So I Asked, “What’s the Purpose of English Class?”

February 15, 2012 — 6 Comments

The question started innocently enough. An assignment for a class I am taking offered through The Critical Thinking Community required that I integrate one of the elements of reasoning in a lesson. I chose the element of purpose and decided to ask my 9th grade students what was the purpose of reading a non-fiction essay ,”My Mother”, by Amy Tan. Several students dutifully raised their hands.

To know about her mother?”
“It’s a memory?”
“To remember what her mom said?”

Their responses were predictable and did not sound thoughtful; they sounded like they were guessing. I hate playing “Guess What the Teacher Wants to Hear”, so I shifted the question: “What is the purpose of reading an essay?”

Hesitation. Some disconcerted looks. A few timid hands.

“To read?”
“To understand what’s a good essay?”

I must have looked a little frustrated. “Why are you here?” I demanded.

Blank stares.

“Well, what is the purpose of English class? Why are you here?”

Then it hit me. They really had not given a thought as to why they were in English. I mean, they know what English class is, they have been in English every year they have attended school-nine years to date. They looked perplexed.

“Because, we are forced to come,” said Chris.
“Yes, we have to come,” agreed Mike.

They shifted nervously in their seats.

“That’s not purpose. That’s a result of someone else’s purpose,” I replied.

“To learn….(student voice trails off)…English?”

So, I took the cup of popsicle sticks labeled with each student’s name. “What is the purpose of English Class?” I asked each student after I called out a name. One by one they offered suggestions:

  • “….to learn…how to…write”
  • “…to learn how… to read?”
  • “…to learn about the comma?”
  • “…so we can go to college.”
  • “…to learn what is in a book…characters.”

After each response,  I asked the next student “Do you agree with that reason?” before I asked “What is the purpose of English class?”

As we went around the room, I explained there could be “no repeats“; the responders had to think more critically about what I was asking. Slowly, their responses became more sophisticated. Their responses did not have the sound of a question. They were answering my repeated question as a statement. They began to stir and leaned forward in interest trying to see who could come up with the “answer”.

  • “To learn about how characters are like people”
  • “To experience stories that we cannot really be in”
  • “To read and write about how we are all connected.”
  • “To be able to write so that other people can understand what we are saying and maybe believe what we write.”

They started to raise their hands to adding new ideas to this brainstorming sessions. They wanted to give the correct answer….to stop my interrogation. Honestly,  I did not have an answer. I had no idea where this exercise was going, I was simply letting them critically think about why they came into my class day after day. They were suddenly engaged and eager to answer. At some level, they understood the importance of English class, they just had not thought about the purpose. In defining the purpose, they suddenly understood the purpose of my original question. I went back and asked, “What was the purpose of Amy Tan’s essay?”

  • “She is feeling guilty and she wants to make it up to her mom.”
  • “Her mother was important to her, and now that her mother has dies, she wants to tell others about how they should appreciate their mother.”
  • “Regret is hard, and she is living in regret like so many people who make mistakes when they are young…this is a confession.” 

My spontaneous shift  from asking about an essay to the larger topic  of why they were in English demonstrated how important the element of purpose is  to teaching. My next step will be to have students internalize the question, “What is the purpose of this _______(book, essay, poem, article, assignment, class)?” on their own, every day, semester after semester.

In the courtroom, the saying is “Never ask a question if you don’t know the answer.” But in education, we ask questions as a means to discover the answer. The Critical Thinking Community website states, “We must continually remind ourselves that thinking begins with respect to some content only when questions are generated by both teachers and students. No questions equals no understanding.”

So go ahead and ask, “What’s the purpose of English class?” Get the students thinking.

6 responses to So I Asked, “What’s the Purpose of English Class?”


    Love the fluid nature revealed in your class. Same question comes up in social studies/history often, though either the teacher or a student asks, “So what?”


    This is an excellent post. I’m an English teacher in San Francisco, and I go back to this question often. My students often have several reasons for “why write?” and not very many reasons for “why read?” It’s important to encourage our students away from the “we-have-to-be-here” response.


    Thank you. I have been asking more of these questions lately. I’ll try the “why read” in the future.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. So, I Asked “What is the Purpose of English Class?” « Words, Words, Words - February 15, 2012

    […] So I Asked, “What’s the Purpose of English Class?” […]

  2. On Teachers & Learners & the First Day of School | To Make a Prairie - August 29, 2012

    […] “. . . I was feeling that the students and I were not connecting on the latest unit where they were reading independent books (nonfiction). The wide variety of titles and interests was becoming unwieldy for me as well . . . and I was looking for a common thread. So (in desperation) I suddenly asked what was the purpose to coming to English? Worksheets would not have worked in the brainstorming session that followed . . .and I think we are a little more ‘re-calibrated’ as to what we are trying to achieve together. I am finding a new understanding about how purpose is at the heart of every lesson . . . and that practicing ‘what is my purpose’ will make thinking about questions (to quote you) automatic and fluent.” Colette Marie Bennett (For her post on the brainstorming session, see […]

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