Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman recently continued to share her rationale for a richer curriculum in schools. As an English teacher immersed in his third incarnation of GCSE specification, I cannot do anything but agree with her comments on the “flimsy knowledge” gained at key stage 3, and the ongoing concern about the “cannibalization” of Year 9 into KS4.
For too many schools, the pressure of yet another progress- and assessment-related hoop to jump through is creating another generation of literature-phobic young people.
But what do you do with Year 9? And how do we try to reverse the clearest barrier to success in all curriculum areas: the ability to read a broad range of texts, regardless of subject?
To get a Level 9, the new GCSEs in English require students to have a breadth of reading experience that is previously unheard of, and that should scare even the most comfortable of coasting grammar schools.
In addition, some of the firm favourites of the English classroom have been ostracised from the curriculum in favour of seemingly out of context extracts from a Govian library. The most common solution is to collapse Year 9 into KS4 and spend three years thrashing around through exam practice, in the hope that memorising a style of question and a verbatim response will help students master text analysis on the day of the exam.
In the worse cases, it means teaching the text for plot and character in Year 9, and then building analysis into Years 10 and 11 with the hope your teacher can “guess” the chapter or character that turns up in the exam. And don’t get me started on the unseen 19th-century non-fiction extracts.
For years, teachers have complained about the failure of KS4 and KS5 students to read sufficient amounts to tackle the rigours of academic studies at A level and beyond, but when offered a chance to develop something, we hold onto exam practice over reading practice.
Year 9 should be a challenge: a reading challenge. A foundation year for the exam restrictions ahead to build resilience with texts that inspire and build confidence in reading and the ability to write in response. Year 6 Sats work hard to suck the life out of the subject, but KS3 offers an opportunity to regain that love of reading in students who love to tell stories of their worlds – just maybe not in paperback form.
Most English teachers are comfortable using a novel, a novella or a play to teach a range of different skills. Why not take the greatest and best from your stock cupboard and spend Year 9 promoting reading and challenging students to read five classic texts in a year.
Make Year 9 something special. An unquestionably demanding year of reading that stretches, pokes and prods students to, dare I say it, read some of the classics. We quote Dweck and Vygotsky and ask for challenge in our lessons as a mark of progress, but don’t allow students to fail in the sense of finding things complex. Year 9 is safe. Year 9 is an opportunity to practise. Year 9 is the time to re-engage students with unprejudiced reading of non-exam texts.
Reading a challenging text is essential at all ages. We bemoan a lack of cultural capital but seem unwilling to provide it for those without a well-stocked library of classics at home. We need to be brave and pick bold texts that offer the language challenge needed at GCSE. Texts that can be taught. Orwell remains a clear favourite, with 1984 or Animal Farm presenting clear narrative with as much politic imagery or allegorical resonance to please a snobby KS5-only teacher.
Austen is not just for girls, with Pride and Prejudice working exceptionally well in a boys’-only bottom set, as well as for sophisticated top-set girls. There isn’t enough space to enter the whole text/partial text debate regarding Shakespeare, but overlooked history texts such as Richard III or Julius Caesar contain clear plots and stonking speeches from devilish characters. Why can’t they read the whole text and enjoy it? Why can’t they engage with complex but unknown contextual detail and idiom? What are we frightened of?
I’ll undoubtedly get shot down by all and sundry as a proponent of a “low-threshold, high-ceiling” approach to teaching literature, or for overlooking those with lower reading ages.
However, I don’t believe that a student with English as an additional language, or other reasons for low literacy, cannot access a text. We just need to put our money where our mouths are and actually differentiate: let's adapt our methods to help students access different elements of the text depending on their ability. We haven’t got time to avoid the issue of reading in our classrooms as the changing screen-based culture renders our exam system obsolete – we have to teach some old-fashioned book learning. Take a good book, get them to read it, help them to fear less and to strive for more.
Sam Draper has been head of English in three inner-city London schools and has been teaching for 15 years. He tweets as @alondonbookman.