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Stories to support curriculum planning

English

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As with the other national curriculum subjects there are four strands to support high quality subject knowledge:

  1. National curriculum importance statements
  2. Authentic sources
  3. Subject associations
  4. Twitter communities

To help us get our bearings, it is worth quoting the purpose of the English curriculum from national curriculum programme of study: ‘English has a preeminent place in education and in society. A high-quality education in English will teach pupils to speak and write fluently so that they can communicate their ideas and emotions to others, and through their reading and listening, others can communicate with them. Through reading in particular, pupils have a chance to develop culturally, emotionally, intellectually, socially and spiritually. Literature, especially, plays a key role in such development. Reading also enables pupils both to acquire knowledge and to build on what they already know. All the skills of language are essential to participating fully as a member of society; pupils who do not learn to speak, read and write fluently and confidently are effectively disenfranchised.’ Once the importance statements have been revisited, it is helpful for subject leaders and coordinators to discuss and agree with colleagues, the reason why their subject, in this case English, is important for the pupils in their school. One way of doing this, is to draw on a quote, in this case from James Earl Jones ‘When I read great literature, great drama, speeches, or sermons, I feel that the human mind has not achieved anything greater than the ability to share feelings and thoughts through language.’ This kind of prompt allows us to formulate our way of stating the importance of the subject. We might agree or disagree with such a statement and in doing so come to a form of words which expresses our view of the importance of this subject, in this school. This moves us away from the territory of ‘we teach this subject because of the SATS or GCSEs’. While the external tests and exams are important, they are not the totality of the subject.

The overarching aim for English in the national curriculum is to promote high standards of language and literacy by equipping pupils with a strong command of the spoken and written language, and to develop their love of literature through widespread reading for enjoyment. The national curriculum for English aims to ensure that all pupils: ‘read easily, fluently and with good understanding; develop the habit of reading widely and often, for both pleasure and information; acquire a wide vocabulary, an understanding of grammar and knowledge of linguistic conventions for reading, writing and spoken language; appreciate our rich and varied literary heritage; write clearly, accurately and coherently, adapting their language and style in and for a range of contexts, purposes and audiences; use discussion in order to learn; they should be able to elaborate and explain clearly their understanding and ideas; are competent in the arts of speaking and listening, making formal presentations, demonstrating to others and participating in debate.’

An important thread of the quality of education judgement is ambition. We need to ask ourselves the extent to which our subject is ambitious for all our pupils. So, what does this look like in practice? Andy Tharby has written about the essentials of great English teaching and he uses the following headings: an understanding that the subject is an inter-connected body of knowledge, teaching is always supported by ambitious text choices, it places great literature at the heart of every lesson, it hinges on subtle and sensitive modelling, places a great value on words and gives students lots and lots of writing practice. He also makes the case that student learning is ‘slow, erratic, associative and cumulative’.

In the same vein, Tom Boulter, Director of Secondary Education at River Learning Trust, made this observation about high quality provision in English: ‘When talking to some of our most successful students to get their views on how they had learnt to write about literature so beautifully, a recurring idea was that they’d been taught higher quality content than is typical; harder, more sophisticated material that their friends hadn’t been exposed to. Examples where we see this in English curriculum planning and resourcing include advanced approaches to poetry, Aristotelian rhetoric, and deep engagement with literary context.’

There is a case to be made here that the speaking, listening and reading elements should have a higher priority. The reason I believe they don’t have a higher profile is because the ‘gains’ are not immediately visible in the way the writing is. It is harder to show ‘progress’ in a misguided view of progress which demands an outcome every ten minutes. What we are talking about here, are the building blocks which are both important in their own right and which lead to high quality writing, over time.

First, to speaking. ‘Writing’ as James Britton said, ‘floats on a sea of talk.’1

While much classroom talk focuses on checking comprehension, which is a good thing, it doesn’t go far enough to develop pupils’ thinking. It is through talk that our ideas become concrete; it is through talk that we can tell whether they make sense or not and we can refine them in the light of others’ responses. Without this 1 Britton, J 1971 Language and Learning, University of Miami Pr opportunity to talk about what we are thinking, our written work is likely to be impoverished. Interestingly, it is schools such as School21 who place oracy at the heart of their provision, whose pupils reach standards in the top of all schools nationally, both at primary and secondary.

The second reason why talk is important is because it promotes the conditions for inference. Too often pupils are asked to infer something from a text, but they do not have enough practice at doing this. The skill of inference is to tease out what has not been said explicitly. We need to pose the question ‘What conclusions might we draw from this?’ For example, ‘the girl is wearing a fancy dress and carrying a bouquet of flowers.’ We might infer from this that she is a flower girl at a wedding. This takes it beyond a statement of the obvious, to a possible scenario. And finally, talk is an entitlement for every pupil. Having one’s voice heard is at the heart of confidence, that an individual’s ideas matter, that they can be respectfully challenged and affirmed.

Next to listening. This needs to be emphasised more because at the moment, in many classrooms, the teacher expects, quite rightly that pupils should pay attention and listen to them. But rarely is this extended to the fact that pupils should be listening to one another. Why? Because it is showing basic respect to another human being and also because it is through listening to others’ ideas that pupils expand their own knowledge and understanding. At the moment in many classrooms, this is implicit rather than being made explicit and I am arguing that we should be talking more about why high quality listening is important.

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  1. Britton, J 1971 Language and Learning, University of Miami Pr

Professional Communities

Subject associations are important because at the heart of their work is curriculum thinking, development and resources. The subject association for English is the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) and it should be the case that any member of staff with responsibility for a subject should be a member of the relevant subject association, and this should be paid for by the school.

Twitter subject communities are important for the development of subject knowledge, because it is here that there are lively debates about what to teach, how to teach and the kinds of resources that are helpful. For English it is worth following the NATE on Twitter and the hashtags #engchatuk #TeamEnglish #Litdrive

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English films

Check our library of films related to the subject

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