Principled curriculum design: the English curriculum

The tragedy of life is that one can only understand life backwards, but one must live it forwards
Søren Kierkegaard

Back in March 2013, I wrote about the principles underlying my redesign of a Keys Stage 3 English curriculum. It received a mixed response. Since then Joe Kirby and Alex Quigley have published their ideas on redesigning this area of the curriculum and have, in different ways, influenced my thinking.

Recently, I’ve presented my ideas on the English curriculum to over 100 English teachers and the consensus seems to be that there is no consensus. Having thought quite a bit about that I think that might be, at least in part, because there is little agreement on why English is taught or even, more fundamentally, on what it actually is, or should be, as a subject discipline. Is it about developing empathy and being better human beings? Is it about providing pupils with transferable skills like analysis? Or is it about transmitting a culturally enriching knowledge of literature?

More generally, the purpose of education is usually described as being about the following:

  • Transmission of culture
  • Preparation for work
  • Preparation for effective citizenship
  • Preparation for life

Dylan Wiliam contends that these should not be viewed as either/or options from which to select, but rather as a blend from which we might arrive at a broad and balanced curriculum. “All are important, and often in tension with one another,” he says. “[A]nd so any education system is a – sometimes messy – compromise between these four sets of aims. This is interesting. (Especially in a publication entitled Principled Curriculum Design.) Interesting because “compromise is the refuge of the unprincipled“. Or to put it less starkly, Matthew Arnold’s view that education should be about passing on “the best that has been thought and known in the world” and building students’ cultural capital should, if it’s approached correctly achieve the other 3 aims without the need to address them specifically.

These then are the principles on which I would design a curriculum:

  • Education should enrich students’ cultural capital and teach them explicit knowledge about how to think and communicate
  • Sustained progress is preferable to rapid progress; learning is distinct from performance
  • Is it good enough for my own daughters?

Cultural capital

For me, the point about cultural capital is that it isn’t subjective, or at least, not very subjective. It’s based on the body of knowledge which collectively and over time we, as a culture, have decided is worthwhile. Personal preference doesn’t come into these decisions. Just because you might not happen to like a particular text and would like instead to propose one of your favourite novels for inclusion misses the point. There are those who claim it is elitist and the preserve of posh kids in private schools, and that ‘kids like these’ should be given a diet of transient but appealing modern texts because that is what is most relevant to their foreshortened little lives. This is unbelievably patronising, selfish and short-sighted. If we allow the canon to be the preserve of the elite we ought to be ashamed of ourselves. To the extent that it’s elitist, let’s reclaim it. The canon is not mine or yours and it’s certainly not theirs: it’s ours. And we should damn well appreciate it!

Knowing what is considered to useful and important is powerful. In English, it follows that knowing about so-called ‘Great Literature’, or the cannon, is important. This view is often attacked on the grounds that teaching students to revere the works of Dead White Men is reactionary and bound to burden them with thoughts and ideas that are irrelevant to their lives and circumstances. And so, perhaps, it would be if that were what I was advocating. Knowledge is power. This isn’t really a debate: the more you know, the better equipped you are to think, and no one is seriously arguing against the idea that pupils should be taught to think. The curriculum I’m proposing would seek to encourage pupils to critique the cannon, to explore the contexts in which it texts were written and to examine how our views have developed over time. To that end, my ideal English curriculum will be led by the study of great, culturally rich texts, but will also focus on criticism of them.


But cultural capital isn’t just about being able to reel off passage of Shakespeare or Keats; it’s also about our ability to think and communicate. This means that knowledge of grammar is particularly powerful. I’ve come to believe that knowledge of grammar is foundational and transformative for two reasons.

Firstly, if we want to be taken seriously we need to know and understand the rules of communication. If we know what they are we can then break them knowingly. I wasn’t taught much in the way of explicit knowledge about grammar at school and while I implicitly picked up quite a lot about how to get my thoughts across coherently, I did not have the knowledge to be able to think meta-cognitively about writing. This meant that my ability to write creatively was hampered; I wasn’t able to make informed choices. I was left with doing ‘what felt right’.
But grammar is also important in helping us think analytically. Grammar is concerned with meaning and if we want to give our pupils the freedom to think and succeed academically, we need to teach the language to do so. In English we need to teach pupils to ‘think like an essay’. Daisy Christodoulou explains this with reference to one of her student’s work:

JB Priestley also presents Mr Birling as confident he says to Gerald with no hesitation at all ‘But what I wanted to say is there’s a fair chance that I might find my way into the next Honours List’ he shows he’s confident in his business and in himself and he’s not telling Gerald he’s going to have a knighthood he’s boasting.

Her point was that although this is clearly a bright student, his lack of grammatical knowledge means that his thoughts are sloppy. She rewrote his words as follows:

JB Priestley also presents Mr Birling as confident when he says to Gerald with no hesitation at all, ‘But what I wanted to say is there’s a fair chance that I might find my way into the next Honours List’. Here, he shows he’s confident in his business and in himself. He’s not just telling Gerald he’s going to have a knighthood; he’s boasting about it.

The thoughts contained in second version are identical but a much better impression of the writer’s quality of thinking is given. The last sentence is telling. You could argue that all you would have to do to improve this student’s work would be to teach semi colon usage. But in order to understand how and when to use a semi colon you need to know what an independent clause is. In order to understand how and when to write an independent clause you need to know what a sentence is. And in order to be able to write grammatically sound sentences which demonstrate clarity of thinking you need to know and understand the relationship between a verb and its subject.  This is what Daisy calls a “hidden body of knowledge”. If we don’t teach these things then pupils won’t know what they don’t know. I learned none of these things at school and although I had a pretty good implicit hunch about this stuff, I wasn’t clear. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Daisy argues that the best way to teach grammar is through decontextualised drill. The alternative, typified by Debra Myhill’s Grammar for Writing approach is problematic. If you want to teach grammar in context, you have two choices. You either give them feedback on their writing which concentrates just on the grammatical knowledge which you are engaged in actively teaching on the time, or you give them feedback on all the grammatical mistakes in every piece of work. If you take the first approach you will be forced to ignore certain mistakes and allow pupils to embed bad habits. Practice makes permanent and pupils become skilled at what they practise doing. If on the other hand you pick them up on every mistake you run the risk of overloading their working memory with the result that they will fail to learn anything. But if grammar is taught systematically and out of context then pupils will be able to master grammatical knowledge before moving on to the next step.

To this end, I would recommend separate grammar lessons. If you currently have 4 English lessons a week and Key Stage 3 then you might consider making one of these lessons a grammar lesson.


That said, I’d accept that there are times when we are likely to learn better in context. It just so happens that the most effective context for grammar teaching is that it follows its own discrete narrative from word classes to sentence structure to whole text structure and coherence. Daisy suggests the following sequence for teaching grammar:

Daisy Christodoulou's teaching sequence for grammar

Daisy Christodoulou’s teaching sequence for grammar

Similarly, Joe Kirby has argued for the sequenced teaching of literature. This is a point of view which I have chewed over and come to accept. If it’s widely accepted that history is best taught sequentially, then why not literature? If every text pupils study related back the text they’ve studied previously then they will be able to make strong relational links between the text and its context. They will have an understanding of what writers would have known and they will begin to be able to piece together the story of literature from its classical roots, through the medieval, renaissance, Victorian and modern periods.

