The recent reform of the English language GCSE to include pre-20th-century unseen texts means that many GCSE students are now working with 19th-century non-fiction texts for the very first time. Those sitting their exams this week could be grappling with journalism, essays, travel writing, letters and diary entries, all written in Victorian times.
The reception of the new English language GCSE has been mixed. The timing was a concern for many, with teachers being asked to change direction within two rather than the usual five years. And while there has always been an unseen element, in the absence of coursework this now carries more weight.
These 19th-century texts are considered more challenging to read for the first time in exam conditions, and teachers have “never before” been asked to teach non-fiction texts from this period.
However, rising to the challenge of 19th-century non-fiction brings rewards for students and teachers alike. As researchers, we see genuine value in accessing new texts from some of the most exciting moments in history.
The emphasis on historical writing allows new reciprocities between the teaching of English language and literature, providing additional ways of tackling comprehension and context.
There is also new scope for schools to work with universities and cultural heritage organisations, many of which are bursting at the seams with fascinating and underused historical archives.
Collaborating with universities
For example, the University of Exeter has a collaboration with Dorset County Museum, where the world’s largest archive relating to the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy is to be found. The new GCSE in English language has provided the impetus, as part of this collaboration, for new work with schools and for the creation of a new GCSE revision resource that provides access to 19th- and early 20th-century material in its original form.
The digital resource offers material from the Hardy archive and the Special Collections at the University of Exeter, which holds copies of the Graphic, the journal in which Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles was serialised (in a somewhat censored form) in 1891. We provide articles and illustrations from this year, alongside letters from the Hardy archive, focused in this instance on the theme of attitudes to animals, recreating something of the reading experience of the novel’s first audience. In this way we provide two types of non-fiction – articles and letters – focused on the same theme and spanning the late 19th to early 20th century.
Digitisation projects like this one open up the possibility of seeing texts in their original form. While the GCSE exams will provide the material in neat word-processed versions, the resource provides the letters in their original, handwritten form, as well as transcribed. Here we took our lead from teachers, who argued that seeing the historical texts in the form in which they first appeared would support the students’ contextual understanding.
We would urge that heads allocate time and petition for adequate resources for teachers to develop connections with local universities and cultural heritage organisations, including local historical sites and museums. Many archives, local or national, will be online, though there is nothing like a three-dimensional visit. Special collections at universities are open to all, so students and teachers could arrange to see texts in their original form.
Curriculum changes are often better received over time, as we have learned from our work with teachers over the past two years. However, if schools are adequately supported then the new GCSE has the potential to allow language to enter the classroom in new and exciting ways.
The reformed English language GCSE requires staff to seek out unfamiliar resources, and we believe that researchers in universities can offer expertise and support here, with reciprocal benefits.
For more information about the digital resource, please visit the website. We will be adding further lesson plans to this for the new academic year.
Angelique Richardson is a professor of English at the University of Exeter and Helen Angear is a former English GCSE and A level teacher and a PhD researcher at the University of Exeter