A New English Curriculum

Shining a Light on the Literary Canon

“…the more familiar we become with the nature of these shaping forms and forces lying beneath the surface of stories, pushing them into patterns and directions which are beyond the storyteller’s conscious control, the more we find that we are entering a realm to which recognition of the plots themselves proves only to have been the gateway. We are in fact uncovering nothing less than a kind of hidden, universal language: a nucleus of situations and figures which are the very stuff from which stories are made.”
Christopher Booker, P6 ‘The Seven Basic Plots

Christopher Booker offers up the brilliant hypothesis that there are seven basic plots that underpin our sense of storytelling. This grand unifying narrative is both beguiling and instructive. What if we could find such a universal pattern and base our KS3 curriculum around it? If we were to connect the stories our students know with all the great stories of the literary tradition then we would have ourselves a compelling curriculum.

As luck would have it, we are currently ushering in a new national curriculum.

The bombast in the press is about a return to the past. A rehashing of a 1950s curriculum. Well, perhaps it is – if we wanted it to be. Only looking to the past isn’t a bad thing for an English teacher looking to build a curriculum. Indeed, it is where we should start. But I would start by going much further back than 1950.

‘Why so’ you may ask?

The truth is that in our English department we were a little dissatisfied by our current teaching fare, but we just couldn’t put our finger on why. Our 6th form students would take English Language and Literature in large numbers, but they weren’t all widely read, nor were they exhibiting a particular thirst for literature. Controlled assessments can do that to any sane young mind I suppose, but it wasn’t just that. We resolved to invite our English Literature students to the theatre and undertaken wider reading, all in an attempt to furnish them with a better knowledge of the literary canon. We were looking to give them the “universal language” of stories posed by Christopher Booker. A “universal language” far too many of them just didn’t possess.

We were inclined to think that 6th form was too little too late. It made us think about our KS3 and KS4 curriculum. The KS4 is yet to be released and will no doubt be circumscribed by the real pressures of assessment and accountability. The KS3 curriculum, in contrast, offers us a tantalising freedom of choice. After an open and frank discussion we decided that we were going to overhaul our current schemes of learning. Loath though we were to admit it, Michael Gove had a point.

You would be right to question the canonising of literature decided in the gloomy offices of the DfE; however, most English teachers, when pressed, would separate out their Shakespeare from their Danielle Steel, as Gove did when he offered up ‘Middlemarch‘ or ‘Twilight‘ to hypothetical parents. When Gove offers up that the great British literature of Swift, Shelley, Dickens and Hardy should be at the heart of our curriculum I cannot disagree.

His version of British history is a rather grand narrative. I naturally question such grand narratives, as they are too often distorted by the polish of patriotism, but I think for English teachers there is a brilliant story waiting to be told. It is one of a small island whose writers wrote stories that spanned the world and back again in the scope of their greatness.

We should take this latest curriculum as an opportunity to tell it. Of course, we decide how we tell it. Here is an early draft of our prospective KS3 curriculum:



Now, you will be quick to notice the traditional bent of the approach. There is a linear narrative that may appear a lot like the chronological version of British history preferred by Gove and others. A chronological canon. All very traditional.

This approach readily recognises that knowledge of the literary canon is fundamentally empowering. Just as highly functional literacy is equally as empowering. Those adults among us who read texts, newspapers, social media threads, television documentaries, novels and non-fiction with the ease of an expert are all deploying their canonical knowledge instinctively. Of course, we should not deny this opportunity to any of our students,.

I do think ‘how‘ we wish to teach the new national curriculum may differ from the more traditional conceptions likely favoured by the likes of Gove. I subscribe to David Ausubel’s sage advice about teaching, “The most important single factor influencing learning is what a student already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly.” I therefore deem the knowledge of popular culture as having greater value than many traditionalists would credit.

I take the divide between ‘highbrow‘ and ‘lowbrow‘ for what it is – the bastardised language of phrenology – a wholly discredited science that charts bumps in the brain as the key to intelligence! Like phrenology, such a divide is dumb. Instead of the ‘either/or’ thinking of ‘Middlemarch‘ or ‘Twilight‘, we need the ‘and/both’ thinking proposed by the likes of Dylan Wiliam in his ‘Principled Curriculum‘ pamphlet.

The concept of the seven basic plots offers us a rationale for a successful English curriculum because it makes fundamental connections between stories, both ancient and modern. For me it is about creating a narrative order, a chronological story, that helps students see how canonical literature has shaped modern literature and the stories of their multi-media rich world. How can you teach Beowulf without drawing upon a vast array of monsters, ancient and modern? How can you watch Jaws and fail to appreciate the influence of its Anglo-Saxon original? See my post here on teaching Beowulf to SEN students.

We have therefore planned our curriculum to connect the classic with the modern. We begin at each step with the classic touchstones, as they are largely absent from the lives of our students. We therefore need to hook the new knowledge of the traditional canon onto their existing knowledge of film, modern stories etc. We can create a thriving program of homework (I do hate the implications of calling reading ‘work’), whereat they focus on reading as much literature, as modern as they like, as possible. Our stock of modern children’s literature will be read and shared more than ever in a structured fashion. The image of the curriculum content you see above will be richly complemented by a wider reading program that includes a wealth of children’s literature.

“Pedagogy is Curriculum”

Dylan Wiliam was wholly right when he made this statement when outlining his ‘Principled Curriculum‘ pamphlet. We shouldn’t get hung up on the ‘what‘ of the curriculum without a more thoughtful focus on the ‘how‘ of the curriculum.

Matthew Arnold’s conception of teaching the “best of what has been thought and known into the world” requires the best tools of teaching. You can debate all day long the merits of ‘The Hunger Games‘ and ‘1984‘ and which should deserve inclusion on our KS3 curriculum, but a highly skilled teacher can glean the most knowledge for students by harnessing the power of both. Should we start we ‘1984‘? Yes. Should the teacher and the students finish there? No. Can we guide the reading of ‘1984‘ in class, whilst encouraging the reading of ‘The Hunger Games‘ (and watching it of course) as purposeful enrichment. Of course we can.

You can have an ‘intended curriculum‘ of great texts, but primarily what is required is great pedagogy. It is the ‘enacted curriculum‘ that is actually taught at the chalk-face that really matters, a not a prescribed list on a DfE document that is ripe for manipulation.

If we try to transmit the great literature of the canon without meaningful connections to the world of our students and their prior knowledge we are high unlikely to succeed with our aims. Lewis Carroll captured the young mind accurately:

“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

Yes – they need the historical and contextual knowledge of Victorian society if they are to appreciate with vivid force a Victorian monster, but we are dealing with a tough crowd. On a wet and windy November afternoon my year 8s require some startling adventures before they are ready to attend to the accompanying explanations. If that is a based on powerful images, a film clip or an animation then so be it. Sometimes students need to be lured in before we get them stuck into the hard stuff. To accusations of dumbing down I say ‘pah’! I want them immersed in stories and the explanations will become equally compelling by association.

All this talk of telling stories and finding patterns seems to fit into how the brain of a teenager actually works too. As Daniel Willingham stated, stories are “psychologically privileged” in the human mind. I’m sure Daniel wouldn’t agree with Ken Kesey when he said, “To hell with facts! We need stories!” But I’m sure he would get the thrust of Ken’s idea. Of course, we need not draw a divide – we need both at once.

This sense of coherence can extend to combining English Language and English Literature. Reading and writing combine like a richly complex double helix. This is why we are going to look at teaching grammar with some drilling to establish basic competency, but that in the main we are then going to pursue a ‘grammar for writing‘ approach (see Deborah Myhill’s research). Once more, we are using the central stories of great British literature as our knowledge touchstones, before then making rich connections between grammatical patterns of language employed by writers often with memorable force.

We are going to begin the entire key stage with a historical exploration of language. Students can get lost in the intriguing etymology of words. What better way to get our students to understand grammar than to hack at its roots and investigate? We can get them to take a further step and understand word groups and syntax by creating their own language. If it was good enough for Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll then let’s give it a go. Students can be at once analytical and creative.

In terms of the divide between the analytical and creative, I also see a place for well designed testing in a KS3 curriculum. I have written before about how testing can actually enhance learning here, entitled provocatively ‘Drill Baby Drill’. The power of testing, or my preferred title of ‘retrieval practice‘, need not be demonised: it can encompass quizzes and oral tasks that can make for lively and varied pedagogy. If you have well designed tests (I particularly like these Eton style tests – see here – found and shared kindly by James Theobold). These tests can exist alongside creative outcomes that stimulate the imagination and exhibit knowledge. Once again – it just takes some ‘and/both‘ thinking.

Any curriculum should be rooted by the touchstones of knowledge I have mentioned. In English we have a ready-made bank of great stories from our own island and we should be intent on using it with skill and purpose.

We still have a lot of planning and moulding to do before our schemes emerge into a finished narrative, but we have our universal language of stories to guide us.

31 thoughts on “A New English Curriculum”

  1. I’m not generally a massive fan of the idea of a common canon which all must study, since it tends – to me – to increase the likelihood of a narrow view of that which is good at some cost to much else.
    That said, yours is a compelling argument for inclusion of some literary greats in a meaningful context that also allows appreciation of wider reading, and will help students to recognise what is to be appreciated about some of those writers so widely admired.
    It’s not often someone persuades me that this is both desirable and achievable – yet this looks like an exciting option that might just do it.

    1. Thank you Michael. It has taken a lot of thoughts fermenting to develop it into something coherent. It isn’t finished and our department must shape it as they will ultimately enact it, but I am excited by the prospect.

    2. Hi Alex,

      For some reason I’m having a few issues with commenting on this because of some technical glitches on the blog on my computer…. Hope this works…
      Your blog interests me as I see in it some of the issues I am covering in Trivium 21c (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Trivium-21c-Preparing-people-lessons/dp/178135054X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1385209035&sr=1-1&keywords=trivium+21c)

      Just wondering what the balance was between the learning about and reading of the texts and the analysis? Also what are the opportunities to discuss/debate the texts, perhaps each student has to develop their own ‘canon’ (including texts from outside of your selection that could fit the seven basic plots idea…) and could debate why their choices are ‘better’ than others… and then how they go about expressing and/or making something tangible (do they write using the story structure…?) In other words I’m trying to see if a trivium model is possible.

      Lastly, Seven Basic Plots… How to deal with the modernist deconstruction/destruction, the unfulfilled plots of some modern writers etc?

      1. Hello Martin message seems to have worked.

        The balance of learning about/analysis of the text is going to develop through the key stage I expect. In year 7 we are focusing more on the reading about the texts, building up the foundations of knowledge, with a focus reading the texts. We can note the patterns of plot, character, grammar etc. As we develop through year 8 we will move to more focus on the text with analysis, with time freed up by students hopefully able to grasp context quicker, easier and with more degree of independence. By year 9 I envision (hope) they have substantial texts whichever they will need to read, but I expect we will have established the patterns and understanding so that we can devote significant time to analysis.

        The independent project at the end of year 9 is an attempt to get students to engage with the canon debate, at once showing their knowledge and displaying their capacity to engage with the grand narrative we establish (I expect many will reject the traditional texts, but would need to make the justification). If it all works and they are concurrently reading more contemporary literature, their reading would/should take on a powerful capacity for pattern and meaning making. It is still in formation in terms of the plan, but I hope they are wholly critical by that point.

        The deconstruction point is a good one, but not incompatible later on. I am currently teaching ‘Waiting for Godot’ for the IB Diploma, in comparison with ‘Othello’, ‘Duchess of Malfi’ and ‘Streetcar Named Desire’. The text and the existential questions of meaning is wholly compatible by contrast with the classics. You can even compare the search for meaning in Beckett with Iago’s apparent “motivelessness” in ‘Othello’.