As Joe puts it,

This English curriculum spins the globe… Its chronology is sequential, which will leave students will a memorable framework in their minds for understanding any cultural achievements of the past they may come across. In the future, this ancient, medieval, renaissance and modern framework should help them peg new ideas to their prior conception of the eras.

There a couple of caveats here.

1) Harry Fletcher-Wood  has raised some interesting thoughts about why the chronological teaching of history might not be the best idea. But I’m not teaching history. The threshold concepts of English should be should be interleaved within the sequenced teaching of literature.

2) The programme of study below is arranged thematically as well as sequentially. Within each scheme of learning there should be links stretching backward and forwards to show how literature is rooted in what has come before and how it influences what comes after. 

This then is my updated redesign of the Key Stage 3 curriculum:
Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 13.26.22

As for Years 10 and 11, we’re entering uncharted territory. The draft curriculum documents for English Language and Literature are vague to say the least. With the little detail we have, here are some initial thoughts on a Key Stage 4 curriculum:

Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 14.40.56

One of the problems with current Key Stage 4 programmes of study is that they’re hamstrung by the need to teach to ridiculous exams. If the new GCSE are going to assess pupils on “high-quality, challenging texts” from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries then we can probably make some useful inferences from examining iGCSE past papers.

NB I’m not for a moment arguing that these are the ‘right’ texts – I would hope that English teachers would want to select their own preferences from within this suggested sequence. I’m not at all sure for instance of my inclusion of Th History Boys in Year 10. I was swayed by the fact that it’s now the nation’s favourite play, but you might very well think that it might not be appropriate.

Sustained progress

The second strand of the principles which underpin this curriculum is the idea that we should seek to ensure pupils learning is sustained. I’ve argued before that the concept of ‘rapid progress’ actively undermines the likelihood the pupils will make sustained progress. I would add that the way in which schools generally design their curriculum is to maximise students’ short-term performance at the cost of the long-term retention and transferability of what they ‘learn’. For this reason I contend that programmes of study which block the teaching of skills are destined to fail. The line we’re sold by exam boards is that because English is a ‘skills based subject’ we should design our programmes of study to take advantage of the transfer of skills from one area of the curriculum to another.

This leads to schools designing a curriculum that might look a bit like this:

Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 13.38.38
We would expect that the skill of analysing non fiction learned in term 1 would transfer to the skill of writing non fiction in term 2 and the skill of analysing poetry in term 3. Except it doesn’t. English teacher know it doesn’t because every year they’re faced with classes who haven’t been able to transfer the skills and are left feeling like it must be their fault for teaching so badly. The problem is that the link is obvious to us as expert teachers with a huge breadth and depth of knowledge around the subject and we assume that it must be equally obvious to our pupils, if only we could explain it well enough. The trouble is that experts and novices think very differently and require explicit teaching each time we move to a new subject area.

Instead, if we space and interleave our curriculum and introduce certain ‘desirable difficulties’ which slow the progress of short-term performance but increase the likelihood of long-term retention, pupils will be far more likely to be able to transfer their learning between different parts of the curriculum.

Threshold concepts

If we are going to successfully interleave our teaching, we have to break English down into those areas which are fundamental to understanding the subject. These areas, or threshold concepts, are transformative and irreversible. Once you’ve learned them you pass through a threshold and can never see the wold in quite the same way again. Before you learn to decode writing is just funny squiggles.  But once decoding is learned, you will only be able to see letters. When I first started thinking about threshold concepts in English I was unable to find anyone who’d done any work in this area and this remains the case. There are some excellent general overviews, but nothing specific.

This though is an important consideration:

Threshold concepts would seem to be more readily identified within disciplinary contexts where there is a relatively greater degree of consensus on what constitutes a body of knowledge (for example, Mathematics, Physics, Medicine). However within areas where there is not such a clearly identified body of knowledge it might still be the case that… ways of thinking and practising also constitutes a crucial threshold function in leading to a transformed understanding.

Meyer and Land, Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines p 9

Maybe there aren’t any real threshold concepts in English; maybe there are only ‘ways of thinking and practising’. If that is the case, the ways of think and practising that I would suggest we interleave in our curriculum are these:

Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 14.18.38

  • Structure and coherence is the understanding that texts are put together with intent. Once you understand this, you think differently about the way you write.
  • Spelling, punctuation & grammar has already been dealt with above. It’s probably a bit clunky to lump these 3 together; SPaG as a concept is widely understood by teachers as being concerned with accuracy but it is also a component of the third writing concept:
  • Awareness of impact is the understanding that writing is shaped by the priorities of a writer and the needs of a reader. it would include the teaching of genre, audience and purpose.
  • Understanding context is crucial to making sense of texts. Once we understand that a context of production and reception shapes meaning we will never read in the same way again.
  • Using evidence is often reduced to simply formulas for using quotations but is rather about shaping a critical response by interpreting the thoughts of the writer directly.
  • Analysing technique is about the understanding that writers use a variety of linguistic and structural techniques to achieve their ends.

It makes little sense to divide these concepts into reading and writing – better, I think, to interleave their study so that pupils are unaware where reading blurs into writing and the twin strands of creativity and analysis are experienced holistically.

If it’s good enough for my own daughters, then it’s good enough

This is the English curriculum I wish I’d had. And it’s the curriculum I want for my daughters. I absolutely want them to explore and encounter some of the wonderful texts which make up the cannon of English Literature and I also want them to interrogate these texts and decide whether they find them worthy or wanting. Does this mean that it’s good enough for other people’s children? It had damn well better be! That’s the point of these principles after all. I’m not simply feeding my daughters a burger to demonstrate the juicy goodness of British beef – I want it to be the right of all children to experience a curriculum like this.

These then are the ideas and principles which underlie my thoughts about curriculum design. If you don’t like my curriculum and have an alternative you think better, that’s great. The enacted curriculum is always much more powerful than the design curriculum as teachers will always mediate these plans through the lens of their own values and principles. I’d allow that as long as you’re able to talk though your thinking in the way I’ve modelled, I’m sure your curriculum will be worth teaching.

75 Responses to Principled curriculum design: the English curriculum

  1. […] via Principled curriculum design: the English curriculum | David Didau: The Learning Spy. […]

      • David Didau says:

        Yeah ok – mea cupla

        • Amy says:

          David – I’ve just recently discovered your blog and am really enjoying reading your posts on various topics, which I find extremely thought provoking and inspiring. The post above has been of great interest as I’m a secondary English teacher and I like your ‘vision’.

          I have question for you that is, sort of, related – purely because it relates to the subject of English:

          Do you think that it would be a good idea to give English teachers fewer teaching hours in order to allow them to manage their significantly larger workloads?

          I’m in my third year teaching now and can’t help but notice the huge disparity between English teachers’ workloads and teachers who teach other subjects. I know that if I had just an extra couple of free periods a week I would get so much more marking done and I would definitely be a more efficient teacher because of it…and much less stressed and tired! It may just be my school, but nobody ever seems to acknowledge the insane amount of extra work English teachers have to do. Why aren’t we given more time to plan and mark? Why don’t schools just employ more English teachers and relieve the pressure a bit?

          I’m not sure if you will read this as it’s a rather old post?

          • David Didau says:

            Hi Amy

            I read everything!

            You’ll have a hard job convincing teachers of other subjects that they work less hard than English teachers – I certainly never managed it, and maybe now I’ve learned to see that where there are costs, there are also benefits.

            I’ll tell you what I would do though: ditch English langauge as a subject and just teach Literature & grammar. Other subjects would responsible for teaching the genres that occur within their domains! Would that help?

          • Amy says:

            Oh yes, I love being an English teacher and get immense satisfaction from it. I just wish I had more hours in the day to fit everything in and wasn’t feeling so overwhelmed with work all the time. I’ve got flu at the moment, so maybe this is me just feeling sorry for myself?

            I’m very interested in what you say about other departments taking more responsibility with regards to teaching language and communication skills that are relevant to their subject. Is that what you mean? Or have I got the wrong end of the stick?

            If it is, then I think you could be on to something!

          • David Didau says:

            Sort of. Subject teachers need to teach subjects to write like historians, geographers, scientists etc. The language of a subject should be inseparable from the content. Have a look at this blog:

    • Love the Kierkegaard quote!

      You probably know that, overall, I approve wholeheartedly with the vast majority of what you say here, however I have a couple of (minor?) quibbles:

      (Also I take a slightly different view to ‘the four purposes of education’ as described (are these Dylan Wiliams’s?):

      Transmission of culture, I would argue about the word ‘transmission’, but this does feel like the importance of tradition, culture and knowledge (are these better in plural though?) or understanding of life ‘backwards’. Preparation for work I think causes a good deal of trouble as a purpose of education and should be far more of a secondary aim. Preparation for effective citizenship, is vital, though, again, when taken over by bureaucrats it can become a series of dreadful citizenship classes rather than an overall purpose. Preparation for life, well yes, but a ‘good’ life or a flourishing life rather than just ‘life’.)

      Anyhow where you describe your first purpose as:
      “Education should enrich students’ cultural capital and teach them explicit knowledge about how to think and communicate,” and in the main I concur with this, as it is a neat summation of the trivium, however, I would quibble with ” ‘teach them explicit knowledge’ about how to think and communicate” as this seems very one way and almost North Korean 😉 and I would want to slowly, methodically, build the knowledge and skills so that they can think and communicate independently of the teacher. (this could take weeks, months, years…) So I would add this as a purpose, it is the idea of the liberal arts that the pupil becomes free to think and communicate freely and, to me, that is important.

      I, of course, love and share your concern about ‘daughters’ education.

      My other quibble is: “If it’s widely accepted that history is best taught sequentially, then why not literature?” Is it widely accepted that history is best taught sequentially? This would mean all sorts of problems including the closure of Anglo Saxon studies etc. at University. I would argue that literature could be taught in this way but would Tristram Shandy really work before, say, Harry Potter… ? Must year 7 forever be the place for Sophocles and year 11 Rebecca? I don’t know about you but I do believe the depth that Oedipus can offer should be visited by more mature minds, which is not to say that it shouldn’t be looked at in year seven, but seen once and then forgotten? The same with the King James Bible, unless this is covered elsewhere in the school, but I think regular exposure to this through repetition, learning passages, could be a good thing alongside Shakespeare, knowing the poetry to understand more fully later on…

      • David Didau says:

        Yes, the 4 aims are from Wiliam’s Principled Curriculum Design – I would agree with your critique of them. (Don’t I say as much?)

        We could quibble about the wording of ‘teaching explicit knowledge’ but I don’t really see any point of disagreement with your definition, so that’s alright. I’m not advocating indoctrination and I’m sure thinking isn’t widely encourage in North Korea.

        Have you read Harry Fletcher-Wood’s blog about chronological teaching of history? If not, the link is above. I’ve also responded to Harry elsewhere in the comments and in doing so address your concerns. I hope. Suffice it to say that I’m not all interesting is a ‘seen once and then forgotten’ curriculum but it’s important to remember the purpose of English here. The canon is, in one sense, merely a backdrop for teaching the ‘threshold concepts’ I outline above.

  2. Jill Berry says:

    Thanks for this, David – fascinating stuff which makes me think, as ever.

    I taught English for 30 years. “Is it about developing empathy and being better human beings? Is it about providing pupils with transferable skills like analysis? Or is it about transmitting a culturally enriching knowledge of literature?” Yes – all three, I would say, and don’t think there’s any conflict/compromise in that! Are you going to disagree with me?

    • David Didau says:

      I am. Surely the post makes it clear what I think happens when we design a curriculum to focus on skills? Basically, he first 2 are byproducts of the third. If we teach the best of what’s been thought and known the rest can take care of itself. But more than that, prioritising either of these will only distract from what matters most.

      • Jill Berry says:

        Thought you might say that…. But it’s like the ‘enjoyment’/’learning’ argument all over again. I know you like ‘or’ and I’m an ‘and’ person. Learning comes first; enjoyment is a by-product: both are important. In this post, I don’t have a problem with ‘the first 2 are by-products of the third’ but I’d say all three are important aims in English.

        But then I’m also a fan of compromise….

        • David Didau says:

          As I say in my final sentence. I’d allow that as long as you’re able to talk though your thinking in the way I’ve modelled, I’m sure your curriculum will be worth teaching.

          I’d love to see your thoughts on curriculum design Jill

  3. mrtheo says:

    Excellent stuff, David. I love your curriculum design. I’d love to teach it.

    Although I would suggest that some of your threshold concepts are too broad and really need to be drilled down. I’d say that ‘sentence construction’ is more a more useful threshold concept than ‘grammar’.

  4. This is fascinating David – great to see the thought that’s gone into it unpicked so coherently. A couple of thoughts…

    1) To what extent are threshold concepts different from skills…?
    2) As I’ve written about before, I don’t think chronologically sequential teaching is the best way to help students understand time periods. A minority opinion, but one based on a lot of experimentation and failure!

    • David Didau says:

      1) Probably not that different, but instead of 15 (!) assessment focuses at KS3 and a raft of different AOs at GCSE, these seemed to be the foundation of what students should be able to ‘do’ in English.

      2) A fair point and I’ve updated the post to link to your blog. The points I’ve made above are repeated here:

      “Harry Fletcher-Wood has raised some interesting thoughts about why the chronological teaching of history might not be the best idea. But I’m not teaching history. The threshold concepts of English should be should be interleaved within the sequenced teaching of literature. The programme of study below is arranged thematically as well as sequentially. Within each scheme of learning there should be links stretching backward and forwards to show how literature is rooted in what has come before and how it influences what comes after.”

      Does that make sense?

      • 1) I was partly just seeking to cause trouble there! In history ‘skills’ were defined more clearly and narrowly in terms of KS3 key concepts and AOs than it seems they were in English. Alex Quigley’s post has put threshold concepts at the top of my reading list for the holidays so I can better understand how they apply in my subject.

        I also think that the idea you discuss of looking at reading and writing within each concept is likely to be very helpful in giving student an understanding and models of how to identify and apply the concept.

        2) The rationale for what you’re doing seems very clear and coherent here. To me, the links back and forward are the most important idea – being able to answer what does this work of literature build on and who has been influenced by it subsequently? My curriculum does something very similar in terms of interleaving concepts – each receiving a term or half term each year – on which I’ll post anon.

        It’s been a thought-provoking afternoon – thank you for the correspondence!

  5. Debaser says:

    Brilliant selection – I hope this goes viral and we can move away from boring, generic skills-based SOWs.

    Interesting that a lot of your selections for Year 7 are texts which would traditionally have been within the purview of ‘Classics’. Would you agree that in an ideal world they should be studied alongside the fundamentals of Latin (and even Greek) as a separate subject?

    I must admit I’m also struggling with the idea of teaching Julius Caesar, Oedipus Rex and Cicero to Year 7. Isn’t there an argument that some texts require a level of political, psychological and emotional maturity which are simply beyond the average 11 year old?
    I’m definitely in favour of challenging students intellectually at that that age, and I can see the value of teaching Chaucer and Beowulf at KS3 – students have the psychological and emotional maturity to deal with stories about monsters, greed, knights etc but may struggle to engage with the political intrigues and Freudian subtexts within the other texts you’re advocating.

    Wouldn’t they be better served by analysing the rhetoric of some of the best modern day orators such as Churchill, Mandela, Kennedy and even Obama? Surely such texts would score pretty highly in terms of cultural capital?

    It would be interesting to hear your thoughts.

    • Jill Berry says:

      Sorry to butt in here, but your comment reminded me of @Katiesarahlou’s blog:

      and absolutely agree with the ’emotional maturity’ argument and used this when I wrote about the Twilight v Middlemarch issue earlier in the year. I certainly didn’t have the emotional maturity fully to appreciate Middlemarch when I was 17. Got far more out of it in my thirties!

    • David Didau says:

      The emotional maturity argument is a valid one – we’re not expecting to teach everything about each of these texts – we will select what’s most lively and interesting about them and encourage students to read in more depth as appropriate. This reminds me of an observation where I was taken to task for teaching The Lady of Shallot to a Year 7 class. The observer decided it was ‘too easy’ as they have already ‘done’ it in primary school. I pointed out that I was also ‘doing’ it with Year 13!

      I’m not suggesting we go into the Freudian subtext of Oedipus – it’s just a good yearn. Cicero & the speeches of Brutus & Mark Antony are taught to show the development and use of rhetoric. You’re right to advocate the speeches of Mandela, King , Obama et al and they’re covered in the ‘Freedom’ unit in Year 9 with explicit reference back to earlier works of rhetoric.

      • Debaser says:


        The other issue I’d have is the lack of an obvious ‘whole text’ experience in Year 7 and 8 (assuming that you’d be using extracts for everything else). I guess that’s the trade off you make if do things in chronological order: the novel comes quite late in the sequence. Personally, I agree with the Govemeister on this one: I’d like students to study whole texts as much as possible. The experience is so much deeper and more enjoyable.

        • David Didau says:

          Oh, I completely agree about the study of whole texts. In Yr 7 & 8 the following would be studied as complete texts: Oedipus & The Birds, Sir Gawain (the Simon Armitage translation), Macbeth & Faustus, Arguably The Prologue is a complete text also. But you’re right that there are no novels until Year 9.

  6. I think this curriculum is inspired, and the ideals behind it are both realistic and commendable. As we’ve discussed on Twitter, I think we disagree fundamentally on the merits of the canon itself. I am all for cultural capital, and think it’s vital if we’re going to be considered ‘proper’ English teachers, but my worry with the canon is that many works of great merit would not be considered ‘worthy’ for a number of reasons.

    I’d like to preface this rather long-winded diatribe with the assertion that I think students should be exposed to the ‘classics’. For some people, the books they read at school will be the only books they ever read, so they may as well be good ones, and ones that give them some insight into the wonderful history of our subject. As for ‘Literary Canon’, it’s a term that screams elitism to me, although I don’t think for a second you’re applying it with a pejorative nature. I don’t deny the need for students to be immersed in the great texts; my issue comes with what those texts are. After all, ‘great’ is a relative term. Wasn’t Dickens the soap-opera of his day, serialised in the newspapers telling grim stories about life in London as if he somehow predicted Eastenders’ arrival? I don’t worry about which texts are in the canon, but which are left out, and how to balance a need for retrospection with a need to move forward, as Literature does.

    Your curriculum finishes in the 1940s with ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’. On a personal note, one of the reasons I’m so hopeful the KS3 curriculum will change is because of ‘Animal Farm’. If I never teach that particular book again then it’ll be too soon, but that’s not really relevant here. If you’re teaching Dystopia though, what’s wrong with ‘The Hunger Games’? Yes, it’s of its time, and yes it’s arguably a children’s book, but then we are teaching children, and it’s not simple sentences and immature concepts by any stretch. Come to think of it, what’s wrong with ‘Fahrenheit 451’ or several other texts published in more recent decades that speak to similar themes? If you’re teaching the Gothic tradition, why not an exploration of how it has continued in modern times through ‘The Woman in Black’? On that same Gothic note, if you want to teach about the dark forces at work when man plays God, is ‘Frankenstein’ really better than ‘Jurassic Park’? The instinctive ‘literary’ answer to this is “Yes, of course it is” – but on what grounds? I’ve read both books several times, and while I don’t deny that ‘Frankenstein’ is a brilliant piece of work, it didn’t change my life. ‘Jurassic Park’ opened my eyes to a whole new way of cognitive reflection, chaos theory, hubris and the perils of man’s arrogance in the face of nature. Admittedly, one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much the first time was because there were dinosaurs and gory deaths in it, but is that so bad? I was 12 years old and I would never have dreamed of going near a text like Frankenstein at that age. However, once I’d read ‘Jurassic Park’, I began to explore Shelley off my own back, and found it an enjoyable read, albeit not one that particularly made me feel like I had more culturally relevant references at my fingertips.

    Similarly at A-Level, I was amazed by the cultural impact that ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ had on me – and found Thomas Hardy’s ‘Return of the Native’ one of the most genuinely painful experiences of my education. I never went near Hardy for a good 5 years after that. Now, that’s not entirely Hardy’s fault, nor does it necessarily apply to the majority of people who study English Lit; perhaps with better teaching, I would have enjoyed it more (though I doubt it) but in terms of which text I’m more culturally rewarded by having read, Corelli wins every time. There are many other times when a ‘classic’ has left me cold (not least my battle with Middlemarch at University) but I won’t list them now!

    The students in my A-Level class are currently doing ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, (surely a truly ‘great’ dystopian novel?) ‘Revolutionary Road’, and ‘The Great Gatsby’ alongside ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, and finally ‘The Wife of Bath’. I’d be interested to hear what you thought of these texts, either personally or in the context of the A-Level.

    At my last school getting students to read was a monumental challenge. Year 7, 8 and 9 students should be shown that Literature is not just a relic from the past – that great stories that can enrich their lives still exist and are being written right now. I know we’ve had this debate briefly on Twitter before regarding ‘kids’ books vs ‘proper’ literature, but I still don’t think the gap is as wide as some would suggest.

    Your point that the canon is not subjective is dependent on what we define as ‘the canon’, and while there are ways in which a prescribed list of texts would be extremely helpful, there’s no getting around the fact that by its nature it is also exclusive. I don’t think the students we teach ‘should be given a diet of transient but appealing modern texts because that is what is most relevant to their foreshortened little lives’ but surely there’s a middle ground?

    At the end of all this – fundamentally, I agree with damn near every word of this blog – but I’m always concerned about a tendency to black-and-white situations in education, which is an impossibility. We all need to understand the nuances of the students we teach and the contexts in which we teach them, and they should be challenged by great works of Literature, but I don’t think we should be too prescriptive about what those works are.

