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The Rationale Behind EMC KS3 Curriculum Plus

At the English and Media Centre we don't believe that schools should adopt an entire curriculum wholesale. However, we do think we can help schools engaged in developing a curriculum. That's why we've put together a package that has the potential to be used for a substantial proportion of the KS3 timetable. At a time when there is much interest about curriculum, we thought it might be useful to share with you some of the thinking behind what we've done.
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Introduction

The English and Media Centre’s KS3 Curriculum Plus package consists of five anthologies and workbooks, with accompanying resources, planning and training. It has the potential to be used for a substantial proportion of the KS3 curriculum across Years 7, 8 and 9, though we would want teachers to draw on their own tried and tested units of learning as well, to tailor the curriculum to their own local context.

The resources have been selected and written drawing on EMC’s extensive experience of working in the subject discipline at secondary level over many years. What follows is an attempt to articulate the rationale behind this work.

The rationale has been written with no particular school in mind, but with the assumption that EMC KS3 Curriculum Plus is of use to the vast majority of schools. English departments are welcome to draw on this document in any way that they wish - it's available in PDF at the bottom of this page. Some of what is written refers to material not contained in the package itself (such as Shakespeare's plays, or studying a nineteenth-century novel). We've referred to this in ways that bring it within the same theoretical framework as EMC's own resources.

A curriculum without limits

We want our English curriculum to be without limits [1]. We strive to give young people the opportunities, experiences, knowledge and analytical tools to speak, write and read confidently, appropriately, and on their own terms in whatever context they find themselves in. We want them to see language and literature both inside the classroom and beyond as the gateway to achievement, intellectual curiosity and personal well-being in every aspect of their lives, both in the present and the future. 

As far as possible, we want to give pupils the same experiences when they enter our curriculum, regardless of prior attainment levels – the same choices in what they read, the same opportunities for response, the same freedoms and constraints, the same access to high quality texts. We believe that this is possible regardless of how schools choose to arrange their classes - whether it is through setting, streaming, or mixed ability. To offer all of this to pupils, we build on what they themselves bring to the classroom, focusing on how they can make connections between what they already know and new learning. Our starting point when choosing resources and designing lessons is always to think about how to make them relevant and interesting to pupils. Sometimes, we try to select texts that have a particular relevance to or resonance with them; at other times, we strive to make culturally significant texts meaningful in the context of their own lives. This involves both linking the texts directly to their own experiences, and also involves fostering a sense of academic curiosity, and a love of learning for its own sake.

Core disciplinary practices

Supporting our whole curriculum is the belief that English is underpinned by a set of core disciplinary practices that can be summarised by the phrases ‘doing English’ [2] and ‘English-in-action’ [3]. This is about bringing together knowledge and ‘know-how’ in the subject, rather than artificially separating them. We want pupils to be exposed to the practices of English continuously throughout their time in school, using them with increasing confidence and sophistication, becoming proficient in applying them in multiple ways, and able to select from a repertoire of strategies as appropriate. 

In terms of literary study, the practices can usefully be seen as lying along a critical-creative continuum [4]. At one end of the continuum are the established practices of critical reading and writing; at the other are informal and creative responses. Our approach recognises the centrality of critical rigour to the subject, but believes that robust criticality is best developed within the context of a wide repertoire of approaches that do not create unnecessary divisions between personal and academic forms of response [5].

In terms of language study and development we believe in the principle of praxis [6], or action-reflection. In other words, we design opportunities in lessons for pupils to immerse themselves in language by using it in a wide variety of ways, all the time reflecting on their own lexical and semantic choices, and those of others. We recognise that within this process the teacher needs to make regular interventions, both planned and reactive, in order to move pupils on to the next stage of learning. We also recognise the need for multiple approaches to teaching reading and writing, which are too complex and interlinked to address in isolation from each other, or in a single, given way [7]. Complex processes need sophisticated, varied strategies.

Underpinning all learning in our curriculum is a commitment to collaborative talk. We categorise this into two closely related but different aspects –  ‘oracy’ and ‘talk for learning’. The first is about helping pupils to speak and listen well in multiple contexts – everything from formal presentations to informal dialogue, from individual speeches, to group discussions. By contrast, with ‘talk for learning’, the focus is less on improving talk and more on how dialogic approaches support learning in the subject, generating new ideas and knowledge through collaborative engagement and thinking [8].

Curriculum progression

We do not seek overly to compartmentalise our curriculum, believing that the study of language and literature resist simplification. The subject is a constant negotiation of meaning in the transactions that occur between readers and texts, writing intentions and writing outcomes. We want pupils to have as many options open to them as possible in negotiating how they read and respond. 

