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Confessions of an English Tutor

Prepare well – even for topics you don’t enjoy.

I must have been off school sick when they taught soft ‘c’ and soft ‘g’, subjunctive mood and pathetic fallacy, because I had never heard of any of them until I started tutoring. Onomatopoeia first came to me when I was studying for my degree! Now it’s taught in Year 3! 

True, I did know the ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’  rule but when I challenged someone on it, I was presented with ‘science’ and felt inadequate because I couldn’t explain it, save to say – ‘it’s English  – so there are always exceptions!’

Whatever had apparently gone wrong with my own education, oddly I was always ‘quite good’ at English whereas in Maths, I was consistently ‘must do better’. It surprised me though, how much more there was to learn when I started trying to help my sons with their school homework.

And I wanted to know more.

Even what ‘decomposition’ meant when we simply called it long subtraction in my day. The Initial Teaching course in Literacy, Arithmetic and ESOL motivated me, certainly with the English when I learnt for the first time how to use apostrophe ‘s’.

It’s a very strange thing but teaching and tutoring are the best ways of learning.

I’ve learnt an enormous amount since I started tutoring. Interestingly, it’s 15 years since I completed my degree and I have to say most of that knowledge appears to have ‘slipped the net’ but the material I use now to teach GCSE and A level students I seem to know inside out. 

I have a bigger confession, though.

A student of English (well – language anyway), a tutor of English for GCSE and A level students and I hate Shakespeare.

No. That’s not true.

I don’t enjoy it and I don’t understand it. I know he wrote more than plays, but …

Shakespeare is just not my field, and I tell my students that.

Why is it compulsory in the revamped (Covid 2021 spec) for GCSE English Literature?

Students learn so much from the poetry requirement – history, context, language etc and in prose, Shakespeare offers nothing that they can’t learn from Dickens, Steinbeck and Priestley on wide-ranging issues in context of greed, gender, race and disability inter alia.

Apologies to enthusiasts like Professor Germaine Greer who has spent her life teaching Shakespeare, but I just don’t see why it helps the majority of our young people.

Maybe it’s interesting to know some of the archaic lexis and kennings (kerns and gallowglasses, Macbeth Act 1 Scene 2) – answers on a postcard please – but do all 16-year-olds need to know these things to exam standard? I’m thinking of a 15-year-old girl who has her heart set on a Hair and Beauty apprenticeship.

I have helped students through Shakespearian plays by using ‘cheating’ methods like translations (thank you SparkNotes) and the endless array of revision guides (and by the way there is a whole industry on Amazon operating very successfully just to help children get some kind of understanding of Shakespeare!) but I avoid the Bard whenever I can. Give me Dickens, the Brontës (even Wuthering Heights), Susan Hill (of Woman in Black fame) Steinbeck and Bill Bryson any day.

But here’s the thing.

I was once caught out by an A level student when I unwittingly agreed to do a session on Othello. I did not really want to do it and completely forgot! I planned something else entirely. At the following session, the student reminded me that we were supposed to be discussing background to Othello and I stupidly and instantly switched into ‘wing-it’ mode and talked about Shakespeare’s contribution in the evolution of the language and hardly mentioned Othello at all – mainly because I didn’t have much of a clue. My student then related to me what he had learned in school.

I have never been so stupid since.

Richard Ashelford
Richard has been a private tutor of English language, literature and Business Studies for over 15 years. After completing an Initial Teaching course and an English Language course at the Open University, he began to tutor seriously. Says Richard, "It’s been a massive learning curve and my own learning seems never-ending. In 2020, I completed the QT Tier 1 Course and I am an active member of the Community. After my first short blog, I was inspired and encouraged by the QT Team to write more. And blog writing is becoming another new skill! I hope my readers think so ..."