    • The ‘Canon’ is complex and contested, it is open to change and interpretation and is different in different times, contexts etc. It is more by principle than dictat that it should be chosen, in other words what as a department do we think are the most important ‘best that has been thought and said’ texts at this time, in this context, that we feel our pupils would most benefit culturally from, and, maybe, are unlikely to be read (etc.) by them in their out of school lives? One of the reasons I think a National ‘Core’ Curriculum is wrong headed is that it would not have the fleet of foot to adapt, (and it is ‘anti-fragile’ in that we put all our eggs into a mono-cultural basket which isn’t possible even for canonical works) teachers on the ground can adapt, which is why the principle is more important than the list. Often in schools it is dictated by what books are there in the cupboard, what is in the exam or what is easy… None of these are good reasons, (though we, unfortunately, have to bend before the great God exams… and the departmental budget)

      • Jill Berry says:

        Just one thought about making the most of the dept budget/extending pupils’ reading experiences, Martin. In the schools where I was second in English and then Head of English we supplemented the sets of books we had in stock with book boxes which contained 4 or 5 copies of each of 6 different titles (and we had several boxes). We had lessons where pupils just chose freely from the boxes and when they’d completed a term of this we spent time on different tasks where they worked in groups with others who had read the same books. (We also actually got some funding from the National Confederation of PTAs to buy the books, too, but am not sure if that organisation still exists/gives money for such things).

        It meant you could offer a variety of literature, build in differentiation and suggest certain books to certain readers, including some particularly challenging stuff for those you felt would benefit. You could ‘theme’ the different boxes, too, if you wanted to.

        Reading Paul Staveley’s comment above, if I were still a Head of English I’d be looking to put Frankenstein AND Jurassic Park, Animal Farm AND The Hunger Games etc in these boxes (here I am again with ‘and’ rather than ‘or’…) and would certainly choose books like ‘The Woman in Black’ and ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’.

    • Jack Cassidy says:

      I really like the points you have raised here. I am in agreement with David that more teaching time should be spent teaching the ‘classics’ (whatever they are – a whole new discussion…) however I feel that a chronological might alienate some students and discourage reading.

      Instead of being working chronologically I think a thematic approach could avoid this. Classic texts would be studied but linked to the theme and other more accessible texts. For example work on ‘dystopian’ fiction could focus on Orwell/Huxley (or both) but students could be encouraged to read YA dystopian fiction (of which there is a lot) in their own time. Working chronologically might not allow this.

  7. […] He suggests that if grammar (as a metaphor for subject knowledge) is our thesis, and dialectic (critical thinking) is our antithesis, rhetoric can be seen as our synthesis: combining knowing, questioning and communicating. Certainly it is good to see teachers like David Didau putting rhetoric into his English Key Stage 3 syllabus. […]

  8. […] language’ of the story, Joe Kirby’s model of interleaving and revisiting cultural texts, and David Didau’s thematic and sequential curriculum that stretches back and forward across time.  All of these (and more) have helped me to devise […]

  9. […] Principled Curriculum Design: The English Curriculum (David Didau) […]

  10. Dave Stacey says:

    While I agree with Harry’s issues about teaching History in one big chronological swoop probably isn’t the best way to develop a good sense of chronology at KS3, if you did develop this scheme at a school that does, one advantage would be lots of opportunities for tie ins with the history department. Setting Macbeth in the context of James’ accession to the throne and his obsession with witchcraft, for example. Or the war poets and Orwell in the context of their experience, and possibly the same for the Civil Rights part as well.

    Very thought provoking as ever David. Thanks (and Happy New Year)

  11. […] being a reader of David Didau (@learningspy) who creates an excellent KS3 English curriculum here: I have much food for […]

  12. Amy says:

    Thank you for introducing me to this blog. I’ve just read the bit about the history lesson: League of Nations.

    I must admit, I assumed that it was a given that history teachers, and others for that matter, teach students how to write an exam response using the appropriate mode of address. Am I being totally naive? Is it not usually taught as explicitly as the above example?

  13. […] Principled curriculum design: the English curriculum […]

  14. […] Principled curriculum design: the English curriculum Is there a way to avoid teaching rubbish in English? […]

  15. […] “The kids absolutely love it!” The phrase that launched a thousand gimmicks Is there a way to avoid teaching rubbish in English? Principled curriculum design: the English curriculum […]

  16. […] evidence-based, actioned and evaluated CPD. Our English curriculum is already setting the agenda on literature and rhetoric, and will do on […]

  17. Primary prowess says:

    Sorry to comment so late in the day, but I felt compelled to express my horror at your proposed scheme of work for ks3. I’m a primary head in East London in a school where-as you’d expect- levels of deprivation are high. Alongside financial deprivation there is a soul destroying cultural deprivation. I’d like to think we challenge this head on. We’ve taught discrete phonics for ever. We teach grammar. We mark like our lives depended on it- because we know our pupils’ life chances are enhanced by it. We use whatever works- regardless of its tribal educational pedigree. 85% of our children achieved level 5 in reading last year, so I think we are doing something right.
    Probably our most significant challenge is getting children to read for pleasure. Or at least if they don’t choose to read for pleasure of their own bat, at least to enjoy the reading we make them do at home. With massive effort on our part, and huge investment in our library, we have finally got 99% of our year 6 children to have at least some authors they enjoy reading. They all love ‘Holes’ and are eager to read more Lois Sacher. Ditto Frank Cottrell Boyce and Millions and The Unforgotten Coat, the Hunger Games series, SF Said and the Varjak paw books……….some we have to bribe with stuff like Richard Muchamore’s ‘ The Recruit’ and coax those who really struggle with the Diary of a Wimpy Kid’. Yes I know, but ‘wimpy kid’ can be a gateway drug to the wonderful world of reading for pleasure.

    But then in two term’s time, they’ll be studying Sophocles?! Sure I have some – the ones who already adore reading- who’d be able to manage that, but the idea of many of my pupils being given these books when their own appreciation of reading is so fragile makes me want to weep. Why can’t it wait for them until year 9? There is so much excellent high quality teen fiction out there that we could lure them into enjoying.
    You talk about putting books into children’s hands beyond those that would normally encounter. But what if that’s true of any book we give them?
    I was working with a lower achieving booster group on their reading comprehension last week. They asked me what the word ‘ought’ meant. We took 10 minutes to unpick what the verb ‘to find’ means it the context of ‘he found himself crawling on the ground’. They really struggled with extending the meaning of ‘find’ beyond locating missing objects. If I say studying Sophocles in two terms time is just too hard and too irrelevant to what they really need to make any sort of success, that is not being patronising, that is being accurate and realistic.

    And making contrasts with our own children doesn’t help either. I have teenage sons. But they don’t come from a culturally impoverished background. They have always loved reading. They find it easy and enjoy it. ( As of course do some children from cultural impoverished backgrounds….but not all or even the majority). What might challenge my children would damage the prospects of others. So yes, for able children, ks3 can be a bit trivial, but for many children, they need more immersion in contemporary teen fiction first, while their reading stamina muscles develop.

    Even for the more able, I’m still not convinced that they’d get more out of Sophocles than Patrick Ness’ ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ trilogy, for example.

    • David Didau says:

      It’s great news that 85% of your pupils get L5 in their KS2 SATs. But that just show you what’s possible? Why would then want to condemn these obviously able children to the culturally impoverished study of Patrick Ness? The fact that I’ve read and disliked The Knife of Never Letting Go is irrelevant – I’m more than happy to encourage others to give it go and I’m sure some of them will enjoy it. I make a very clear distinction between what is suitable to be read for pleasure (everything) and what is suitable for study. I’m sure even Patrick would agree that studying his books can in no way compare to the study of Sophocles. I’m always appalled at the willingness to write off what some kids take for granted as ‘irrelevant’. Why should the study of great literature be the preserve of the rich and privileged?

      And as for the ‘why can’t it wait until Year 9 argument? Why should it? Year 7 pupils are routinely given pathetically easy things to do and often fail to make any progress during their first years at secondary school. On transition days, I used to routinely give Year 6 children Year 11 lessons. Afterwards I would get them to rate the difficulty of the work from 1 -10. They would average at 5 or 6. Let me rephrase that: aged 10 most children find the work expected of 16 year olds in English lessons relatively unchallenging. And you want them to wait until Year 9 to study anything of worth?

      Making contrasts is absolutely essential. If it’s not good enough for my own children I’d be ashamed to offer it up to anyone else’s. Why would you assume that culturally rich texts would damage the prospects of kids from “impoverished backgrounds”? This assumption seems to presuppose that expert teachers would not try or be able to open up the insights and experiences offered by the study of the best that best thought and known. How can it be defensible that any time in school is “a bit trivial” for any children, regardless of their perceived ability?

      I’m convinced that ‘even the least able’ would get more out of Sophocles than Ness.

      • Cazzwebbo says:

        Nowt wrong wit’ classics for year 7s… We had a great teacher called Mr Mather at that age and we did loads of the Aeneid type stuff… When I say ‘we’ I mean including kids from rough backgrounds. Mr Mather was a great story teller and great at classroom management. I still remember work I did with him now and I was only 11… That was only in 1986…

  18. Primary prowess says:

    While I wouldn’t go to the stake for Patrick Ness, how can he be called ‘ culturally impoverished?’ I think you are using the word ‘ culture’ in a very different sense to mean something like ‘literary archeology’.
    But as you say, what you or I like is beside the point. What is important is that what we teach increases the life chances of our children and inculcates values of compassion, persistence, fairness and community service (among others). One of the prime indicators that a child will succeed in education- and indeed life is whether or not they read for pleasure. That being so, surely English teaching in all key stages should have promoting reading for pleasure at its heart? Even more important than studying classic literature.

    Yes, at my school 85% achieved level 5…… But 15% didn’t. What about them? What they need more than anything is more exposure to quality compelling narratives in contemporary standard English ( just realised that rules out the Knife!) Maybe there are translations of Sophocles et al that are like that? It’s been a very long time since I read any. If so, and if you really can teach children who are still learning to read beyond the literal to enjoy reading better through your scheme of work more effectively than through contemporary teen and YA fiction, then I am willing to stand corrected. I really struggle to imagine it though. As I said, some children only two term’s away from secondary school still have woefully under- developed vocabularies and still find reading for meaning tough. The data shows us that it is this group of children our present system fails most dramatically. There is an opportunity cost to whatever we choose…….is presenting the haute cuisine of our literary canon really the most effective way to enable them to learnt to read with nuance, subtlety and enjoyment?

    I think you misunderstood my point about ks3 being trivial for some more able children. (I probably expressed myself too glibly). I don’t think that’s fine at all. I agree entirely that secondary schools often under pitch for many children- the ks3 curriculum seeming to think they come in around level 3 where’s most are way beyond that. I’m all for challenging children, for being ambitious for them, for making them have to struggle a bit. A year 6 child on Friday came to show me a World War One war poem she had been shown by her yr11 sister. She
    ( the yr6) had annotated it to show the similes, metaphors etc and unpacked the meaning of each image. She said ‘ I had to read it through a few times before I got it.’ Let’s hope she doesn’t get to sit through ‘Holes’ and ‘Skellig’ again in years 7 and 8. She could probably managed gcse by the end of year 7. Maybe give her Sophocles. She’s from a culturally impoverished background. I didn’t say that being from a culturally impoverished background per se makes one unable to benefit from ancient literature. I specifically did not say that. What I said was that cultural impoverishment for some children means that many do not ( yet) read for pleasure and that some are really hampered by poor vocabulary, sentence structure and ability to infer beyond the literal. And that being the case, they need a curriculum that takes those two things on. Just as my yr6 poet enthusiast needs a different curriculum. For now. Let’s plan to close the gap ASAP.
    You write ‘ if it’s not good enough for my own children I’d be ashamed to offer it to anyone else’s.’ But it’s not about whether something is ‘good enough’, it’s about whether it is educationally appropriate for a specific child. Imagine we were both PE teachers (highly unlikely in my case but….). Your own children are incredibly sporty all rounders – play for the county etc. You are sick of the way the PE curriculum dumbs down. So you devise a scheme of work that includes the Triathlon. And if it’s good enough for your children, you know it must be good for my couch potato kids, ( who have grown fat from sitting on their backsides reading far too much Sophocles). The triathlon is so far way from their zpd that they bunk off all further PE lessons. It might as well be on Mars. What was very good for your children was terrible for mine. And that has nothing to do with how rich or privileged any of our children are but what they need to learn next.

    • David Didau says:

      When confronted with ‘others’ who disagree with our most fervently held beliefs, we tend to make the following series of assumptions:

      – They are ignorant
      – They are stupid
      – They are evil

      Your argument that I’m using culture to mean literary archeology is a case in point. I explain very clearly what I mean by culture in the post.

      I’d like to say that you’re entitled to your opinions and leave at that, but you’re a head teacher for chrissakes! Obviously you’re horrified with my opinions on how children should be taught, but I too am horrified that you have the power to enact these low expectations with the children who most require us to aim high. I’m sure you’re aware of the KIPP Charter School movement in the US: that is what I want to achieve: 100% of my students to finish university. Anything less will always feel like a disappointment, and it’s right that it should. Let’s not close the gap by lowering expectations for all.

  19. Primary prowess says:

    Hang on a sec. I thought we were having a polite conversation, striving to understand each other’s point of view. If I thought you were ignorant, stupid or evil I wouldn’t waste time reading you. I read blogs in order to learn and post in order to probe to try and really find out where you are coming from. I was actually reading Antigone when you posted to try and get at where you were coming from. Antigone’s certainly a great character- haven’t got to the end yet. Am genuinely interested in her fate. But I seem to have really upset you. That wasn’t my intention.
    Was it my phrase ‘ literary archeology’? It certainly wasn’t meant in a disparaging way, more like short hand for ‘ studying literature from the ancient past’.

    What I was trying to express was why I found it difficult to understand how ‘studying literature form the ancient past’ is more likely to increase a child with poor reading skills life chances than one that that gives them books that are more easily accessible. I think it is interesting that as a primary teacher I see teaching English as largely about enabling reading for pleasure and you as secondary see it as studying literature.
    What makes you say I have low expectations just because I disagree with you? While I doubt the children currently at level one or on p levels in upper ks2 stand much of a chance at university, ( which is why I’d never say 100% as that seems to act as if children with severe and challenging SEN are not in our schools), I’d hope that almost all of them would be able to – should they so choose. I’d be disappointed if anything we’d done at primary had got in the way of that. My ‘horror’ (maybe to strong a word……’visceral response’ any better?) was that what the effort we’ve put into laying what we see as firm foundations for future success ( promoting reading for pleasure) might be undermined by a curriculum that fetishises ( no – too emotive ), er, emphasises rigour. Who knows, I may be wrong, stranger things have happened.

    What is more I agree with you about the current state of play in secondary schools- the curriculum is not always challenging enough. Where we differ if that I would say it’s not challenging enough for many children whereas you would say for all children. That’s an interesting point.

    So once again – no I do not think you are stupid,ignorant or evil. Throwing the baby out with the bath water – possibly.

