Zoe Enser is the Lead HMI Secondary English. Before joining Ofsted, she spent 20 years as a classroom teacher, head of English and Drama, and was a senior leader.

‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’ Ludwig Wittgenstein

The quote from Ludgvig Wittgenstein is one which can be related directly to the teaching of English. English is a unique subject in that it provides both the means to unlock learning in all subjects, through what pupils learn to say, read and write, as well as an object of study in itself. This means that English is also a complex subject, with a vast array of literary texts to choose from to study, both from seminal world literature and our literary traditions, as well as providing the means through which pupils can study them. The texts we choose allow pupils to enter into dialogues about why these texts are significant. They can offer different ways to think about the world. However, English is not only about the stories we tell our pupils. It is about the stories they compose, both in their writing and orally, and the ideas they learn to convey. The language pupils acquire through the study of English allows them to enter worlds they may not have been able to previously access to and think about the world in different ways. And it allows them to connect the knowledge they have been learning about elsewhere.


The English subject report, ‘Telling the Story,’ gave us an exciting opportunity to explore what this practice looks like in schools today. It was a privilege to visit fifty schools from across the country, from a range of demographics and contexts and talk to teachers, leaders and pupils about English in their schools. We also explored early reading in a further twenty-five primary schools through looking at evidence from inspection activities and what provision looked like in the earliest stages of reading.

We have deliberately divided the report into primary and secondary to allow ease of navigation. However, we hope that by reporting our findings together in one report, this will support leaders and teachers to consider how English builds over time and draw upon the work from across the phases in their discussions. It continues to be important to consider pupils starting points and what has been taught previously so we can build on this.

Significant improvements in some areas

Most importantly though, the report found there have been a significant number of improvements in the curriculum in secondary schools since previous subject reports. These reports had highlighted a lack of subject specific focus in English, especially at key stage 3, where there was not always clarity around the aims of the subject. This had led to an uncertainty about what could be taught and English became a vehicle for a number of other concerns. Equally, the reports indicated this uncertainty may have led to an increased focus on making use of exam criteria in shaping the curriculum at key stage 3, leading to some distortion of the subject.

In the schools we visited we found this had changed significantly, especially in relation to literature at key stage 3. Leaders had considered carefully the different concepts they wanted pupils to know and had selected texts they felt best supported this. Ambition for pupils is high and pupils with special educational needs and/ or disabilities (SEND) were provided with appropriate adaptations to work alongside their peers towards the same ambitious goals.

Supporting reading

The report also highlights that primary schools have overwhelming adopted a systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) based system to provide the foundations of reading. Reading is prioritised in all schools. This is leading to real strengths in teaching those at the earliest stages. Leaders in secondary schools were equally keen to ensure pupils were able to read with accuracy and fluency, including those who may not have had a secure start to their education. Pupils who need additional support are quickly identified and schools are investing a lot of time in ensuring pupils spend significant amount of their curriculum time reading. This includes through tutor reading programmes, high quality texts in other subjects and independent reading.

However, approaches to the teaching of reading in secondary school need further refinement. There is not always careful diagnostics to identify the areas which require more explicit teaching and practice, especially for those at the early stages. Precisely chosen interventions are not always used, with schools adopting more blanket approaches which do not address the specific gap in these pupils’ knowledge. This included library lessons. While these aim to ensure pupils have access to books, something that is valuable in and of itself, they do not always provide the right support to ensure that pupils needed.

Developing writing

Equally in writing, needs are not always identified and therefore interventions are not carefully targeted. Pupils who need additional support with the foundations of transcription are often not provided with this and are instead provided with alternatives to writing or ways to reduce the amount of writing required, through frames and scaffolds. While these have a place for pupils with particular needs or to support pupils to engage with complex ideas, many pupils should continue to develop their proficiency in writing through a carefully planned curriculum and the precise teaching and practice as needed, including of grammar and syntax. Pupils need to have access to a wide range of knowledge for writing, beginning with automaticity in transcription, coupled with a developing knowledge of how sentences are formed in both speech and written form, a wide vocabulary and time to practise each in small steps to fluency. Leaders recognise pupils entering key stage three, especially following the pandemic, did not always have the foundational knowledge to become proficient writers, but they are not always confident that they know how to address this.

The identification of need is also more difficult where the curriculum is less deliberately planned. The writing curriculum often relates to completing GCSE style assessments. The components required to improve pupils’ ability to write for a range of audiences and purposes is not always clearly defined. Decisions around the teaching of grammar and syntax and different forms, especially non-fiction, are frequently left to individual teachers which means that approaches are not always equitable across the school. Errors in pupils work are often repeated and practice usually relates to producing complex tasks with little direct teaching of what will help pupils to get better in this area. For pupils who are struggling, simply writing more will not necessarily improve the quality of their writing. Rarely did secondary schools build upon what had been learned throughout the primary national curriculum, especially in spelling and grammar. Without precision in planning, assessment in this area is also difficult, meaning that teachers are not always clear on how they can support pupils to improve their writing and adapt their teaching appropriately. Pupils’ experiences of learning to write often differ within schools.

The role of spoken language

Spoken language is also an area which needs further consideration. Leaders are acutely aware this is not yet something which is fully developed and commented on how pupils find it difficult to talk and present in formal situations and lacked confidence. In response to this, leaders have introduced activities around spoken language at key stage three, which often mirror the style of the GCSE assessment. However, approaches to spoken language are more frequently seen as whole school pedagogies or focused on assessment as opposed to being part of the English National Curriculum. While there is certainly a place for this as, much as with reading and writing, what pupils are taught about speaking elsewhere in the curriculum is important, as is using talk generatively. However, schools are not considering the direct teaching of the components pupils need to improve. For example, when pupils will learn about different registers and tone and how pupils will practise this to develop confidence when speaking in a range of contexts. Rhetoric is often taught as part of the reading and writing curriculum, but this usually then relates to the GCSE requirements for writing non-fiction texts. This knowledge is not drawn upon in the development of spoken language. There is not careful consideration as to how pupils can become better communicators and learn how to adapt their tone and register or their pace and pitch. There are few opportunities to practise this outside of assessment. The development of spoken language sits closely alongside, and supports, learning to read and write well, so teasing out what pupils need to know, and when, is something which needs further work.

Next steps

It is important to remember that this report is just a starting point for the discussion, much as with Ofsted’s Research Review. It is not a tick list. Nor is it a prescription for how to address the areas that need more work. The report reminds us there are a significant number of strengths in secondary English and highlights that the national picture overall is a positive one. But it also highlights some areas of renewed focus. It is clear that in all schools English is a subject which is valued and prioritised. Teacher expertise is also highly prized. Leaders are aware of the areas which they need to work on and know that they need to prioritise different aspects at different times depending on their contexts and cohorts. And teachers are committed to developing their expertise in English and demonstrate real passion for their subject. So, we hope this report sparks conversations and that it leads to sharing some of the strongest practice and refining the work that is taking place in schools. That way we can all work towards ensuring English can be a means for all pupils to have unlimited access to the world.

Further reading

Research review series: English Research review series: English – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

The reading framework, DfE, July 2023 The reading framework (publishing.service.gov.uk)

‘Now the whole school is reading’: supporting struggling readers in secondary school’, Ofsted, Oct 2022 ‘Now the whole school is reading’: supporting struggling readers in secondary school – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)