If we accept that we are using the curriculum as a progression model – if making progress means that children know more, remember more and can do more of the curriculum they’ve been taught – then that paves the way for us to move away from using unhelpful approaches like flight paths and age related expectations to make judgements about whether children are making progress. But what happens if it’s not clear that knowing more, remembering more and being able to do more of the curriculum don’t feel like progress? This, I think, is a big issue with the way English tends to be taught at KS3.
The curriculum at KS4 tends to be very clearly specified. Teachers have a clear idea what their students should be learning and, as a result, so do students. This is often not the case at KS3. All our focus is on the texts we’ve selected rather than the underpinning concepts that lead to mastery of the subject.
There are two distinct aspects a curriculum should try to encompass: the experiences we want students to have and the knowledge and skill we want them to acquire. So, the experience I want students to have is one of seeing the broad sweep of literature and language, of reading wonderful texts and of having opportunities to think, discuss, write and present in a range of different forms. The experience of reading matters. And what children get to read really matters. The experience of reading works of literature does more to induct children into what it means to study English more than any other single thing, but alongside this experiences, there’s a whole heap of stuff that students need to learn.
The texts we read in KS3 are (part of) the experience we want our students to have, but they cannot be the sole focus of what we want students to know, remember and do more of. Knowledge organisers which dwell on the recall of plot minutiae, contextual information and quotes miss the point. Further, although we know that to prepare students for the rigours of GCSE they’re going to have to practice a bunch of different ‘skills,’ we’re often unsure how to plan a curriculum around their acquisition. This tension is what leads us to insert vaguely worded assessment objectives into the curriculum and to shoehorn GCSE-style tasks into lessons.
The important work is, I think, to specify and sequence the concepts upon which mastery of English depends and then teach and assess students’ ability to know, remember and be able to do things with these concepts. In Making Meaning in English I theorised that mastery of English depends on acquiring knowledge in six overlapping areas:
- Metaphor: the ways in which we use language to create meaning
- Story: the ways narratives are constructed
- Argument: the knowledge needed to debate and persuade
- Pattern: the ways tests are organised
- Grammar: the ability to make judgements about what has and can be communicated
- Context: the literary, historical, social and theoretical knowledge needed to understand the ways texts have been produced and received
Each of these areas contain distinct concepts which can be coherently sequenced. Although the order of precedence in which concepts should be taught is far less clear in English than in subjects like Maths and Science, there are still some logical arguments we can make about which ideas it is sensible to introduce first and which depend on this prior knowledge. The shape of knowledge in English is very wide and shallow (unlike maths which is very tall and thin.) Here’s my attempt to show what such a sequence might look like:
Obviously, that far too small to make out, so here are these conceptual ‘boxes’ at a more visible scale:
As far as I’m aware, no one else seems to have attempted to map the conceptual understandings of English in this way. (If they have, I’d love to see some other examples.) So this is just what I reckon. I’ve shown it to a number of people to critique and that’s helped improve the sequencing but I’m certain it can be made better. The point though is that these concepts can then be mapped alongside the aspects of language and literature we want students to experience:
A few brief points about the content specified above:
- Although the text choices look (and are) ambitious and challenging, the emphasis in lessons is on enjoyment. There is very little expectation of annotation and analysis until Year 9. The approach to writing instruction is based on our ‘Couch to 5k’ model: Ancient Origins Student Workbook
- Non-fiction texts are integrated into Student Workbooks.
- The implementation of the curriculum depends on theTeacher Guides produced for each unit which specify core and ‘expert’ knowledge, and are intended as a one-stop shop for the subject knowledge needed to teach the material in the Student Workbook: Ancient Origins Teacher Guide
The point here is that the experiences of the English curriculum – the texts we choose to study – are interchangeable. There’s an almost limitless range of exemplars through which to teach a much more definable and finite range of literary and linguistic concepts. That is to say, you might disagree violently and vigorously with the content specified in the example above but there will be less scope for debate about whether students ought to learn the specified concepts.
This, in turn, means that that assessment of what students have learned ought to focus more on the concepts students have been taught rather than the texts they have experienced. Here’s an example of what such an assessment might look like for the Ancient Origins unit in the curriculum plan above.
To be clear, I don’t really care whether anyone wants to dispute the content areas of what students should experience in English; I’m happy to accept that there are other, equally valid choices that can be made. I’m far more interested in how the conceptual knowledge is mapped out against whatever choices you have made. I’d love to know if you’ve attempted anything similar or if you find the ideas above useful to improve the sequencing of your curriculum. I’d particularly like to know if you think I’ve missed anything or made any mistakes.
* This curriculum is the combined work of the OAT English lead practitioner team I’m privileged to lead consisting of – in no particular order – Claire Woozley, Tom Pinkstone, Amy Rose and Jame Hibbert. In addition, I’m immensely grateful to the English team at Ormiston Cliff Park Academy in Great Yarmouth, led by Holly Lawes, for implementing our curriculum and providing so much valuable feedback.