In recent years, the social history of English as a curriculum area and of English teaching has been the subject of a good deal of historical investigation. The reasons for this ‘turn to history’ are varied but a primary reason has been the recognition that literacy, what Bill Green (1993) calls ‘the insistence of the letter’, is implicated in the very symbolic structure of schooling and curriculum as well as of intrinsic interest in terms of the history of English itself. Tony Burgess (1993) has made this point in a recent article:

There has been a gradual recognition in English teaching that these broader, social issues lurk within literacy… English teaching may be described as having shifted in its focus from a concentration on the processes of reading towards an understanding of wider literacy. In doing so, it has rediscovered history. (pp. 1078)

The significance of the earlier absence of focus on history and sociology has been commented on by Allan Luke (1993):

Unfortunately, literacy education in its practical syllabus forms-language arts, reading, children’s literature, secondary composition, English as a second language, and so forth-typically fails to connect with critical histories and sociologies of curriculum. By default as much as by design, decisions about practice in curriculum planning agencies, editorial offices and staffrooms are more likely to be based upon, for example, student needs hierarchies, ability grouping and standardized tests, organic growth and process models, learning styles, cognitive hierarchies and skill taxonomies and other commonplace approaches to curriculum, than they are to be based upon articulated understandings of how languages and literacies work in communities and institutions. These are the political legacies of modernist literacy curriculum which continue to exert a powerful influence over schooling, even as it turns to address postmodern economic, social and political conditions. (p. viii)

English, then, provides an interesting subject area for viewing patterns of change but also of remarkable continuity both in terms of the development of this curriculum area but also in terms of the symbolic structures of state schooling. Ian Michael’s work on the early origins of English teaching, points to continuities in many issues and concerns. Two central concerns are the place of ‘talk’ in the process of learning English and the place of grammar. Even in the early stages there were those who argued against the teaching of English as the teaching of grammatical classifications. Michael (1987) quotes Home Tooke who lists in 1829 ‘thirty-eight “kinds” of conjunction in order to illustrate the farrago of useless distinctions… which explain nothing’ (p. 322).