1870s used widely in Board schools are comprised precisely of such extracts, and are sometimes similarly followed by questions to ascertain the extent of comprehension.   

The Standards for writing in 1870 are equally pared-down and are directed towards what might be strictly useful to the young working-class male, such as, perhaps, composing a letter of application for employment:

  • Standard 1: Copy in manuscript character a line of print; write a few dictated words.
  • Standard 2 : A sentence from an elementary reading book, slowly read once and then dictated in single words.
  • Standard 5: A short paragraph from a newspaper…slowly dictated once, a few words at a time.
  • Standard 6: A short theme or letter, or an easy paraphrase.

The criteria for assessment included correct spelling and punctuation, exemplary handwriting and a demonstration of some knowledge of grammatical terms. My own grandmother, a later beneficiary of the 1870 Act, recalled ‘parsing ‘ in her lessons – the ‘taking apart’ of a sentence and the naming of the constituent parts. The emphasis of the literacy lessons was on transcription, grammatical terminology and a simplistic description of grammatical functions. Despite there being no research to support the view that this kind of formal, terminology-driven teaching of grammar has a positive impact on the quality of children’s writing, and with some research claiming it has a negative impact (Graham & Perin, 2007), the English curriculum of today demonstrates a marked similarity to nineteenth century thinking. In connection with the focus on transcription in the modern curriculum, in 1967 John Dixon made the point, so resonant of today’s practice, that ‘a sense of the social system of writing has so inhibited and overawed many teachers that they have never given a pupil the feeling that what he writes is his own’. Original composition did not feature at all in the Board School conception of writing. It doesn’t feature in today’s  National Curriculum either. Generating an original idea gets no mention at all. In the Programmes of Study for Key Stage 2, transcription takes precedence over composition, and the teacher’s main job is to “consolidate writing skills, vocabulary, grasp of sentence structure and knowledge of linguistic terminology” and to insist on joined cursive handwriting.

Within the context of Empire in the late 19th century, roles needed to be defined for all levels of society. Cecil Reddie, headmaster of Abbotsholme (public) School, linked them to the objectives of  a class-based three-level education system. There should be, he asserted,

  1. The school for the Briton who will be one of the muscle-workers…
  2. The school for the Briton whose work requires knowledge of the modern world…
  3. The school for the Briton who… is to be a leader…’.

We can discern strong elements of this structure alive today, in both our cultural and political life. The authoritarian class-based stance typical of the Victorian educators is still very much in evidence in our own time, as the observations in the next paragraph will show.

In the area of school literacy in 1870, the prevailing belief was that working-class children were not able to comprehend ‘literature’, hence the absence from school textbooks of the work of established writers of fiction. Dickens, one of the most popular writers of the time, is not included in the’ Royal Readers’, even in extract form. Perhaps he was considered subversive by the editors of the series because of his championing of the poor? Thus, these school-children were effectively denied a place at the literature table. In our blog ‘They won’t have anything to write about’, which we recommend you to read here, we reveal similar assumptions about class in our own day and age. We believe that those children deemed to be at a social and cultural disadvantage are more likely than others to be deprived of the chance to choose their own writing topics and have them validated as legitimate subjects for writing in school. By denying the validity of the cultural reference points of these twenty-first century children and assigning to them teacher-chosen subjects for writing, we as teachers effectively withhold from them, now and in the future, the possibility of having the agency and empowerment to express their own concerns, passions and preoccupations, and of making changes for themselves and others through the writing of their own texts. We as teachers are also under-valuing the importance of children’s own lives and experiences. This is morally and socially dangerous. Current pedagogy is producing writers as consumers (or at best imitators) of other people’s ideas, when we as teachers should really be producing a generation of writers of original content who come to realise early on that they have a  writing voice and a script of their own and how to use it. That we are not doing this is part of an ideology of the teacher as the controller and regulator of production. It is the main indicator that we have not, in one hundred and fifty years, come anything like as far in our thinking about the function of writing and reading in school (and after) as we would like to believe.


  • Cremin,T., Mottram, M., Collins, F.M., Powell, S., Safford, K., (2014) Building Communities of Engaged Readers, London: Routledge.
  • Dixon, J.(1969) Growth through English, NATE,Oxford.
  • Ferguson, F. (2005) Learning to Know their Place, M.A. dissertation, Children’s Literature in Education, Sept. 2006, Vol.37, No.3.
  • Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007) Writing Next: Effective Strategies To Improve Writing Of Adolescents In Middle School & High Schools Alliance For Excellent Education
  • Loane, G., (2010, revised 2017) Developing Young Writers in the Classroom, Routledge.
  • Rosen, M., (2008)  Death of the Bookworm,, 16th September 2008.

A Functional Grammar Table: CPD Subject Knowledge With A Difference

Before we start, it is important to point out that Functional Grammar makes up only a small part of LiteracyForPleasure’s writing approach, To read more about this approach we are calling Real-World Literacy please go here. Alternatively, you can receive email updates from our blog by clicking the follow button in the top right hand corner of this page.

