Tag Archives: new english literature GCSE

HoDs need to talk. The value of support groups.

When was the last time you sat with a group of 15 HODs and had a day devoted to you? Today?

At this point  I will come clean. As a HOD in a private school I am a member of a group designed to support each other and to offer advice and a listening ear.

To some this will smack of a Masonic Self-Help group to sustain the monopoly of the elite, but it is not. Truly.

We meet once a year and otherwise, share the occasional email asking for comment about assessment of the new A levels or ideas about approaching teaching Linear A levels in a school dominated by non-reformed subjects.

We could all benefit from this and I wonder how many HODs have the chance?

As English Teachers we are lucky. The staggeringly brilliant @team_English and a variety of # groups give support and solace. But there is something about being in the one room and relaxed…. I’m all for it and will willingly work with any HODs in my area to set something up. 4 or 5 of us had an OCR A level group which ran for a while, but it is tricky. Surely senior managers can realise how beneficial this can be – a day off for each HOD in the summer? It won’t break the school and there will be undoubted benefits.

This year we met at Aldenham School, and many thanks for the impeccable hosting!

We had 2 CPD sessions in the morning:

Andrew Green (Senior Lecturer Education Brunel University)

Paul Clayton (Director of NATE)

Andrew drew focus on the fundamental reasons for study of literature at A level. This was not board focused and was a general discussion which prompted me to consider how I am serving A level students in terms of skills needed for University study.

The A level is a Linear study and has been devised as such by all boards. We should remember that and allow time to develop – the linear model was praised by all HoD’s present who have the chance to run it. The AS was an afterthought and in our later discussions we all commented on feedback from the boards who seemed disappointed that schools are teaching it.

Andrew posed 2 questions:

Why study literature?

What is literature actually about?

… and focused on the new Assessment objectives:


The very open wording, moving away from Language Structure and Form gives a much a broader scope than old objective. Students are, instead, asked how writers’ shape texts’.  Thus personal contexts will shape texts, meaning that AO2&3 are linked inextricably. AOs 1&4 link and suggest an awareness of how writers themselves write about linked texts.

Now there are worries: this is great in theory and from an academic in Further Education but we have a different master – our results. It is hard to see how an examiner of the A level this summer can award AO2 and 3 simultaneously or how a piece of writing can afford not to carry the ghost of the old AOs in it. But it started the thought process, and that is what meetings are for.

Note that set texts in this world become examples of a genre rather than as individuals. That is to say that all the boards require students to extend their awareness of other texts in similar genres – for me on OCR, my students are reading 1984 and Handmaid, but considering as much Dystopian literature and film (is film Literature? is another question) as a requirement in the new Unseen questions. Likewise the need to be aware of contexts of all sorts – socio historical and literary is vital for the Doll’s House/Chaucer pair of texts.  Suddenly my students really need to understand the eras in which works are produced.  IN my selection 1399-1845 is quite a span.

Is it time to reevaluate delivery in light of 2years of a new syllabus?


Remember that A level is intended to have a much closer link to the requirements of further education than hitherto. We must move beyond the syllabus in order to achieve well, especially into a range of contexts to present the knowledge required for success This can be built into 2 year delivery.

5 steps to Heaven:

1 We need to understand the history and development of language and establish links between the texts being read across this course.

2 How do we develop awareness of the mechanics of creating a text?

3 How to balance the personal contexts of the reader with the texts being read? Do we really explore and ‘play’ with the texts?

4 How to harness the new worlds of social media in order to engage with studies?

5 How do we enable students to read and respond to critique and to evaluate worth and quality?

Teaching Literature at A level.pptx (002)

In this activity get the students to build up their own contexts which affect their perception of a text, then discuss.

Andrew then posed questions to stimulate and raise awareness of breadth of course.  Required consideration for excellence and high UCAS?

I can imagine a lunchtime cours eof classes for U6 university hopefuls each looking at this list:

Define literature?

Is film literature ?

Is soap opera literature ?

What is the point of studying literature ?

Is it more important to study old rather than new?

How do we  evaluate quality?

Can we still call a Text ‘good’ if we dislike it?

Should a good text equate with difficulty?

Who decides what literature is good?

Canon work:

Create and defend choices of canon?

Can we ignore the writing which ‘came before’?

Placing texts in rank order?

This seems to me to be material at the heart of the study of Literature and vital for discussion. To avoid it seems to restrict the awareness of our students too far. I am enthused.

He explored Criticism and Theory:

Students should address this but it turns into contexts in reality since critical reading is a context for reception. How early should we begin to embed critical theory? (I wrote a module a while ago to reinforce feminism in y8 poetry through study of homer and various more recent interpretations of the Odyssey in poetic form).

Are students ‘natural theorists’ (Eagleston)? Possibly. We need to tap into the body of theory which can be used and to develop awareness of how best to use it.  Something else to get my teeth into.

theory out

 theory in

These are not ideas beyond the scope of students in KS3 let alone KS4 – let’s use them.

Finally, via Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies we approached seeking critical lenses and replying whenever required to stimulate thought. Copies of ‘critical lens statements were provided.  What others may be needed?  Critical lenses

Andrew has shared his materials with us for use in our schools. This is his work and please give him all credit should you use it.

Using art to encourage personal engagement and contextualisation:

Getting students to develop titles. How do titles alter our perception of a work of literature? Do we look for a manifestation of the title? He went on to show how he used art work – usually highly abstract to engage discussion. This leads naturally to a discussion around Barthes:  Do writers ‘own’ meaning? – which helps to develop awareness of taste, to discuss nature of ambiguity; to look at the role of reader in interpretation; to consider the motivation and craft of the writer; to inquire what authority a teacher might have and to explore the significance of titles.

WOW. It was only 11.15.

It feel wrong to have so little to say now about Paul’s session – excellent and focused on GCSE unseen texts. The main reason is that  much of this was interactive – we explored a wide range of activities designed to help younger students tease out the finer points of unseen analysis in a world in which all GCSE/IGCSE exams now have an unseen quotient.

Paul’s powerpoint is here: 10th May 2017 please credit him if you use this.

It is a mine of useful information and activities. I particularly enjoyed the sentence combining exercise on Utterson!

In the afternoon we have the Business of the Day and discuss the last exam series.  I will not break ranks and share too much, apart from saying how good it is to hear colleagues being so frank and open about their respective results, cohorts and interaction with the exam boards. One point of general interest was that most schools are now teaching A level straight through, having started by offering AS and finding this unsatisfactory. There was a split regarding the schools’ practice for unreformed subjects. One or two schools had moved all subjects ot straight through delivery , even if unreformed and others were stiull offering study leave and similar gaps for all students which, it was felt, seriously undermined the attempts to deliver the straight-through courses.

Eventually it will all come out with the wash. Or so they say.  Probably just in time for the next curriculum change!

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After Gove: Musings on teaching English Literature 4 More of the same -losing heart.

The point of these blogs was intended to be a chance to clarify and simplify the choices involved in opting for a new GCSE board next year. The idea was that greater breadth and renewed enthusiasm would strike me and that I would swoon in front of the vast array of opportunity available to help me inspire year 10…

Sadly, I see no reason to be cheerful. There is a mammoth overhaul of examinations underway across all levels. The much pilloried Michael Gove has indicated that he is tired of a sytem with so little range and breadth of study, so the syllabi have been devised.

On the WJEC website, you find this: Gareth Pierce, WJEC’s Chief Executive, said: “Our GCSE English Literature provides strength and variety in each of the required genres. The 19th century prose works range from Jane Austen to H.G. Wells, whilst our post-1914 prose and drama selection from the British Isles has a rich choice from mid-20th century to the start of the 21st century. The five Shakespearean plays included within our specification provide a choice between tragedy, comedy and history. so far so good. But the exam board with a name that sounds like a curiously underpublicised body responsible for cleaning drains (Seriously: Eduqas?? What does it mean? How much was some marketing guru poaid to come up with it? Why? Was the marking farce of recent memory so bad tha tthe WJEC felt it had to go into hiding and sneak up on unsuspecting exam officers?).

So what have we got? Component 1: Section A (Shakespeare)
Romeo and Juliet
Much Ado About Nothing
Henry V

Component 1: Section B
WJEC Poetry Anthology (see appendix B for list of poems)

Component 2: Section A (Post 1914 Prose/Drama)
Lord of the Flies (Golding)
*Anita and Me (Syal)
*Never Let Me Go (Ishiguro)
An Inspector Calls (Priestley)
*The History Boys (Bennett)
Blood Brothers (Russell) (not Stanley Thorne edition)

Component 2: Section B (19th Century Prose)
A Christmas Carol (Dickens)
Silas Marner (Eliot)
War of the Worlds (Wells)
Pride and Prejudice (Austen)
Jane Eyre (Brontë)
* Centres are advised that these texts deal with adult themes and / or contain language of an
adult nature. (oo-err)

Woo Hoo for Marner, We Hee for a god set of Shakespeare (though how many centres will opt for Othello, I wonder?) but then, a loud hiss of deflating excitement. It is not that the texts are bad in any way, but it is so dull and unimaginative. Most of the texts are already examined – I applaud WJEC for putting NLMG on the list some time ago -a brave choice which is not reflected here. A wonderful and thought-provoking novel for which I enjoyed preparing a teaching guide and many resources: https://jwpblog.wordpress.com/tag/never-let-me-go/ but the others offer no real variety and no clear choice between boards. Apart from Marner, the 19th century list mirrors either of the two boards I have explored here: https://jwpblog.wordpress.com/tag/new-gcse-english-literature/ and shows so little imagination. It is hard to believe that Carol is there for any reason other than its brevity, when put against other Dickens novels and Jane Eyre is flitting between GCSE and A level with the regularity of rain during a test match. Where does she belong, poor girl? The modern list is equally disappointing – possible to simply dig in and continue to teach Inspector – no harm in that, I believe it to be a brilliant and constantly relevant play, but there is so little about this that is “new”. History Boys is a great play, though I wonder how many year 10 students will buy into the argument between progressive and traditional teaching, let alone the bitter sweet portrayal of homosexuality. Surely better in the VIth form. But the novels are not inspiring either. Flies?? Again. And Anita and me. Now, maybe this is a brilliant piece of literature, but I have never seen the attraction. So, three novels! from the entire 20th and 21st centuries. Are these really the best we could work with?

Why on earth are we bothering with this upheaval?

I am not alone in saying this, as my twitter feed bears out. Neither do I rant at Gove in some knee-jerk ad hominem attack on all things Govine. It seems that the boards are letting us down here. No imagination and no development of breadth. Fewer texts studied than hitherto. Such a shame.

I’m not sure I shall complete part 5. I hope Edexcel raise us from the mire of mediocrity seen here. I’m off to prepare Paradise Lost for A level…

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After Gove: musings on teaching English Literature 1

This is the 2013 list of prescribed authors deemed fit for study in the International Baccalaureate Diploma English Literature course. It is 18 pages long, but please take a moment to open it.

author list 2013

This is a typical A level set text list at AS and A2:
Section A: Poetry
Robert Browning
Emily Dickinson
Edward Thomas
W.B. Yeats
Section B: Prose
Mary Shelley – Frankenstein
Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre
Henry James – The Turn of the Screw
Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray
Joseph Conrad – The Secret Agent
Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway

and at A2:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Antony and Cleopatra
King Lear
The Tempest
John Ford – ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore
Ben Jonson – Volpone
John Webster – The White Devil
Richard Brinsley Sheridan – The Rivals
Geoffrey Chaucer – The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
John Milton – Paradise Lost Book Nine
Andrew Marvell – Selected Poems
William Blake – Songs of Innocence and Experience

In many cases there is a requirement for a group of “student” choice texts to be studied as coursework, though in reality the relatively poor breadth of reading prior to the Lower VIth means that these are often chosen by teachers and can, in some cases, be centered on discussion of a single passage or poem from a much longer book/collection. In the IB model, the choice is almost limitless, being bound by a few restrictions on texts in translation (the list of authorised texts for that is simply enormous) and by the format of the exam. In all, Standard level students study 10 texts in the two years of the course and Higher level students study 13. Whilst this does not differ drastically from the average A level model, the issue is often with the preparation for study at the post 16 level.

This is where I can begin to see the point in the recent comments by Michael Gove which have caused such a furore this weekend. Leaving aside for now the debate about specific texts – Gove is adamant that he has never sought to proscribe certain staples of the GCSE exams despite claims printed over the weekend, the simple fact is that many students opting to follow the study of English Literature into the VIth form are woefully under-read and underprepared. The average GCSE set text list looks like this:
Arthur Miller: A View from The Bridge
J B Priestley: An Inspector Calls
William Shakespeare: Henry V
William Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing
William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet
Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest
Thornton Wilder: Our Town
Section B: Prose
Students must answer one question on one of the six texts listed below:
Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird
R K Narayan: The English Teacher
John Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men
Mildred Taylor: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Nineteenth Century Short Stories (edited by Mike Hamlin, Christine Hall and Jan
Browne, Heinemann New Windmill). All stories in the collection are prescribed.
Apart from Nineteenth Century Short Stories, any edition of the above texts may be

Which looks quite stimulating, until you note that a single text from each list is prescribed – in other words, our A level student can arrive in the lower VIth, from this model, having read no Shakespeare and nothing from the 19th century at all in years 10 and 11. There is, in the Edexcel model outlined above, rather a good poetry selection in the anthology of poetry.

So, back to texts: I opt for OMAM. I love the text and think that the exploration of the basis for a civilised society which it presents far outstrips its short length. It is a text which lends itself to teaching in a range f environments and at a range of levels. I would hate to be without it and have blogged about it copiously on here. Which is why I was a little surprised when visiting the department of which I will become the Head in September, to find it taught in year 9. Then I thought about it. It is simple, deceptively so, and deeply engaging, but since it can be taught at this level, why not drop it from yr 11? I have opted for Mockingbird in its place and am now told that this is to be dropped due to the fact that it is not “from” the british Isles. This saddens me hugely and I will find room for it elsewhere.

However, to state that there are no texts pre 1914 (why this arbitrary point in literary history?) which deal with similar ideas or can be assimilated by an average group of teenagers seems to me to be insulting to the potential of the young people we teach. Issues of race might not figure as prominently in these texts, but issues of social commentary abound in many 19th century writers. To read Dickens on London or Hardy on the fate of the rural poor is NOT beyond our young people. It is not easy to deliver this material and to overcome the initial prejudices which often cause us all to opt for the “modern”, but it is worth persevering here because the rewards are great and the potential benefit for any student moving up to the VIth form is immense.

What bothers me is the 1914 cut off. This seems to have been in place for many years. Surely it is time to move the goalposts. If we must be shackled by conflict, how about 1939? It is not impossible to imagine the discussions generated by a work like A Passage To India with regards to attitudes to race or by Down and Out in Paris and London. But surely the opportunity which is not being taken is that which opens up Literature to study. By all means direct my thinking as I plan my dream curriculum – Give me modules such as “The novel – 19th Century” or “The Modern Novel” even at GCSE and give me the choice to deliver work which I am passionate about. A list of authors deemed suitable would be a start: who says that Great Expectations is acceptable while David Copperfield or Nickleby is not? Let us move from prescribed works and allow regional variation to come into play. I know I am a little odd, but as a child, Hardy spoke to me precisely because I lived in rural Wiltshire and found empathy with his Wessex. Likewise, students in certain parts of the country may well find it easier to relate to writers more closely linked to their own world – I have never got on with Lawrence, for example, and I wonder if colleagues who grew up in the villages and towns of Nottinghamshire find him more engaging?

I have no answers. I regret the passing of Mockingbird and OMAM from GCSE text status, if that is indeed what happens, but they are likely to find their way into classrooms regardless of exams. I welcome the possibility that a student entering the Upper VIth and faced with discussing the Canon as part of an AQA coursework piece, might actually have read some of what is felt to be Canonical.

What I want more than anything is for my department and me to be able to sit down and choose our texts to compliment our strengths as teachers; to choose texts suited to our cohort and to be able to choose an author and explore the texts rather than to be given this straitjacket of approval by an exam board.


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