In the United Kingdom, the study of the English language (insofar as it extends to secondary and sixth-form education) entails what many might refer to as "analytical reading". In other words, students are given a text and asked to analyse it for meaning. Let me give you two examples, from a GCSE English Language past exam paper (AQA):

(November 2020) How does the writer use language here to describe the garden? You could include the writer's choice of: words and phrases; language features and techniques; sentence forms.

(November 2020) How has the writer structured the text to interest you as a reader? You include write about: what the writer focuses on at the beginning of the source; how and why the writer changes this focus as the source develops; any other structural features that interest you.

Similarly, here are two questions from an A-level English Language past exam paper (AQA):

(November 2021) Analyse how Text A uses language to create meanings and representations.

(November 2021) Explain the similarities and differences in the ways that Text A and Text B use language.

Now, there must obviously be a reason that "analytical reading" is included as a vital part of the study of the English language in UK education. I am not so familiar with the curricula of other countries, but I presume it must be similar. My question, then, is this: why is there so much focus on analytical reading in every secondary course on the English language, when it is given so much less attention in higher education (as far as I know). Most research articles on the English language do not deal with analytical reading; instead, they are about its history, its syntax, its dialects, its cultural significance. Or am I wrong? Does analytical reading have as much significance in academia as it does in education? Thank you

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    I posted this on the Linguistics SE (instead of on the English Language SE) under the assumption that the users here have a greater understanding of linguistics as an academic field (hence, the studies of the English language)
    – Eric
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 13:41
  • Analytical reading is certainly very heavily emphasised in higher education, but in its more advanced (and more useful) form known as source criticism, i.e., reading your sources critically, actively understanding and considering what tools (linguistic and otherwise) they employ to draw you in and convince you. The analytical reading taught in secondary education is primarily a way to give students the necessary tools to read sources critically. (And you’re right, this is not just the case in English – it’s fairly universal.) Commented May 30, 2023 at 13:52
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    @jlawler Exactly as everywhere else. Pronunciation and grammar of the language of instruction are taught in the very early years; after that, it fades away to be replaced by textual analysis. It’s not an Anglophone phenomenon. Commented May 30, 2023 at 18:16
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    When I used to teach big college classes about English grammar, the only students who understood anything about English grammar were the foreign students who'd studied and learned the language abroad. All the native speakers had to spend half the term unlearning the crap they'd been taught in grammar school.
    – jlawler
    Commented May 31, 2023 at 14:44
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    @jlawler Exactly – because the foreign students had learnt English as a second language. Foreign-language teaching virtually always emphasises grammar much higher than first-language teaching. Similarly, Anglophones who studied Spanish in school frequently know Spanish grammar better than native Spanish speakers. I have a Colombian friend who has moved to Scandinavia and is now learning the local language; prior to that, he had no grammar instruction at all and barely knew what a noun or a verb was. He has learnt basic grammar while learning this foreign language. Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 16:39

1 Answer 1


This illustrates the stark difference between linguistic analysis and what is generally known as "critical theory". The text snippets are somewhere between unambiguously and probably not about the structure of language, however the instruction "Explain the similarities and differences in the ways that Text A and Text B use language" is vague enough that one could think that the question is about an actual linguistic difference. Were one to respond with an actual linguistic analysis of the texts, one would probably get smacked for not giving the intended response.

The difference is not in terms of education vs. academe, it is in terms of the specific areas: cultural analysis of literature vs. grammatical analysis of language. Typically, "The English Department" is all about literature, and only a tiny bit about language. Both are academic areas, both populations do / publish research, they just do so in different areas and promulgate their works in different journals.

Because linguistic analysis is a highly technical and not-so-popular area of research, critical literary analysis dominates to the point that there is no such thing as a "linguistics department" in secondary schools. There may be foreign language departments, which typically focus on giving the grammatical, linguistic skills required in a language in order to usefully engage in literary criticism. The recent emergence of "linguistics olympiads" has changed the terrain a bit in secondary schools – it would be interesting to know how such knowledge is disseminated in secondary schools in the US and the UK.

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    Critical theory? I'd say literary criticism more like.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 18:15
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    English professors just say "criticism", or "theory". Or they used to, when they were thick on the ground.
    – jlawler
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 18:51
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    From my experience of secondary English education in the UK (which, it must be said, was not particularly inspiring, and I surmise that many Brits on this platform are likewise opsimaths), the textual analysis that is taught leans more towards the realm of stylistics than towards any other branch of criticism. I recall having to analyse the effects of individual nouns/adjectives - not just in Language classes, but also, unusually, in Literature classes. Perhaps this is one of the educational vestiges left behind in the wake of the New Criticism movement, but I do not know for definite. (1/2)
    – Eric
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 19:58
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    English Language pedagogy in the UK is, then, mainly based upon stylistics, and from what John Lawler said, this seems to be the case in the USA, too. It is perhaps surprising that stylistics has received so much criticism from both linguists and literary critics, despite not just its purportedly bridging the gap between the two disciplines, but also in spite of its dominance in English teaching. It makes me wonder - why is stylistics relied upon so heavily in teaching Language? (2/2)
    – Eric
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 20:04

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