In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I established a set of questions relating to English curriculum design and considered what the barriers to delivering on the aims of an English curriculum might be.
I’d like to move on now to identifying what we might call the elements of English. In order to do this, let’s try to imagine, only for a moment as it might hurt our heads, that there were no limitations: that time weren’t an issue; that all aims were possible; that everyone could have what they wanted in the curriculum; that we could focus on knowledge and the application of that knowledge; that students studied texts that were culturally significant as well as relevant to and engaging for them; that we could cover all genres and periods and cultural contexts so that the curriculum were representative of the scope of English Literature. In this utopian (or dystopian) school, what would students be able to do by the end of Year 11 and what knowledge would they require to be able to do these things?
Most importantly, how would we divide up this knowledge to make it coherent?
Before we do this and drill down into the detail, it would be worth looking at how this has been done by others. The division of knowledge in English is quite telling in terms of the preferences or biases of the designers. These are important as there is only a finite amount of time in a school day for the study of English, which means, if we decide to add one thing, another thing has to either disappear, be studied over a shorter period of time or be studied more shallowly.
The 2014 English National Curriculum
The divisions in the National Curriculum shift, dependent on which Key Stage you examine. At Key Stage 1 and 2, alongside a strand which covers spoken language from Year 1-6, we have:
- Reading – Word Reading
- Reading – Comprehension
- Writing – Transcription (spelling)
- Writing – composition
- Writing – vocabulary grammar and punctuation
Once we move into Key Stage 3 and 4, a number of the reading and writing elements are amalgamated so that we are left with:
- Grammar and vocabulary
- Spoken English
The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence
The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence in literacy and English is similarly organised, covering:
- Listening and talking
The framework is similar to the English curriculum though the emphasis is different once you move beneath the surface.
There are also four overarching aims in the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence which aren’t matched in England’s National Curriculum. These are that students should become:
- Successful learners
- Confident individuals
- Responsible citizens
- Effective contributors
Once you add layering in like this, there is a risk – or benefit depending on how you perceive it – that time is spent focusing on these aspects of a curriculum over the content of the subject.
The 2007 English National Curriculum.
The 2007 National Curriculum is similar to the Curriculum for Excellence in that it took the interesting step of introducing four concepts which appeared before the usual framework of speaking, listening, reading and writing. These were:
- Cultural understanding
- Critical understanding
This was in line with the drive for broadly transferable skills, over and above subject domain specific knowledge. The elements of English still appear in the document but the fact these generic aspects appear first, implies they should take precedence.
NATE – An Alternative Curriculum 3 – 19
This curriculum document from the National Association for the Teaching of English is divided into six key areas:
- Grammar and knowledge about language
The addition of drama and media here are telling as part of an English curriculum. Media disappeared from the National Curriculum and the GCSE English Language exams as the predominant view at the time of its publication was that many of the GCSE text choices were transitory. Greater value came to be placed on 19th and earlier 20th century non-fiction in the form of journals, letters and broadsheet articles than the work of late 20th and early 21st century tabloid and magazine journalists, bloggers or web designers.
Interestingly though, numbers of students taking Media Studies GCSE and the proportional share of the total entry have remained relatively consistent, as can be seen on page 87 of this document. The same is true at A-Level. There arguments which might be made for the inclusion of media studies in the earlier Key Stages:
- That students need an understanding of the ways media is used to influence us
- That students should grasp the ways in which different groups are represented in the media
- That students should be prepared for higher study at GCSE and A-Level
There are other subject areas which are rarely the focus of substantial study prior to GCSE though so an alternative view might be that leaving media our of the English curriculum does students no harm.
Drama, meanwhile, has seen a slight decline between 2010 and 2016 in entry at GCSE and A-Level. Though some would, I think it’s too early to attribute this fully to the implementation of an EBAC curriculum in schools. To draw this conclusion, we’d surely expect the same decline in Media Studies and all arts subjects and this is not yet the case.
It’s worth reiterating that, if we are to include either drama or media studies or both in a curriculum, the teaching should be given adequate time rather than detracting from the teaching of writing and a focus on reading.
In the next of these posts, I’ll take a look at the elements of English, attempting to rake over the footsteps some people have had to plant into the sands of the curriculum.