    • David Didau says:

      You began this by telling me how horrified you were by my curriculum. This has been the result of 2 years of planning and 15 years of thinking. I’m not interested in studying literature from the ancient past for no reason – and I’m not interested in just studying literature from the ancient past. This is a choice based on a particular context. It’s based on the shared values of a team of people. These aren’t my personal preferences, but they are good choices.

      Yes of course some children will struggle to access the texts. they would also struggle to access Patrick Ness. The point is not about making them struggle, it’s about exposing them to influences they would be unlikely to select in their own reading or experience of the world. That’s what school is for. My definition of that much abused term differentiation is that all children should be asked to do something they find hard. That’s everyone.

      I accused you of low expectations based on your placing modern children’s fiction against great literature and for saying that only the ‘most able’ should be granted access to Sophocles. I accept that you’ve retracted the ‘can’t KS3 just be fun’ comment you made – but that’s the kind of attitude ‘kids like these’ are up against. They deserve the best.

      Maybe I’m wrong about you (I often am) but the views you express are representative of much establishment thinking on what education should be about. My education was much the poorer for well-intentioned posh people deciding that I didn’t need to worry by working class head about any of that complicated stuff. I am determined to confront this where ever I encounter it. Sorry if that meant you got the harsh end of my tongue. I’m not good at tact.

  20. Primary prowess says:

    Ok, fair enough, let’s start again. Neither of us wants be like Creon eh (she says, not so subtly reinforcing the point that she’s just finished reading Antigone).

    Why do you- and your team- believe that your curriculum is going to be a highly effective means of getting all children to university? I still don’t understand that. Hard is good yes. The right kind of hard. Holes is hard for some children. Holes is too easy for many ks3 children. Is there not something in between Holes and Sophocles that might bridge the gap?

    And again, for many children in teach, any book I give them is exposing them to influences they would be unlikely to select by themselves. So I have to tempt them to want to come back for more. It is those with the lowest prior attainment who make the least progress under the present system. Surely curriculum reform should start with them. I am open to being convinced that Sophocles is the way forward for these children.

  21. Primary prowess says:

    Just read your ‘how should we teach reading’ post from 2012 and agree that once decoding is fluent, knowing stuff becomes really important. Some of that stuff is vocabulary and some is stuff about the world. A while back reading something with some year 5’s and they got confused about a plot point because they didn’t know the word ‘hedge’ ( as in the green thing with leaves- nothing as sophisticated as ‘ hedging your bets’. Thought ‘ must remember to include ‘hedge’ in science curriculum.’ But another day it will be another word…..reminds me of a report my brother once got….. ‘ there are gaps in his ignorance’. Very droll. Still, rich teaching in the humanities obviously important. We are really pushing non fiction reading at the moment. For world book day they had to dress up as a character or concept from a non fiction book they’d read. So we had snow, smoke and fire alongside Amelia Earhart.

    And I get that teaching Sophocles also teaches about Greek culture, whereas Holes teaches about deserts and Purple Hyacinth teaches about Nigeria. Who’s to say that knowledge of Ancient Greek culture will do more to empower working class children than knowing about deserts or Nigeria? They’re all worth knowing about.

    • David Didau says:

      Greek drama is one of the foundations of the Western literary tradition: it teaches us about who we are and where we came from. But if all we’re arguing about is whether to include Greek drama in the curriculum, I’m content. This is just one of many ways to deliver a content rich curriculum.

  22. […] David Didau’s ‘Principled Curriculum Design’ […]

  23. […] Principled curriculum design: the English curriculum Is there a way to avoid teaching rubbish in English? Redesigning a curriculum […]

  24. Jenny Rock says:

    Hi David,
    A fab post. Just wondering what you think the new curriculum means when it refers to studying ‘two authors in depth’ per year? What do you think constitutes ‘depth’? Would reading one novel and doing some research into context count, or would they need to read more than one novel by the same author in order to be in depth?

  25. Hello David. thank you so much for sharing this curriculum – like you, I wish I had been taught like this at school. For a start, I wouldn’t have had so many gaps in my knowledge at university, compared with my private school educated peers! I wonder if you could help me with a couple of practical questions I have, as a trainee about to enter my NQT year.

    I believe in teaching whole texts (and it’s clear the government is advocating this also in the National Curriculum) but as a trainee, in my placements, I’ve found that teaching a simplified version of a ‘classic’ text (sometimes alongside very short extracts from the original text for analysis) was the norm, especially with lower ability pupils, and those with lower reading ages. Seeing as, unfortunately, many pupils in secondary schools have such low reading ages, sometimes five or more years below their chronological age, how do you suggest getting through reading, say, a Dickens novel, with such pupils? I find if I ask them to read they basically can’t – they read so slowly as to damage the pace of the lesson. And if I read (or play an audio tape) and get them to follow, their comprehension is very minimal because they there are very many words that they don’t know, and they struggle with following the gist of longer, convoluted sentences, as well as the way the texts go off topic and back again. What do you suggest doing in these situations?

    My second concern is this. When I was at school (15 years ago) we used to spend the first lessons of a new text just reading the novel or play as a class, with the teacher asking questions to check understanding, and maybe some comprehension exercises for homework. Only after reading the whole text did we start to explore themes and characters, analyse language etc. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this personally, as it gives the class a strong base of knowledge/understanding before moving on to more in depth exercises. But these days, if I taught a novel like this, even to an able group who could ‘cope’ with it, I would no doubt fail any observation. What would be your suggestion for teaching such texts in the early stages? I suppose I feel like I’m treading the line between teaching as I would like to, and fulfilling what is expected of me in my NQT year.

    • David Didau says:

      Hi Beverley – thanks for getting in touch

      Your first concern is the most important – vocabulary comprehension is key: we need to know 95% of the words in a text before we can fluently comprehend it. This means it’s vital to explicitly teach the vocabulary needed because we can’t just pick it up in context. I think reading aloud is important (and superior to audiobooks) as you can add synonyms and check comprehension as you go. I’d recommend Isabella Beck’s Bring Words to Life for more ideas.

      The second concern is not something that worries me – I think you should do what you think is best for your students and ignore anyone who thinks they know better. However, that’s easier said than done. If it’s helpful to use as ammunition, Ofsted recently published an account of an lesson observation where the class worked in silence for the duration and the teaching quality was graded as outstanding:

      Cheers, David

  26. Thanks David, that greatly clarifies the reading/vocab side of things for me; I will get that book and I’m sure it will prove very useful.

    Re: Ofsted inspections, that document is most enlightening – I hope if I was judged unfairly by an inspector at any point, I could try to fight my case; however, I am far more concerned about the internal judgements of the school. Normally, in a job, I would readily take the advice of those more experienced than myself, and not presume to know better than them. But since starting teaching I have received so much contradictory and confusing advice, and tried so many (I feel) ineffective but trendy teaching methods, as recommended to me by others, that I can’t help but distrust the system. I considered giving up because I thought I must be unsuited to teaching. After reading ‘Seven Myths’ and blogs like yours, I felt more sane (it’s not me, it’s them!) and inclined to stick with this career choice. That said, fixed opinions about what constitutes a good/outstanding lesson, often based on misconceptions about ‘what Ofsted want,’ seem common, so I still think I won’t really be able to do what I feel is best for my students, at least until I’ve gained some more experience and credibility.

    Anyway thanks again,

    • David Didau says:

      I take your point about the inconsistency and idiocy of advice given to new teachers. I guess you have to cover your back but still do what you believe. Remember, it’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Be brilliant and people will forgive you anything!