Functional Grammar?

It would do children and teachers the world of good if they shifted their understanding of grammar and punctuation away from ‘rules to be followed’ to one that looked at its function. What can grammar and punctuation do for us as writers and what does it already do for the texts our favourite authors write?

If children can spot grammar and punctuation in real texts written by real authors and if they can be given opportunity to use these ‘writing secrets’ in their real writing, they will not only produce better texts but they will be skilled in the exercise of name-and-identify which is so popular (for some reason) in grammar tests.

It is possible to create pupils who can be their own critics and also be interested and motivated in trying to make their writing as clear and creative as possible for their readers.

We made the Functional-Grammar-Table below because we were fed up with texts which told you the rules of a piece of grammar but didn’t tell children (or indeed adults) why and where you might want to use it and the effect grammar can have on your writing. We were also fed up with the concept of ‘grammar deficit’. This is the teaching practice of continually passing judgement on rule errors in grammar-exercises as opposed to talking critically about what value grammar can have on writing or the effect of its absence has on the effectiveness of a piece. This realisation has transformed our practice. We explain how we now approach grammar teaching below:

Teaching Grammar Through Weekly ‘Writing Tricks’ Minilessons

What lessons will have a practical, lasting, positive influence on student writing? – Nancie Atwell

In many classes, minilessons precede daily writing lessons. Whether you’re teaching a grammar, writing-craft or genre study-point,  it is useful to follow Tompkins’ (2011, p.53) stages:

  1. Introduce the topic and its functional purpose ->
  2. Share examples ->
  3. Provide information ->
  4. Guided practice ->
  5. Assess learning.

Introduce the topic and functional purpose This can be anything from a writing strategy or skill, grammar function or a literary genre concept. Always share the purpose and the function with the class, before moving on to formalities or rules.

  • Share examples Look at examples from children’s or author’s real writing.
  • Provide information Provide information about the topic and how it can be used in ‘real’ writing. Clarify misconceptions and contrast a good and a poor example to see how the writing is affected.
  • Guided practice Children work individually or in pairs to practice what they are learning. Ideally, this will be in the context of an authentic piece of writing a child is currently working on (See our Real-World-Literacy approach for more details on how to do this).
  • Assess learning Teachers ask children to consider how they can use this linguistic feature as they write. They can also reflect on their authentic use of it by leaving a comment in their book.

The Importance Of Giving ‘Writing Tricks’

Whatever you choose to do in these minilessons you should ensure that you teach in context and in a way that will empower children’s writing intentions. Calkins (1998, p.198) suggests that to successfully apply this attitude is to perceive minilessons as ‘quick tip’ giving before Process Writing begins. This changes your perception of these lessons, stops them turning into exercises and instead creates a climate where children feel instructed in and taught something valuable.

So What Actually Is A ‘Functional’ Grammar Lesson And Why Teach In That Way?

These mini-sessions are essential for showing children the hows of writing. The main premise is that the use of punctuation and grammar is a skill to be developed, not content to be taught.

Graham & Perin’s (2007) highly reliable meta-analysis into effective teaching of writing makes it clear that the formal teaching of grammar has always negatively impacted on children’s writing. Functional grammar teaching, on the other hand, shows children how understanding what words and structures ‘do’ – helps them achieve their meaning and intentions in their real writing.

Fearn & Farnan (2007, p.77) suggest teaching grammar in this order:

  • Teach the purpose of the grammar and share its meaning potential with your writers.
  • Follow this up by allowing them to apply it in their real writing.
  • Finally, ensure that children can formally ‘define-and-identify’ it out of context.

Fearn & Farnan (2007) make clear that this is not only the key to good writing, but teaching in this way results in a deeper understanding of grammar for formal testing. This approach is also fully supported by the DfE (2012) in their own research on effective teaching of grammar.

Please see the bottom of this post for our Functional Grammar Table. This table is designed with teachers in mind. It differs from many other grammar tables in that its major purpose is to inform teachers of the function different grammatical items have in writing. It is written in a way that should make these functions easily understood and applied by children.

A useful technique we advocate for is discussion of a prepared text which does achieve its intentions as a result of good grammar use – or sometimes doesn’t. The act of reading requires understanding how writers use grammar to enhance meaning. Children will learn that if they ignore grammatical conventions, readers will not understand their text. Therefore, you should still encourage a culture of speculation about grammar use. This not only makes the sessions more interesting but also allows children to think more deeply and thus gain an authentic understanding of grammar. With all minilessons, whether it be grammar, writing or genre study, you should avoid using worksheets and instead have the children apply their newly acquired learning in their own authentic writing.

Wide reading has a strong impact on personal writing. Explore and promote high-quality children’s literature to understand the grammatical and stylistic choices other writers make.

This approach to minilessons is one part of a much larger approach being devised by ‘Literacyforpleasure’. For more information on our approach to teaching writing, please go here.

DOWNLOAD our Functional Grammar Table here.

functional grammar table

Interesting Reading Here: