On goodwill and hand grenades
Why choice in the English classroom is destined to fail most students
The first researchED event I attended was one where I was invited to speak. It was a few years ago in a COVID-19 lockdown lull and only a handful of people were cavalier enough to attend. The panel included myself and classics teacher Mike Salter - the ‘real teacher’ contingent - and Paul Martin, CEO of NESA. Looking back, I had no idea how curriculum was created and in hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t. In my naivete, I used the opportunity to roundly criticise the text selections and it felt good to talk to a small but powerful audience.
I remember Paul Martin talking about the multiple stakeholders that feed into consultation and thinking there were far too many non-expert ‘cooks.’ Listening to Ben Jensen’s ERRR podcast, he affirmed that there is indeed a shortage of curriculum experts. Consultation generates goodwill, but I’m not sure how constructive it is. I was involved in consultation for this round of syllabus changes and while I was happy to be involved, my views about the need to ensure students encounter challenging texts were in the minority. I could see how stakeholder voice regressed to the mean, with lots of teachers promoting the ‘mirror’ view of literature, where students had to see themselves reflected in characters.
This regression has seen little change in the text requirements regarding form, with film and prose still given equal weight. One good move is that the novel – which was in the spirit of the old syllabus but often avoided in favour of short stories – has been prescribed and students are now required to engage with poets worthy of published collections. But now, in addition to the old game of text selection Tetris, we see definitions of diversity expanded to include gender and disability. One can only imagine that by gender, NESA does not intend to highlight Austen or Sappho. And by disability we can assume no Steinbeck, but rather the kind of sick-lit and identity texts that have become so popular.
But the real hand grenade, and one that has slipped into the syllabus under a quiet ‘update’, is the very recent and post-consultation inclusion of ‘texts chosen by students for personal interest or enjoyment.’ Teachers should ostensibly ‘preview’ these texts and typically, there is no guidance provided on how this should work in a busy classroom. Perhaps the intention is to create multi-purpose activities for random texts. Perhaps a wide reading program, delivered during English lessons is the implication here. It’s difficult to tell.
Reading for enjoyment, of course, is universally seen to be a good thing, but it is not a good use of precious class time. Here are five reasons why:
Text selection in English needs to induce learning. Comfort-level texts won’t do this, meaning learning time is wasted. Read more here.
These ambitious texts need to be heavily mediated and scaffolded by the teacher. Read more here.
Students make poor choices about their own learning. Read more here.
Sustained silent reading does not conclusively lead to improved reading outcomes, so is not a good use of class time. Read more here.
Teachers reading aloud supports comprehension. Read more here and here.
I’m lucky to work in a school with very few behaviour issues, with students who generally can read independently. Reading is timetabled each day, with no impact on curriculum, and it’s a joy to behold. Students report a renewed interest in reading at an age where they typically slump, and in our setting – remember that point about mostly able readers – the practice is likely to have knock-on benefits.
I fiercely protect my own English teaching time. There is never enough, and with the addition of the direct teaching of writing and grammar, it’s difficult to see how this move is justified. This new syllabus is a concession that whole-school literacy was a 30-year policy failure. But if student choice in reading is going to benefit students in some contexts, then allow school discretion and spread that time over subjects other than English, where almost all the heavy lifting in literacy is done.
What we have here is motherhood and apple pie in a policy and it will potentially hurt our weakest readers and writers.
Love this piece, Rebecca! Your snappy word choice makes it a joy to read.
The Ben Jenson podcast was amazing! His take on ACARA's consensus approach was so interesting, and highlighted by you with your excellent example.
How about his comparison with the Alberta v Auatralian chemistry curriculum? Loved it!
Another great piece, Rebecca! Here you have stated five very good reasons why comfort-level reading choices are not the best idea during the precious minutes of a busy English classroom. I had not heard of 'sick-lit' before and had to look it up. When an example of 'The fault in our stars' was given I new immediately what was meant. With the addition of writing and grammar as essential parts to the new curriculum it is hard to see how 'reading for pleasure' can be squeezed in and beneficial.