We recognise the need to organise the curriculum in a logical fashion, that builds in progression across all age ranges. We also believe that too narrow a focus within particular lessons, or across units of learning, limits what pupils can achieve. Therefore, in terms of content, we design the curriculum around key text forms and types of writing. In any given year, pupils are exposed to novels, short stories, plays, poetry, non-fiction and media texts. They also produce a range of creative and critical writing across different genres and for different audiences. With the exception of long-form novels and plays, text forms are distributed throughout the year. Pupils select from and receive instruction in a range of disciplinary practices each time they meet a new text. For example, when they meet a new short story or poem they have the opportunity to explore key literary or linguistic concepts as they apply most pertinently to shared and personal readings. An example of this ‘interleaved’ curriculum is attached as appendix 1. The concepts that are distributed across the curriculum are available in appendix 2

Memory and memorisation have figured largely in thinking about the curriculum recently. We recognise that being able to remember significant things is vitally important. But we believe that remembering what’s important comes from the kind of continuing ‘conversations’ described above, returning constantly to key concepts and practices, referring back to past experiences of texts, making comparisons and drawing connections. This kind of continual refreshing of what is known, updating and extending thinking in the light of new knowledge, is what embeds it and allows it to be used in new contexts [9].

We have designed our curriculum so that pupils have the opportunity to read and write extensively. We believe that it is only in immersing young people in rich reading material that they begin to develop their own language capacities - the depth of their vocabulary, their handling of grammatical structures, their comprehension skills, their ability to write in a range of voices, and with confidence and genuine expertise. Consequently, we move quickly through texts, though we take care to ensure understanding and to give time to working purposefully on them [10]. This means students develop their ability to apply subject disciplinary practices across a range of work, with assuredness and independence, rather than being drilled into the ‘mastery’ of a limited range. This approach, we believe, has many advantages over spending a long time on a small number of topics: it increases engagement, enjoyment, independence, critical scope, cultural capacity and disciplinary depth. As part of this process, we make sure that pupils are given lots of opportunities to elaborate on their reading in ways that develop understanding and long-term memory. This involves exploring the possibilities of their reading, both individually and in groups, to generate new knowledge, rather than relying simply on passively receiving information from their teacher.

Curriculum content

Our curriculum draws on a wide range of texts from different periods, places and traditions. We believe that the texts used in the classroom need to reflect the diversity of contemporary British society, and the world beyond. It is impossible to reflect every identity within a single curriculum, but as a basic premise, we strive for a curriculum that emphasises difference as well as what we have in common, with a commitment to drawing equally on male and female writers, and to featuring writers from all over the world, with varied cultures, traditions and identities. We believe that reading beyond the canon enriches and develops greater understanding of it, rather than detracting from it. With this approach, we believe we are providing pupils with a form of cultural capital that equips them for the modern world, and does not leave them feeling alienated or isolated from the material of the classroom [11]. 

We value the established literary canon, and believe that pupils are entitled to study heritage texts. They study a range of poems from this category, plus two Shakespeare plays and a 19th century novel. We believe that this prepares them well for the demands of GCSE. Our selection of other texts is carefully balanced, recognising the age of the students and what is appropriate for them developmentally. In our view concerns about cognitive load apply to texts as well as classroom pedagogy and it is important to offer appropriate texts rather than making too many demands on students at too early an age. The texts we have selected are chosen carefully to move pupils on to the next step of their literary and linguistic learning journey. If a text is too hard, or requires too much teacher input, then pupils are unable to develop their linguistic and literary understanding effectively.

Where pupils study texts at a level of challenge generally well beyond their chronological reading age (such as Shakespeare’s plays), we make sure to offer appropriate support. Sometimes this involves providing prior knowledge about the text’s context. However, context is often contained within the text itself, so we are careful not to limit pupils’ experience of reading as an ‘unfolding’ process, where the act of reading runs alongside the act of learning. Genuine student response should be at the heart of the study of texts.

Our curriculum values and makes room for aspects of the subject that are missing from the current National Curriculum programme of study. In particular, we make room for media study, critical literacy, and ‘knowledge about language’. Media study extends pupils’ understanding of the communication and design possibilities open to them in their world. It also offers different ways of interpreting and thinking about some of the written texts they study. Critical literacy extends this, allowing pupils to interrogate the messages they receive both in classroom material, and in their everyday interactions, particularly with social media [12]. ‘Knowledge about language’ recognises that in order to use language effectively, pupils need a thorough understanding not just of its technical operations, but of the issues around particular language decisions and choices [13]. It draws on research that shows that a contextualised approach to language learning can improve students’ writing and understanding [14]. In our view knowledge about language is also of great interest in its own right, not just for its effect on reading and writing. It is a fascinating area of study that some students will want to take further in English Language A Level and even beyond.

