Pedagogical Content Knowledge in English

“…the question of what teachers should understand if they wish to teach a domain responsibly is no simple challenge. In the field of English teaching, where canons are under question and “consensus” is more frequently misspelled than accomplished, the problem of teacher knowledge is daunting.”

In her paper ‘Knowing, Believing and the Teaching of English’, quoted above, Pamela Grossman outlines just some of the key challenges faced by those who try to define the knowledge English teachers require. In essence, they are that:

  • There are numerous ways of dividing up the English curriculum. For example, some argue it can be split into linguistics, literature and composition whilst others would divide it into reading, writing, speaking and listening.
  • English, particularly reading, is an interpretive domain and there are many interpretive schools of thought. There is therefore a question about the number of standpoints which teachers should be able to take. There is also a pedagogic question about whether it is a teacher’s role to tease out the interpretations from students or know them all themself.
  • The history of literature is as sprawling as history itself. How extensively should teachers know the impact of contexts on the texts being studied?
  • Our memories and understanding of how we developed procedural knowledge in writing and reading is buried deep, so expressing this to novices in a useful way is challenging.

There are many more issues than this. In each case though the most important element in finding a solution is ensuring clarity in the English curriculum.

Teachers require this clarity in order to know what their students ought to know so that they can also know how to preempt and address issues when their students don’t know what it is they should know as well as they should know it. Clarity is vital isn’t it?

The issues Grossman outlines in English teaching impact on our understanding of what Shulman terms pedagogical content knowledge (PCK).

PCK is a form of practical knowledge that is used by teachers to guide their decisions and actions in subject focused classrooms. This type of practical knowledge requires, amongst other things:

1. Knowledge of the relationship between content and students – a grasp of the common conceptions, misconceptions, and difficulties that students encounter when learning particular content.

2. Knowledge of the relationship between content and the curriculum – how to sequence, structure academic content to maximise the impact of direct teaching to students.

3. Knowledge of the relationship between content and teaching – the specific teaching strategies, pedagogical techniques and ways of representing, modelling and explaining knowledge that can be used to address students’ learning needs in particular classroom circumstances with specific content.

I’d like to look at each of these in turn with a specific focus on PCK in English.

As a starting point, I think it would be useful to begin a list of the key realisations students need to have in the field of English. Where students haven’t had these realisations, misconceptions emerge. Over time, I’d like to build up a resource a little like this from the AAAS in science.

Realisations for students of English language, literature and composing texts:


That the following words are not the same:

  • Your and you’re
  • Their, there and they’re
  • Two, to and too
  • Practice and practise
  • Affect and effect 
  • Bought and brought
  • It’s and its
  • Passed and past
  • Through and threw
  • Desert and dessert
  • Dryer and drier
  • Chose and choose
  • Lose and loose

That out accent may affect how we say a word, but not how we spell it. 

Grammar – Words

That nouns aren’t simply people, places and things.

That an adverb is a word or phrase that modifies the meaning of an adjective, verb, or other adverb, expressing manner, place, time, or degree. Not all adverbs end in ly and not all words ending in ly are adverbs.

That verbs aren’t simply “doing words.”

That adjectives aren’t simply “describing words.”

That a word can have different functions, dependent on the context in which it is used.

That some verbs have the same sound as nouns but with a different spelling and meaning.

Grammar – Sentences

That subjects and verbs are the central components of a sentence and not full stops and capital letters.

That the placement of a full stop or comma in a text isn’t defined by the need to breathe.

That simple sentences are not just short sentences.

That complex sentences aren’t simply long or just filled with complex information.

That writers will break syntactical conventions for specific reasons.

That we don’t use a modal verb, like should, with “of” because “of” is not a verb, it is a preposition. Some people write “should of” because when they speak, they say “should’ve.”

That auxiliary verbs can also function as main verbs.

That subjects and verbs in sentences need to be in agreement. For example, we write I/he/she/it was but we/they/you were.

That pronouns can function as sentence subjects.

Reading for understanding

That, unless you are willing to read in your own spare time, your chances of develop your knowledge and understanding of the world, as well as the world presented by the writers you encounter in class are limited; you won’t grow intellectually

That many writers will bother to spend a great deal of time considering lexical and syntactic choices.

That (chains of) words can be used by writers as symbols.

That writers do not necessarily write with the same voice they use for speaking.

That the views of a narrator are not necessarily the same as the views of the writer.

That there can be more than one narrator of a story.

That we can’t always trust what we’re told by the narrator of a story.

That writers organise their texts for both clarity and influence.

That writers do not always understand or appreciate the significance of their stories.

