From September I will be teaching a small group of prospective English teachers what I think they need to know in order to do a decent job as part of the new BPP University PGCE course. I was very flattered to be asked to be involved, particularly as I have no special expertise and no track record at all in higher education, but thrilled beyond reason at the idea of designing the kind of course I wish I’d be on when I trained to be a teacher back in the 90s.

Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as to claim that this course is unique (I haven’t checked) it certainly sets its face against some of the major tropes of English teaching and represents a volte face from the misguided notion that English is a ‘skills based subject’. Although the way it continues to be examined encourages teachers to view English as a set of generic skills that can be applied to any content, this course will argue that such skills only have meaning as they are applied to a detailed knowledge of literature and language, whereas teaching ‘analysis’ or ‘inference’ leads to an empty, unfulfilling experience. As such, students on the course will be introduced to the idea that what pupils study is of more lasting importance than how they study it.

As a few people have been in touch to ask about some of the specifics of the course, I thought it might be interesting to provide an overview. Not only was it essential to site literary and grammatical knowledge at the heart of the course, every aspect needed to be explicitly linked to our current scientific understanding of how children learn and behave. But, with only six teaching days, brutal decisions had to be made about what to include and what to cut. In the end, I decided on the following sequence:

Day one

  • English as an academic discipline: what is it and how should we teach it?
  • Critiquing the canon – the need for dialectic – the tradition vs. cultural materialism
  • Are there skills in English? Threshold concepts and knowledge
  • The role of national examinations – can we teach what we value?

Day two

  • The Matthew Effect: closing the language gap between the most and least advantaged
  • Building vocabulary – academic language and academic success
  • Castle Shakespeare: why do we teach the Bard?
  • How to teach a Shakespeare play (Macbeth)

Day three

  • Curriculum design: planning what pupils should know
  • What’s the point of lesson planning? Teaching in sequences
  • Making 19th century fiction accessible for all pupils
  • Teaching a novel (A Christmas Carol)

Day four

  • Why teach grammar?
  • Teaching grammar: Does context matter?
  • Feedback: how to help pupils make progress
  • Marking and assessment: how do we know if pupils have made progress?

Day five

  • The art of rhetoric – Aristotle, Cicero and A FOREST
  • How to remember – organising knowledge and learning by heart
  • Teaching poetry – anticipating pupils’ concerns and misconceptions
  • First World War poetry (Sassoon & Owen)

Day six

  • Why some pupils struggle with English – what do English teachers need to know about SEND?
  • How to support pupils without lowering expectations
  • Modelling and scaffolding – beyond the metaphors

On top of all this, students on the course will be given a pretty rigorous subject knowledge audit and expected to fill any gaps. They’ll be regularly quizzed on specific aspects of subject knowledge, and, as well as four assigned pieces of writing, there will also be a terminal examination of what they should have learned over the course.

No doubt this won’t please everyone and will probably upset some, but this represents what I believe every English teacher ought to know and, certainly, what I wish I’d known when I began teaching. Having said that, I’m sure the course is far from perfect and I expect to make all sorts of revisions over the coming year. I’m grateful for all the advice and feedback I’ve had so far, but I’d welcome the support of the English teaching community in making it even better. If you think I’ve left out something you consider to be crucial, do please get in touch with any constructive criticism.

If, on the other hand, you’re upset I’ve not included time to consider the study of emojis, you can vent your frustration here.