Selecting texts to teach in English
Subject Lead (English)
How do we choose what to teach in English? It is the maddening, exciting, and challenging question that preoccupies anyone lucky enough to be tasked with making curriculum decisions in English.
David Didau1 has done a great job recently of creating an epistemology for English, but there is still a huge amount of scope to define exactly what you are doing in English. However, whilst curricula might look different, and texts may vary considerably, there is one aspect that should be fundamental to all English curricula: giving all pupils, no matter what their starting point, access to a rich diet of high quality literature that has the potential to inspire a lifelong love of reading.
In close collaboration with our incredible curriculum partners Fox Federation and Twyford CofE Academies Trust, we have been working through these complexities and opportunities at primary and secondary, as well as considering how this works across an all-through curriculum.
In this blog, we discuss some of the key challenges for text selection, and share insights into how we have solved that problem for the Oak curriculum. It’s important to emphasise that you might reach entirely different conclusions for your school curriculum - that is completely normal! The best, but most challenging, aspect of text selection is that it has to be unique to your school.
Breadth or depth?
Getting this balance right is hard. Breadth gives pupils access to a wider range of literature, but depth allows the deep thinking and careful consideration that characterises excellent readers.
At Oak, due to our unique nature, we have prioritised breadth: we have planned texts around half-terms rather than full terms to allow us to include more texts in the curriculum. This will give pupils access to more texts, but it also practically makes our curriculum usable across a wider range of schools. Those schools that then want to can adapt to go deeper from our starting point.
To complement this breadth, we have included key moments of depth, such as including a single poet study in year 8, and focusing on short stories in secondary so that pupils can gain deep understanding of single stories over multiple lessons.
As we move from key stage 1 to 4, the books we want to read become longer, more complex, and harder to read in full with our pupils. This is another fundamental challenge in text selection: do we read the full text or abridge it? Your decision on the breadth or depth question will help to guide you in this area, but even when prioritising depth it can be challenging to fit a full text into your timetabled lessons.
Again, we have taken a balanced approach. At primary, there are lots of whole texts included throughout the curriculum. We are also using “book club” units, where pupils are expected to come to the lessons after reading the book outside of the Oak lessons.
At secondary, we have included some rich full texts, such as ‘Lord of the Flies’ and ‘Animal Farm’, but we have also included extract-based units that then give pupils insights into a range of authors.
Literature is a broad umbrella concept that covers so many micro genres, movements, periods and text types.
Within the 11 year groups, we need to expose pupils to a huge list of text types, from poetry and drama, to different aspects of non-fiction and genres of fiction. The national curriculum3 tells us to cover as many of these as possible, but we have to make decisions about which of these we shine the brightest light on.
At Oak, we have put a particular emphasis on poetry across primary and secondary so that pupils have developed rich understanding and appreciation before they reach key stage 4.
Similarly, we have included Shakespeare in every year group from year 5 onwards - again, this is to ensure that pupils feel comfortable and confident when they encounter deeper analytical study.
By planning backwards from where we want pupils to be at the end of the curriculum, we can make the best decisions for our curriculum, whilst also offering that rich diet of text types that children deserve and the national curriculum requires.
Representing a diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, and cultures has to be central to any English curriculum, but as Bennie Kara5 has articulately explained, this diversity should not be a bolt-on: it needs to be expertly weaved into the central fabric of the curriculum.
Why is this so important? Emily Style’s “windows and mirrors” concept6 helps us conceptualise how the curriculum needs to allow pupils to see windows into different cultures, but also hold up mirrors to their own culture. We want all pupils to feel represented in the curriculum, but also experience cultures beyond their experience. And crucially, one pupil’s window is another pupil’s mirror.
There have been a lot of important strides in this area recently, and the recent ‘Lit in colour’ project7 and diversification of the exam board specifications has been a welcome change. We have leaned into these changes by designing our secondary curriculum around some of these new choices.
Oak will provide a range of pathways through GCSE English, and we are working towards alignment with all of the major exam boards in time, so that all pupils and schools can benefit from the resources. This will include providing full coverage of Winsome Pinnock’s ‘Leave Taking’ alongside ‘Animal Farm’ for the modern text component, and the new AQA ‘Worlds and Lives’ and Edexcel ‘Belonging’ poetry anthologies.
We’re incredibly excited about producing these resources because ‘Leave Taking’ is a beautifully textured play about modern England, identity and culture, whilst the new anthologies provide a rich array of poets that show pupils that poetry is happening now, and is often being written about their experiences.
Diversity has been embedded throughout our curriculum. The texts chosen will conceptually define large aspects of the key stage 3 and primary curricula so that pupils are ready to engage with those texts at GCSE.
There is also an extent to which English curricula are driven by what the perceived classics of the English literary canon are in both primary and secondary. This can often be because these are considered essential texts that pupils need to read at that stage of their education, or they can be texts that have historically been taught.
We have tried to avoid being overly dominated by these considerations: every text should be there on its merit and contribution to the wider curriculum vision and coherence.
It is also important to recognise that the current literary canon is notoriously un-diverse and mono-cultural, with near total dominance by dead white men, so as mentioned above it is imperative that we expand what we mean by classic texts to ensure all voices are represented and heard.
Despite these challenges, many of the texts on the canon are phenomenal books, so our curriculum is still full of classic stories: ‘Jack and the beanstalk’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Beowulf’, ‘Sherlock Holmes’, ‘Othello’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ all have a place in our curriculum, amongst many others. But we have tried to avoid including texts because “that’s what we have always done”, or “it’s a classic, but nobody really likes it”.
Similarly, we have also deliberately and conscientiously expanded what we mean by the classics to include modern texts that we think stand shoulder to shoulder with those texts that are traditionally considered to be part of the canon, such as ‘A kind of spark’, ‘Small Island’ and ‘Leave Taking’.
These modern texts are included for their quality, but also for how they help to expand and enrich the concept of “identity, belonging and community” that runs throughout the curriculum.
Whatever you decide to teach, it is important you organise your literature to support pupils to build conceptual understanding.
At Oak, we have used two key concepts to help pupils build conceptual understanding towards different GCSE outcomes: ‘power and control’ and ‘identity and belonging’. These threads run throughout the curriculum, and help to organise pupils' understanding so that they develop richer and richer interpretations of particular literary concepts.
This approach is essential to creating coherence within your curriculum. Whatever texts you choose to teach, you need to find conceptual links and threads that can help to pull pupils’ understanding together and provide a unified vision of English.
- Embrace the challenge of selecting texts: it is one of the best parts of having responsibility for English curriculum design.
- Remember there is not a perfect solution to the problems above: all curricula require nuanced judgement about texts that factor in each school’s unique circumstances.
- Focus primarily on providing pupils with a rich diet of texts that will kick start a lifelong love of reading.
- Develop conceptual understanding across your curriculum through threads or other organising features.
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