Stylistics in the secondary school English language curriculum? Or, does it matter?

A Facebook friend asked me about the prospects of including stylistics in the secondary school English curriculum in Hong Kong. The question has brought me a lot of fond memories of my study of stylistics in my undergraduate days, which I am now going to brag about.

I first came into contact with stylistics in the final year of my undergraduate studies, and it was an awe-inspiring experience. Prior to that, I had taken a couple of courses in literature and, although I had come to love literature for sentimental reasons, literary analysis and criticism, as part of literature studies, had come across as somewhat elusive and ‘subjective’. You can’t always be sure that your analysis is on the right track. In comparison, the linguistics courses I had taken looked more ‘scientific’ and ‘objective’, but they lacked the emotional appeal of literature courses.

Hence, my first stylistics class was like a great discovery to me: at last, there is an academic discipline which provides a more ‘objective’ way to analyse literature, as stylistics is the study of literary language employing linguistics as the tool. I was so enthused with this ‘discovery’ that I threw myself into the two-term course, clinching grade A for the course in both semesters.

My FB friend, Alan, who is a linguistics major at HKU, is contemplating going into teaching upon graduation. He is wondering whether stylistics should be introduced into the school English curriculum, so that students can grasp the beauty of language more easily, and at the same time, will become more aware of the grammatical accuracy of their own writing. Even if stylistics turns out to be too difficult or dry for secondary school students, Alan believes that analysis of word play in popular culture, which should be a more approachable form of stylistics, will appeal to secondary students, and indeed he has designed a few such tasks for students at the tutorial school he is working for. However, although his students find the activity interesting, they are pre-occupied with exam performance and they do not think that exploring word play in popular culture would help boost their exam results. Alan asks what he should do if he was a secondary school teacher – stick to his teaching approach because he believes it to be beneficial to students, or give in to their pragmatic preference?

It’s very uplifting to see that an undergraduate student who has teaching as a possible career in mind is already considering such pedagogical issues. My immediate response to Alan’s question, however, is a somewhat depressing one.

For a plethora of reasons, despite the whirl of education reform initiatives in the last decade or so in Hong Kong, the instructional culture of schools has become even more exam-oriented today. Yes, there are lone attempts by conscientious teachers who, against all odds, explore and experiment with more effective teaching strategies in their work, but overall, the culture of teaching has remained very much ‘teach to the test’, i.e., teach in such a way that prepares students most directly for the upcoming tests and exams. This culture does not exist in secondary schools only, but begins in the primary school, so that by the time children reach Primary 4 or 5, they themselves have also bought into the message that what matters is their exam scores, not how interesting or meaningful the learning process is. Few people believe in intrinsic motivation, and learning for its own sake, any more.

This is not to say that exam results do not matter. Some exam practice is necessary, to familiarize students with exam techniques. But as educators, shouldn’t we uphold the conviction that good teaching will translate into good exam results?

I am not putting the blame on teachers. In fact, English language teachers have one of the toughest jobs in Hong Kong. English is a high-stakes subject. English teachers work under the watchful eyes of many stakeholders. Because English is an ‘important’ subject, English teachers have to take on the mantle of additional co-curricular activities and extra tutoring for students. English teachers’ energy and time are sapped by endless marking – in the primary school, this means myriads of homework exercises; in the secondary school, this means piles of compositions after piles of compositions. We have come to totally replace quality with quantity – quality in terms of teaching and learning; and quantity in terms of homework, tests and exams. At the same time, like their counterparts teaching other subjects, English teachers have to shoulder tons of non-teaching duties. Very often, English teachers will be lucky if they can find a few seconds to skim through the relevant pages of the textbook on their way to the classroom for a lesson.

I have taken great lengths to lament the current situation instead of answering Alan’s concern, because given the status quo, the answer to Alan’s question is inconsequential. To me, it is not surprising that his students appreciate his effort but doubt the value of his word-play analysis activities. But having aired my grievances, I’d like to return to the question proper. I think there is still space in the lower secondary curriculum to innovate, before the onset of public exam pressure looms large in the upper forms. Any attempt to teach more creatively will be a welcome change to students, who may be sitting through hours of chalk and talk from their teachers every day. Of course, as a strategy, it may be necessary to explicitly let students know how the new activities will help them with their English.

As for including stylistics in the curriculum, my thought at this moment, though I can’t immediately recall any relevant research findings, is that it may appeal more easily to students who already have some literature studies on their timetable. We have to bear in mind that there are all kinds of second language learners, with regard to learning style, English proficiency, socio-economic status, previous learning experience, etc. Even gender can affect how an approach may play out. A long process of experimentation is needed before we can conclude whether stylistics, or for that matter any innovation, is generally an effective teaching activity so that it should be formally introduced into the curriculum for all learners.

To go back to the gloomy picture I have painted above regarding our teaching culture in Hong Kong, once in a while, I hear student-teachers relaying to me that veteran teachers at their teaching practice schools tell them that the teaching methods they learn during teacher-training are too idealistic and cannot be applied in real-life teaching. Once in a while, a former student would tell me after her first year of teaching that she has never applied the teaching techniques she learned from teacher training as those techniques would require a lot of time for planning lessons. I admit there have been times when I ask myself whether the teaching methodology training I am providing for my student-teachers and teacher-students is a waste of time – mine and theirs – if the reality is such that good teaching is not a high-priority issue. Like Alan, I wonder whether I should stick to my teaching approach because I believe it to be beneficial to teachers in training, or simply give in to the harsh reality. But since the only way to stay happy in life is to be hopeful, I have chosen to remain hopeful, and I hope my students will, too.

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