How can English departments choose the right texts?

Picking which books students will study is a big decision – and shouldn't just be about what is in the cupboard. Laura May Rowlands offers four key questions to help

Laura May Rowlands

Why pupils shouldn't judge a book before they read it - and why English teachers need to tackle misconceptions

Choosing which texts to study over the coming academic year is one of the best parts of my job as head of English – it is also one of the most stressful, too.

As we near the end of this academic year, English departments will be reviewing and refining their curricula, asking themselves: what worked? What turned out to be too time-consuming or too simple? How have these texts helped prepare our pupils for the demands of GCSE and beyond? And, perhaps more importantly: how have they fed into a rich and varied reading diet?

There are, of course, specifics that must be adhered to for the national curriculum. Should we take these at face value, or is context king?

I have been, in the past, guilty of the false notion that texts must be chosen to engage.

For too long, I chose texts for the wrong reasons. Were they engaging and interesting? Certainly. Should they be afforded considerable curriculum time? Absolutely not.

I don’t wish to denigrate texts pupils enjoy, but with finite time in the classroom, texts must be carefully chosen to ensure we, as subject specialists, are devoting our precious lesson time to texts and "big ideas" that pupils cannot or will not access on their own.

A balance, then, needs to be struck between all of these things, and between the idea of rigour and enjoyment. These 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 feed into the extrinsic value of helping pupils to attain the grade needed for success at GCSE – but this is a reductive, utilitarian view of education.

If we believe, as John Sutherland puts it, that "literature… enlarges our minds to the point where we can better handle complexity…it makes us more human", then we need to ensure that we have selected texts doing precisely this.

One way we have done this at our school is by teaching creation myths from a range of traditions and cultural backgrounds at key stage 3, written in plain language.

This has 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 will feed forward into the study of the more complex texts of later years.

2. Is it balanced?

It is important that pupils are able to see themselves represented in the writers they study – not through tokenism or an attempt to be "woke", but because it is our duty, as teachers, to share the best of what has been written by writers of all genders, identities, and cultures.

Such diversity is vital in breaking down barriers that still exist in our society and so it needs to be looked at properly, rather than shoehorning in books to tick a diversity checklist.

Furthermore, we must ask ourselves if it is, in this day and age, appropriate to teach books that contain racial slurs or negative tropes around women, the disabled, or other marginalised members of society.

There are so many powerful and rich texts available, it seems almost lazy to go back to the same old book we have hundreds of tattered copies of.

3. What frontloading is needed?

Careful planning is necessary to allow pupils time to develop the knowledge they need to appreciate a text, and how that text feeds into other, more complex texts.

Adding Oliver Twist into Year 7, for example, can be a valuable way to ensure that pupils have an early exposure to the knowledge they need for success in KS4 before they are thrust into it.

Ensuring knowledge and understanding of bildungsroman, Victorian society, Dickens’ characterisation, and practice in the analysis of this style of text allows for a depth and breadth of understanding which means that the groundwork is laid (providing this information is regularly retrieved and applied), and pupils can immediately delve into the more complex texts studied at GCSE and beyond.

4. Length or adaptations needed

It is no secret that the texts we would pick if time weren't a constraint would likely be fairly weighty tomes.

So how can we possibly ensure that we are not skimming over a text without ever really grappling with its complexity?

Fear not, no one is suggesting that War and Peace is going into term one for Year 8. But it is important that whole texts are considered when being taught.

One solution is to consider fewer topics, but in greater depth. At KS3 in my school, each topic lasts a term, allowing for whole texts to be taught in their full glory.

Even with this extra time, careful pruning is still needed. You might supply an overview for less important sections, or even watch part of a performance (if one exists). Alternatively, look to see if there are abridged versions that can stand in for selected chapters.

Looking for the 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 will never eliminate the reading gap if we choose texts based on enjoyment and accessibility alone – we are not running a book club; we are teaching pupils to be literary critics and preparing them for success not just at GCSE but beyond.

Laura May Rowlands is head of English in a secondary school in Hampshire

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Laura May Rowlands

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