      • Yes, I know what you mean , well certainly in my PGCE I think the outcomes my students have achieved have allowed me to get away with a fair few things…

        Sorry to do this, I know you’re not an advice column, but it’s so rare that I ever get any sensible advice from anyone. I’ve thought about this a bit more and I’ve just got one more, very basic, question, the answer to which I have yet to find in books or the internet, or from any person.

        Early on in my PGCE, I once spent the first 25 minutes of a lesson reading the novel to the students, with volunteers/conscripts reading some sections. I asked questions to check understanding as we went along, had learners verbally summarise what had happened, etc.. I then set tasks based on exploring the characters presented. I was predictably criticised for the amount of reading done in this lesson, to which I responded that I would prefer the pupils to be able to read sections of the text for homework, so that we didn’t have to do the reading in the lesson – but since they were sharing the books one between two, this wasn’t possible. The novel was suitable for their low reading ages (a truly awful novel that I would never, ever choose to teach, but that’s beside the point), so they could have read it independently. I was told to use NATE ‘guided reading’ so that the reading of the novel could be more student-led. Okay, fair enough, that’s what I did (even though it meant that individual students didn’t actually read the whole text for themselves…).

        In any event, this ‘guided reading’ technique certainly couldn’t be used for a ‘classic’ text, the depth and complexity of which necessitates the kind of teacher clarification and guidance you’ve talked about above – most students simply cannot comprehend it independently of the teacher.

        So I suppose what I am asking is, recent Ofsted reforms aside, how much time would normally be judged okay, by a lesson observer, to spend just reading the text, in the way I describe above, per lesson? Surely no more than 10 minutes at a time, otherwise how can progress be shown every 20 minutes? And maybe even only 5 minutes, as the teacher reading aloud would fall under the category of the much-maligned ‘teacher talk’ surely (that’s why I ended up using audio books – I agree they are inferior to the teacher reading, but I was trying to avoid being criticised for talking too much). If so, how do you ever get through the whole novel with them, particularly a long, weighty novel?? All the teachers I have observed in my placements teach these kinds of texts using extracts/summaries, even for top set groups, so I’ve never seen a whole ‘classic’ text being taught from scratch in a contemporary school setting.
        Thank you

        • David Didau says:

          The concept that students should make progress every 20 minutes is wholly bankrupt and has been thoroughly debunked. Ofsted themselves said in Moving English Forward that they wanted to see an end to this sort of nonsense that prevented students from engaging in extended reading and writing activities.

          Progress is only ever judged over time. As such, as long as students can be seen to be making longitudinal progress, you can and should feel free in an individual lesson to spend as long reading a text as you see fit.

          I’ve written in the past about how teaching should occur within a sequence that allows for explanation, modelling, scaffolding and practice:

          Maybe this well help?

          • Yes I have read that link before, and I agree with the four step process, it’s just that I’ve been making each step shorter than I’d like, to fit with what I thought I had to live up to (ideally doing all four steps in one lesson). You’ve clarified that now, so thanks. I feel a bit more confident about using up to date Ofsted reports to challenge the criticism I will likely receive. Hopefully I will still be in a job by the end of the year!

  27. […] you’re interested, I’ve set out my thoughts on the English curriculum here. They are just my thoughts, but they are underpinned by values and principles that, I think, are […]

  28. David Robinson says:

    Hi David,

    Thanks for posting your curriculum-its inspired me to go off and read up on Greek drama which I was never required to do at school or uni and have managed to put off until now. Just one question I am interested in: Which editions/translations of the older texts do you/would you use in class if you were free to order. I am assuming you don’t study Chaucer in the original Middle English, so is there one specific edition you use? Likewise for all the Greek texts, Journey to the West (which is of special interest to me as I work in China) and Beowulf which edition would you choose?

    One more question- do you teach the whole of Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights and Jekyll and Hyde in one term or just use extracts.

    Thanks again and apologies for the short post-got too many thoughts whizzing in my head to come up with anything more conclusive.


    • David Didau says:

      Hi David – the Gothic unit was meant to offer a choice: either Frankenstein or Wuthering Heights. But it also bean with extracts from classic gothic texts like Castle of Otranto and Udolpho.

      Cheers, DD

  29. […] I’d really been hoping to be teaching more ‘classic’ texts, similar to ones listed here : […]

  30. Harry says:

    I’m HOD at an international school. I like your curriculum; indeed, I am in large part going to steal it. I had a question to do with the texts taught in y7/8, though. Clearly the Sophocles (I might use Euripedes instead; more blood, less mother sex) will be a translation, as must the Gilgamesh and the Monkey, and you’ve already said that you’d use Armitage’s modern version of Sir Gawain and I’m guessing you’ll use Heaney Beowulf- so far, so predictable. I was wondering when you’d stop using “translations” of the older texts? Would you “translate” Chaucer, for example, or even Shakespeare? I’ve seen both done at KS3 and wondered about your opinion. For what it’s worth, I’d rather teach a smaller amount of the original than a lot of a translation. In the case of Shakespeare a translation, of which there are many, seems utterly pointless – remove the language and you’re left with the stories which he often didn’t write and are usually rubbish.

    • David Didau says:

      For the Chaucer we used a combination of original and ‘translated’. The focus of that unit was on language change as well as introducing knowledge of the tales. We also did some working comparing Troilus & Cressida by Chaucer & Shakespeare. But there it ends. Shakespeare ‘needs’ to be experienced in the original and with enough focus on performance it’s not so very difficult to follow & enjoy. Does that help?

  31. Thanks, it does, very much. It also fits with my own intentions/prejudices, which is always nice.

    Can I ask one more question? Which translation of the Journey to the West did you use? I’ve been looking at the Arthur Waley, but it’s a bit dry. I wondered if you knew of another. Like your other correspondent I’m in China so would like to do quite a bit of the Monkey, if possible. I’m also working with a pre-prep/prep structure rather than a key stage structure which means I’ll be starting this with y6, not 7. I might use the Gorillaz.

  32. […] And if you’re interested, here are some further thoughts on English curriculum design. […]

  33. […] stuck, and describing what students might be able to do in the future. It has been designed with a particular curriculum in mind and so should not be taken as something able to stand alone, but even so, it should be seen as not […]

  34. […] Didau suggested that a good place to start was with his blog post, Principled curriculum design: the English curriculum. And so it was, not least because it sparked a whole breadth of reading that has enabled me to […]

  35. […] Didau suggested that a good place to start was with his blog post, Principled curriculum design: the English curriculum. And so it was, not least because it sparked a whole breadth of reading that has enabled me to […]

  36. […] than trying to cram everything in to whatever length a half term is. What you will also see is David Didau’s English threshold concepts and Daisy Christodoulou’s decontextualised grammar drill in the teaching sequence she suggests.The […]

  37. […] have helped my department plan: One Scientific Insight for Curriculum Design from Joe Kirby, Principled Curriculum design from David Didau and Redesigning the KS3 Curriculum. What I like about these posts, alongside the […]

  38. […] grammar teaching and follow Daisy Christodoulou’s suggested programme.  You can find this here: (Slide […]

  39. Hector Putrid says:

    This was great, thank you. I love the idea of chorological teaching of Literature. Where do you stand on teaching translations as part of Literature? I am trying to design a curriculum in my post as HoD in an International Setting. The Dead White thing is bothering me a bit. Cheers.

  40. George Bridges says:

    Hi David
    Fascinated by your “Principled Curriculum” ideas. Has this been put into practice anywhere? If so, did it work?

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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