Note: this page is mainly for older children who are being home educated (or self educated).
English is a poorly defined school subject: a hotch-potch of different things all thrown together and often taught so badly the children never get to know what it is they're supposed to be learning. Clearly you need to learn to read and write well, but after that it all gets rather fuzzy. Let me show you some bits from a special book which tells teachers what they should be teaching you. These are targets which say what you should be able to do at different ages, covering five levels, starting with five-year-olds and ending with thirteen-year-olds, and here's the first item in the list:-
Level 1 (age 5): Children should be able to listen to a short, straightforward text which gives an item of information, instruction or direction and show that they understand and, where appropriate, can use what has been heard.
Level 2 (age 7): Children should be able to listen to short, straightforward texts which contain more than one item of information, instruction or direction, and show that they understand and, where appropriate, can use what has been heard.
Level 3 (age 9): Children should be able to listen to texts which contain items of straightforward information, instructions or directions, and show that they understand and, where appropriate, can use what has been heard.
Level 4 (age 11): Children should be able to listen to texts which ontain items of information, instructions or directions and show that they understand and, where appropriate, can make a choice or decision based upon what has been heard.
Level 5 (age 13): Children should be able to listen to texts containing information on which they have to make decisions and choices, and act upon these.
Now, what do you make of that? Does it sound as if they intend to teach you anything during these nine years? Well, maybe the book just starts badly, so let's have a look at the second item in the list:-
Level 1: Children should be able to listen to others in group or one-to-one activities in order to establish relationships, and respond by contributing, with support, to the purpose of the activity.
Level 2: Children should be able to listen to others in group or one-to-one activities, and respond by making a relevant comment.
Level 3: Children should be able to listen to others in group or one-to-one activities, and respond by making relevant comments and offering an opinion.
Level 4: Children should be able to listen to others in group or one-to-one activities and respond relevantly by questioning, supporting an opinion or offering an alternative point of view.
Level 5: Children should be able to listen to others in group or one-to-one activities and respond relevantly, so as to show awareness of others' opinions, suggestions and/or feelings.
Can you see the huge advances they expect you to make in nine years of school? The third item in the list does show a little bit more ambition:-
Level 1: Children should be able to listen to a simple story, poem or dramatic text, and respond in a way that shows some reaction to one aspect of it.
Level 3: Children should be able to listen to a range of stories, poems and dramatic texts, and in talking, writing or by some other creative activity, offer a personal response to the feelings or attitudes of those involved in the text.
Level 5: Children should be able to listen, through a variety of media, to a wide range of stories, poems and dramatic texts, and respond in a way that shows some appreciation of the differing viewpoints of characters, or some awareness of what the author thinks about them.
This means that after nine years of school, you will be able to understand the different viewpoints of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf, and you'll also be able to work out what the writer of the story thinks about pigs and wolves (the clue being in the word "bad" that comes in front of the word "wolf"). I could go on through the complete list of targets, but they make very dull and depressing reading. The reality of it is that you could miss the first nine years of school, and so long as you have learned to read, write and do all your basic arithmetic properly, no one would be able to tell the difference between you and a child who hadn't missed a day of school in all those years. Who is to blame for this mess? Teachers? Politicians? Parents? Probably all of them, but let's not waste time blaming people and just concentrate on putting it right instead.
indentAll these woolly abilities are things you will learn anyway just through normal living, and in most cases you will have learned them years before a teacher tries to teach them to you. There is some stuff in that book for teachers that sounds a little more worthwhile (in a section called "programmes of study"), but in reality it cannot be done in any useful way by anyone other than the odd "Super-Teacher": normal teachers simply don't have enough time to do anything more than the basics, and they are bogged down in unnecessary paperwork which prevents them from doing even that effectively. The only way to turn this around is to put children in charge of their own learning and tell them clearly what it is they are supposed to learn so that they can get on with it.
What should you be learning now then?
- Concentrate first on learning to read well: there is nothing more important than this. Try to read at least one book a month, and practise reading out loud occasionally as well as silently in your head. If you can't read this and have to have it read to you, get someone to help you by using the Reading page of this Web site - it's designed for learners of all ages, and it's actually being used by many adults who weren't taught properly when they were children.
- Learn to write well. Most five-year-olds are very good at speaking, but by ten years old they are often still unable to write as well as they could speak when they were five. This is usually because they haven't been taught how to read properly: they get lost in the middle of sentences and can't work out what they've already written down, and that means they can't work out how to finish them properly. (When teachers read their sentences out for them, these children can instantly see what's wrong with them, so there is clearly nothing wrong with their minds.) If you have this problem, work harder at improving your reading, and your writing ability will automatically catch up. Don't worry too much about your spelling at this stage: what matters first is to be able to write as well as you speak so that you can speak through your writing.
- Dip into the sections of this Web site dealing with spelling, punctuation and grammar and use what you learn there to improve your writing (you can keep going back to them every now and then to try to fix more of the rules in your head, so there's absolutely no need to try to learn them all at once).
- Work your way through the functional writing page (there's no rush with this, but don't leave it later than age ten at the latest before starting work on this). You need to be able to write as well as you can speak first though, so concentrate on improving your ability to read so that you are able to keep track easily of what you're writing.
- Have a read through the creative writing page as well and use the ideas there to improve your story writing (and again you shouldn't leave this beyond age ten - I started writing little books when I was six, so I would have been straight in there looking for ways to improve my writing). You might not want to write books when you grow up, but you might want to write a film, or maybe a computer game with bits of story within it, so you do need to work on these skills.
- Read the page on poetry and have a go at writing some poems of your own. If you want to write songs, the more poetic they are, the more powerful they will be. Look at how many of the best pop songs have beautiful little lines in them which jump in from an unexpected angle and move you, like "a song for your heart" in the middle of one of James Blunt's bleak songs. Poets and songwriters can be powerful people: their words often have more impact than a whole army of people armed with machine guns and rockets.
- You can leave the literature page until you are 14, by which time it will hopefully have been written.