One of the biggest barriers to the successful implementation of an English curriculum is that all too often students are assessed on their ability to do things they haven’t actually been taught. This may sound bizarre, but it is, I think, an inevitable product of the belief that English is a ‘skills-based subject’. Let’s say you teach students a unit on ‘Greek myth,’ ‘a background to Shakespeare,’ or Malorie Blackman’s YA novel Noughts and Crosses. How will you assess students’ progress? Typically, some theme or aspect covered in the unit is brought to the fore and then students are asked to write some sort of analytical essay in response to a prompt. Alternatively, they might be asked to use an aspect of the topic studied to produce a piece of transactional or descriptive writing. This then would be assessed using a mark scheme which – in most cases – will be something similar to the marking criteria used to assess GCSE reading or writing. Students are then awarded a grade or a description of the their progress, such as ’emerging’ or ‘secure’. These labels or grades are then fed into the data machine for everyone to mull over the ‘progress’ students appear to be making.
The trouble is, teachers seldom teach the actual things they go on to assess. Let’s take a selection of performance descriptors to see how this might happen:
- learners spell and punctuate with consistent accuracy, and consistently use vocabulary and sentence structures to achieve effective control of meaning
- Some awareness of implicit ideas/contextual factors
- Makes sophisticated and accurate use of subject terminology
- Shows clear understanding of structural features*
Now let’s detail some of the difficulties with teaching the students to do the things they are commonly assessed on:
- What does “consistent accuracy” look like? How do you go about teaching spelling and punctuation? Is it clear to students how vocabulary and sentence structures achieve “effective control of meaning”? How have you taught them to do this?
- How much awareness is “some”? What is an implicit idea? How have you taught students to demonstrate awareness of them?
- Although English teachers regularly teach students to use subject terminology – and being accurate in the application of this terminology is relatively straightforward – how do we teach “sophisticated use”?
- As all English teachers will be painfully aware, there’s a world of difference between knowing what a structural feature is and demonstrating “clear understanding” of how it’s used. Although we’ll have reasonable idea of what this understanding will look like, do we have an equally idea of how to teach it?
The same sorts of challenges can be made of any type of descriptor statement, but what it all boils down to is what do students actually need to be able to do, and how are we explicitly teaching them to do it? The solution to these problems is – or should be – the curriculum. Perhaps the most important purpose of curriculum planning documents is that they will specify everything that students should learn. What is not specified is far less likely to be taught, let alone assessed appropriately.
One of the difficulties with designing a 5 year curriculum in English is that divide between KS3 and KS4. GCSEs assessment forces the subject through some interesting contortions. To do well in Literature at KS4 students need to know a small number of texts in detail; they benefit from learning quotations and the minutiae of character, plot and theme. To be successful in Language, students need to be widely read, posses large vocabularies, have an encyclopedic knowledge of ‘what the examiner is looking for’ on particular questions, and to have had extensive practice at writing in a very narrow range of forms. (I’ve written about some of the reforms I’d make to the English GCSEs here.)
Surprising little of this transfers naturally into KS3. During KS3, there is very little reason for students to memorise the details of specific texts and none in them learning quotations, beyond the inherent value in being able to bring beautiful language to mind at will. What students are expected to learn is the generalised ability to write analytically about any text, as if all texts are essentially the same, and to compose their own writing on any topic, as if all topics were the same. To this end, while there is a clear reason to master the components of the critical essay, there is almost no reason at all to learn most of the information that finds its way onto knowledge organisers. Similarly, the topics about which students may be expected to write in KS3 will have no bearing to topics on which they will be assessed in their GCSE exams.
On this basis, deciding to teach a 5 year GCSE course, focussing only on those aspects of English assessed at the end of KS4 is entirely rational. If all we care about is exam success, this is precisely what we should do. But of course, with the advent of Ofsted’s new focus on ‘quality of education’ schools are no longer allowed to do this, whatever teachers’ personal feelings on the matter. Whether or not you think it’s right, we have to show that students are being exposed to the breadth of what English has to offer.
This being the case, I’ve been trying to work out what all this should mean for the KS3 English curriculum. Essentially, I think 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. Alongside these experiences, there’s a whole heap of stuff that students need to learn. And, although it’s obvious that we need to assess whether or not students have learned the ‘stuff,’ we’d be crazy to try to assess their experience in any formal way. How would we even go about it beyond some sort of checklist? (NB – I’m happy to be wrong on this – if you have a brilliant way of assessing experiences please let me know.) What I’ve been groping towards over the past few months is whether we’re doing a good job of assessing how well students are acquiring knowledge and skill.
Here are some things I believe to be true:
- You can’t teach skill, you can only teach knowledge. Knowledge turns into skill through practice. (See this post for more detail.) This means we have to think carefully about how to break down what we see as ‘skills’ into teachable components of knowledge which can then be recombined through practise as skill.
- Anything you can’t specify is much harder to teach; if we’re not able to identify the components of skill then we likely to miss teaching them. Conversely, anything we can specify is much more likely to be taught.
- As explained above, we should not be assessing students on things that we have not, specifically, taught them to do. This means that there should be a through line between what we specify in curriculum planning documents, what we actually teaching in the classroom and how we go about assessing these things.
- In order to make sure that what we’re assessing is what we’ve taught, assessments need to be moved much closer the objects of teaching.
So, for instance, although every English teacher wants students to be able to select appropriate textual references to support their arguments, the selection of evidence often get subsumed into the wider business of analytical writing. Students have a go at writing an essay, or part of an essay, and we assess, amongst other things, how well they go about it. But analytical writing is not selecting evidence. If we use an assessment of one thing to asses another it’s easy to end up assessing students on something we’ve not specifically and explicitly taught. So, what if we assessed students’ ability to select appropriate quotations by giving them a passage from a text they had studied and asked them to pick out what they believe to be the best quotation with which to explore a particular prompt and then to write a short commentary on why they had made their choice? Although this looks nothing like the assessments they’ll face in their GCSE exams, it might be a much better way to ensure that they have learned what we have actually taught them.
That’s just one example. I’ve made an initial list of some of the things we might want students to learn in English with some suggestions on how these items might be taught and assessed. Please be mindful that this is very far from being finished – I’m sharing it now in the hope that readers might be able to offer their thoughts on whether this approach could be useful and, if so, what might need to be added or changed:
* These descriptors are all taken from AQA mark schemes for English literature or language, but there same limitations are apparent in all such descriptors whether compiled by exam boards or put together within schools.