How to Survive High School English

How to Survive High School English

Your grades have arrived, and the English ones didn’t go well.

Maybe it doesn’t mean much – you’ve already got into the course you want, but it’s still disappointing. Or maybe there are consequences – you haven’t made it into the next stage of your chosen path.

So now you’re feeling down

If you’re still at school, you have to continue with English – either into the next year or repeating a year. If you’ve finished school, that might mean putting off your career path while you pay to get the prerequisite you need.

I meet a lot of people who hated English, scraped by, did it reluctantly and then dropped it as soon as they could. I suppose I should be happy – after all, I’d be out of a job if everyone learnt how to write effectively at school. But actually, it makes me feel sad.

I’m sad that it isn’t clear what high school English is really about, and sad that so many people don’t take advantage of the subject.

So what is English REALLY about?

Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter which books you read in English, which films you watch. If you’re lucky, your teacher will choose texts you love. If you’re not so lucky, you’ll have struggled your way through something you would never choose to read on your own.

The texts, in themselves, don’t matter. Your teachers use them to teach you some essential skills.

Because at its core, English is all about learning useful life skills. Skills like writing clearly and fluently. Knowing what’s going on when someone tries to sell you something. Speaking to an audience – whether that’s two people or two hundred. Being able to understand and think deeply about what you read or watch or listen to.

That’s the point of all those deep-dives into books and movies. That’s why you have to write essays about why writers chose those words, why cinematographers used those shots.

It’s all aimed at teaching you to think.

To think critically, to reason, to form an opinion and argue a point. To evaluate information and opinions you receive. And then the writing, or speaking, teaches you to share your thoughts with others. It’s all very well having intelligent thoughts, but a lot of the time, you need other people to know what they are.

Of course, writing’s the obvious skill you learn in English – and the one I’m mainly concerned with. It’s also the easiest one to improve if you put your mind to it. It’s kind of like maths, in that you need to learn some rules and then use them to solve a problem. In this case, the problem is getting what’s in your head on a page, in a way that appeals to whoever’s reading it.

How to reframe English

So here’s the thing. Instead of moaning about how you have to take English, sit down and be honest with yourself. What skills do you need for your chosen path? And don’t tell me you don’t need any of the skills English offers, because I won’t believe you.

Every time I help someone craft a wedding speech – the best man, the mother of the bride, one of the grooms – I’m teaching them stuff they could have learnt in English (or maybe they did and they’ve forgotten).

Every time I work with a post-graduate student who needs help writing sentences and paragraphs, I’m seeing the consequences of not taking English at high school seriously.  Usually, these are people who’ve underestimated how important writing is at every level, in almost every subject, at tertiary level.

So, think about it. Make a list of skills that you need for whatever it is that you want to do.

And be honest.

And then take it to your teacher, at the start of this school year, and ask them to help you acquire those skills this year. You might be surprised to learn that your teachers actually want you to succeed!

I’ll bet most of them will be delighted – I know I would have been.