That writers do not always endorse everything that happens in their narratives.

That bad people can write good stories and good people can write bad stories.

That the narrative may not be the most important part of a narrative text.

That your interpretation of (part of) a text may not be the only one.

That, though there are often multiple possible interpretations of a literary text, there are also wrong interpretations.

That writers don’t start from scratch every time. They draw on ideas from other people and they adapt and combine forms and often use archetypal characters.

That some writers use the plot and characters in their texts as a way of commenting on society or providing a moral message.

That writers, particularly of non-fiction, often consider the nature and scale of their audience in deciding how to write rather than just setting off.

That the act of writing for a public audience is done to influence thoughts, feelings or actions.

That characters in fiction books aren’t the same as real people.

That writers sometimes deliberately use cliche.

That a narrative is still fictional, even if its context is real.

Reading – Poetry

That great poets consciously select forms which are almost invariably linked to the content and/or meaning of their poems.

That lyrical poems are not the same thing as lyrics for songs or raps.

That stressed syllables are louder than unstressed syllables.

That words that look similar sometimes may not rhyme.

That poets miss out letters to change metrical patterns.

That some words no longer rhyme due to language change.

That poems are often part of a sequence or collection.

That ‘ing’ is not the part of the word that rhymes.

Composition – General

That it is better to carefully consider the precise words you want to use than include as many words as you can.

That the language you’re using may not be standard English.

That what we write about and how we write is influenced by the world around us as well as who we are writing for.

That some people will judge you based on the way you speak and write.

Composition – Creative

That adding ellipses at the end of (part of) a story doesn’t increase the tension and is an unnecessary way of highlighting a cliffhanger.

That ‘said’ is often the most appropriate verb to describe speech.

Composition – Analytical

That all writers want their audience to read on so there are more interesting things you could say about the effects of their language choices.

That a text implies rather infers and a reader infers rather than implies from a text.

That rhetorical questions have a more specific purpose than to make the reader think.

That a quotation is a group of words taken from a written or a spoken text.

That you do not have to agree with the writer in order to be able to see their point of view.

That, even though you find a text dull, it can still have literary or wider cultural value.

Composition – Rhetorical

That rhetorical questions are not questions that don’t require an answer, that there are multiple types of rhetorical question and that each type has a subtly different function.

That repetition is not a rhetorical method in and of itself.

Composition – Structure

That a change in paragraph marks a shift in time, place, topic, point of view or speaker in dialogue but that writers sometimes break these conventions for effect.

That the plot of a story doesn’t always have to be told in chronological order.



  1. Fran Hill · May 29, 2017

    That numerous adjectives and adverbs make for good description, not the precise verbs and nouns which really do.


  2. peter downey · May 30, 2017

    Just been reading on Twitter. One of the most fascinating things (if not THE) I’ve read there. I will definitely keep up with this blog.


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  4. MIssYAR · June 2, 2017

    Labelling English usage ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is unhelpful; instead, the terms ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’ usage is more helpful.


  5. teachingbattleground · June 27, 2017

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  6. sorw88blog · June 28, 2017

    Thanks for this. Considering presenting all the ‘realisations’ to all my students at the beginning of next year.


  7. Harry Fletcher-Wood · October 21, 2017

    This is great Nick. Have you looked into the literature around threshold concepts? Many of these realisations would fit very elegantly within that framework. Alex Quigley had a good blog about them a couple of years back.


    • nsmwells · October 21, 2017

      Thanks for commenting, Harry.

      I’ve seen Ray Land talk about threshold concepts twice and he was really interesting. There are some intriguing books about the topic in English, including Naming What we Know (edited by Adler-Kassner and Wardle) on threshold concepts in writing.

      I’m on a mission at the moment to find texts which could help with the second part of this blog. What I’m looking for are books/studies into the sequencing of the English and literature curriculum. There are some good blogs about this, but no one has been able to point me to a book or longer study. Do you have any thoughts or do you know anyone who might be able to help out?


      • Harry Fletcher-Wood · October 21, 2017

        No, sorry! Very interested in sequencing as well (primarily in teacher education) but although there’s lots to suggest it matters, little to show how it can be done. There’s the Core Knowledge Foundation work but my perusal of the history curriculum didn’t convince me entirey.


      • nsmwells · October 21, 2017

        I’ve been looking at the Core Knowledge Foundation stuff this morning. There are shed loads of materials – similar, though different in context and content to the National Strategies.

        Did you see my blog the other day on Teacher Education? I’d be interested in your thoughts. The furthest we’ve got is the coaching guide I think I sent you after your visit, based on Getting Better Faster.


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