Tailoring, refreshing and adapting the curriculum over time

EMC’s curriculum is based on several books which offer multiple units in all aspects of English study. This allows individual teachers in a department to make their own selection. It allows for a change in the planning, swapping one unit in for another, depending on how the students have responded to the previous one. It also allows for departments to make changes from year to year to refresh the teaching, not just for the students but also for themselves. It may well be that most of the curriculum stays in place from year to year but that some units are changed, or some are identified as ones where teachers can make their own choice. This kind of flexibility seems to us to be vital in allowing teachers to be responsive to the genuine needs, enthusiasms and development of their own students.

Assessing the curriculum

We have designed a curriculum that places a high premium on formative assessment. Teachers have the opportunity to evaluate the progress of their students at regular intervals, and identify what the next stage in their learning should be. It has been designed so that almost all pupils can move through the same curriculum, even though they will be learning in different ways and have different levels of attainment. Consequently, much of the work is differentiated by outcome. Pupils can complete the same task with different outcomes, while still advancing individually; they are also given opportunities to select from a range of responses, so demonstrating the learning that is appropriate to their stage of development. The curriculum also includes a range of tasks for summative assessment (see appendix 3 for examples). These recognise that progress in reading and writing can be demonstrated in multiple ways. They also recognise the requirement to develop how pupils respond formally within disciplinary boundaries. Such work is explored across all age groups, while recognition is also given to the fact that too much focus on formal forms of response can limit the learning that pupils, particularly younger ones, can demonstrate [15].

Conclusions

In everything we do, we recognise the importance of providing a coherent disciplinary experience across all key stages and, for some, beyond, into university study. Consequently, we strive to provide our pupils with a curriculum that allows them to experience what English has to offer - both in terms of its rich content, but also the processes that are integral to its vibrancy.

References

[1] We’ve drawn inspiration from Hart, S. et al (2004). Learning Without Limits. Maidenhead: Open University.

[2] See Eaglestone, R. (2018) Doing English. London and New York: Routledge.

[3] See Applebee, A.N. (1996) Curriculum as Conversation: Transforming traditions of teaching and learning. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

[4] See Carter, R. (2015) Language and Creativity: the art of common talk. London and New York: Routledge.

[5] See Knights, B. and Thurgar-Dawson, C., 2008. Active reading: Transformative writing in literary studies. A&C Black. Also English, F., 2011. Student writing and genre: Reconfiguring academic knowledge. A&C Black.

[6] See Freire, P. and Macedo, D., 2005. Literacy: Reading the word and the world. Routledge. Also Cremin, T. and Myhill, D., 2013. Writing voices: Creating communities of writers. Routledge.

[7] For writing, see Gadd, M., 2014. What is critical in the effective teaching of writing? A study of the classroom practice of some Year 5 to 8 teachers in the New Zealand context (Doctoral dissertation). For reading see Hodges, G.C., 2015. Researching and teaching reading: developing pedagogy through critical enquiry. Routledge.

[8] See Mercer, N., 1995. The guided construction of knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and learners. Multilingual matters. Also see Alexander, R., 2010. Dialogic teaching essentials. Cambridge: Cambridge.

[9] See Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. and McDaniel, M.A., 2014. Make it stick. Harvard University Press.

[10] We have drawn on work by a team at Sussex University here. While full results of the research have not been published, initial findings about moving quickly through texts are positive. Westbrook, J., Sutherland, J., Oakhill, J. and Sullivan, S., 2018. ‘Just reading’: the impact of a faster pace of reading narratives on the comprehension of poorer adolescent readers in English classrooms. Literacy.

[11] We draw inspiration for this from Professor Rudine Sims Bishop’s ‘Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Glass Doors’, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_AAu58SNSyc

[12] See APPG report on critical literacy and education for the importance of critical literacy. https://literacytrust.org.uk/policy-and-campaigns/all-party-parliamentary-group-literacy/fakenews/

[13] For an overview of how knowledge about language relates to secondary education, see Giovanelli, M. and Clayton, D. eds., 2016. Knowing about language: Linguistics and the secondary English classroom. Routledge.

[14] Jones, S., Myhill, D. and Bailey, T., 2013. Grammar for writing? An investigation of the effects of contextualised grammar teaching on students’ writing. Reading and Writing, 26(8), pp.1241-1263.

[15] See English, F., 2011. Student writing and genre: Reconfiguring academic knowledge. A&C Black.

Appendices

1. 'Interleaved' curriculum

2. 'Distributed' curriculum concepts

3. Medium-term plan, including range of summative assessment tasks

Full PDF of The Rationale Behind EMC KS3 Curriculum Plus

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