How can English departments choose the right texts?
Deciding which texts to study in the upcoming academic year is one of the best parts of my job as Head of English – it’s also one of the most stressful.
As we approach the end of this academic year, English departments will be reviewing and refining their programs, asking themselves: what worked? What turned out to be too long or too simple? How have these texts helped prepare our students for the requirements of the GCSE and beyond? And, perhaps more importantly: how did they fuel a rich and varied reading regimen?
There are, of course, specificities that must be respected for the national program. Should we take them at face value, or is context king?
I have been, in the past, guilty of the misconception that texts must be chosen to engage.
For too long, I’ve chosen texts for the wrong reasons. Were they engaging and interesting? Certainly. Should they be given considerable study time? Absolutely not.
I do not wish to denigrate texts that students enjoy, but with limited class time, texts must be carefully chosen to ensure that we, as subject matter experts, spend our valuable lesson time on texts and to “big ideas” that students cannot or do not want to access on their own.
A balance must therefore be found between all these things, and between the idea of rigor and pleasure. Here are the ideas I keep in mind when adapting text choices:
1. Does the text have “big ideas”?
Naturally, we need to select texts that drive the extrinsic value of helping pupils achieve the mark needed to pass the GCSE – but this is a reductive and utilitarian view of education.
If we believe, as John Sutherland says, that “literature…expands our minds to the point where we can better handle complexity…it makes us more human,” then we need to make sure we select texts that do just that.
One of the ways we have achieved this in our school is by teaching creation myths from a range of traditions and cultural backgrounds in Key Stage 3, written in plain language.
This allowed us to consider the use of allusion, a range of ideas around the human condition, and structural ideas such as Freytag’s pyramid, all of which would feed into the study of more complex texts in later years.
2. Is it balanced?
It is important that students can see themselves represented in the writers they study – not rhetorically or in an attempt to be “awakened”, but because it is our duty as teachers to sharing the best that has been written by writers of all genres, identities and cultures.
Such diversity is key to breaking down the barriers that still exist in our society and so it needs to be looked at properly, rather than sifting through the books to tick off a diversity checklist.
Additionally, we need to ask ourselves if it is appropriate these days to teach books that contain racial slurs or negative tropes around women, people with disabilities, or other marginalized members of society.
There are so many powerful and rich texts available that it almost seems lazy to go back to the same old book of which we have hundreds of tattered copies.
3. What frontloading is needed?
Careful planning is needed to give students time to develop the knowledge they need to appreciate a text and how that text feeds into other more complex texts.
To add Oliver Twist in grade 7, for example, can be a valuable way to ensure that students have early exposure to the knowledge they need to succeed in KS4 before being pushed into it.
Ensure knowledge and understanding of bildungsromanVictorian society, Dickens’ characterization and practice of analyzing this style of text allows for deep and extensive understanding, which means that the foundations are laid (provided this information is regularly retrieved and applied), and that students can immediately dive into the more complex texts studied at GCSE and beyond.
4. Duration or necessary adaptations
It’s no secret that the texts we would choose if time weren’t a constraint would probably be quite heavy tomes.
So how do you make sure you don’t skim over a text without ever really tackling its complexity?
Have no fear, no one is suggesting it War and peace enters the first trimester of the 8th grade. But it is important that whole texts are taken into account when teaching.
One solution is to consider fewer topics, but more in depth. At my school’s KS3, each subject lasts for a term, which makes it possible to teach entire texts in all their glory.
Even with this extra time, careful pruning is still required. You can preview less important sections, or even watch part of a performance (if there is one). Otherwise, look to see if there are abridged versions that can replace selected chapters.
Searching for Goldilocks Text
Choosing texts always requires an element of compromise to strike a balance between what you would ideally like to teach and what is practical to deliver.
But the fact is, we’ll never close the reading gap if we choose texts based solely on enjoyment and accessibility — we’re not running a book club; we teach students to become literary critics and prepare them to succeed not just at GCSEs, but beyond.
Laura May Rowlands is an English teacher at a secondary school in Hampshire