  2. Much to admire, here, again, Alex – Booker’s Propp-like archetypes are very thought-provoking. Juxtaposition and compare/contrast is the key, with texts in dialogue with each other over time and across the years of an English curriculum. We have always had and are still developing a fairly canonical KS3, with Poetry-by-Heart embedded within Year 7 a new commitment, as also elsewhere, with some multi-lingual challenges. The canonical texts need to be HEARD, via what Joy Alexander beautifully calls ‘Reading with the Ear’ – so reading aloud by teacher and students is vital. Then there is learning-by-heart in a passionate, non-rote learning way as promoted by Poetry-by-Heart. More schools should try a little literary collaboration with their MfL and Classics Depts. We have just had a very fruitful refreshed liaison with French and Latin in Year 7, with, for instance, Blake’s Tyger alongside Desnos’ simpler Le Leopard, amongst several comparisons. We hope to publish on this, soon, through our Learning Lessons series.

    Its all about VOICES getting into the “deep heart’s core” as we travel in “the realms of gold”.

    I totally agree that Medieval and Ancient texts should figure – but the great ignored texts are the Sacred ones as Literature, leaving aside any faith issues. The Song of Songs needs to put alongside Marvell, say, or Duffy – all canonical texts (again, Kermode’s The Classic hasn’t been surpassed in terms of Academic Lit Crit ) are cornucopian and can produce multiple readings and creative rewriting in the classroom.

    So, we are right with you!

    Headprophetteacher’s Subject-Leader

    1. Thanks for the reply David.

      I am a big fan of collaboration with other departments. I think there is rich potential to link up with our History dept. That is a definite next step I want to pursue. I look forward to reading about your collaboration.

      The pleasure of wading through text choices was great, but have to omit authors and poets is always difficult. I am a big fan of Marvell and Donne in particular, but I comfort myself with Sir Richard Livingstone’s words: “The good schoolmaster is known by the number of valuable subjects that he declines to teach.” Hopefully we will create an appetite in many for knowledge and literature that has students search out heir own canon.

      I think the shift we are making is a very challenging one for our mixed cohort, but the excitement and challenge for us is to be found there I think. Having taught Beowulf to students who struggle with language it was so informative. Reading texts to students and helping them have an ear for the music of language has a hidden power that I look forward to exploiting.

      I like the ‘Headprophet’ moniker!



  3. Hello Alex

    I really like your draft KS3 plan, as it crystalises some of the thoughts around the nature of the KS3 curriculum that I have been trying to reconcile myself. In particular, you offer – through the route of the 7 basic plots – a central unifying principle that builds a compelling narrative for students that draws from a rich array of fantastic literature, one that is adaptable and that brings in more recent teen fiction to complement its existing schema.

    The lack of cultural knowledge at A level is a real and ongoing problem, and not just for those who are taking English, but for all students who in many cases have missed out on an important grounding in period, genre, idea and, of course, great writing itself. Whoever’s fault this may be – a lowering of standards, a progressive desire for relevance or us teachers ourselves – I strongly believe that the work of people like yourself and Joe Kirby is important in restoring what is important to the English curriculum, without ignoring the difficulties of enacting such ‘traditional’ texts in the current education environment. We want to teach the ‘best of what has been thought and known into the world’ because we genuinely believe that it is great and that it is necessary for our students to understand in order to achieve success and enjoy opportunity.

    Whilst I am sympathetic to arguments around the exclusivity of a canon, ignoring its existence seems a little naive and from my experience has not really got us anywhere. Your model allows students to be able to enjoy great stories and have a challenging learning experience that enhances their understanding of their own reading. I have tried to get round this issue by building into our year 7 and 8 timetable one reading lesson per two week cycle, where students read and discuss more modern teen fiction, whilst the core English lessons are more focused on heritage texts. What I now need to do is make this curriculum more coherent, perhaps like you by using the idea of plot structure or by building in the story of English literature itself, like Joe’s model.

    I agree with Martin that this approach would work nicely with many of the ideas in his book, in fact his thesis of using the trivium as a means of underpinning curriculum and curriculum enactment would entirely be in keeping with your model. Have you read Trivium?

    Like Martin, I would be interested to learn more about the practicalities of how you plan to marry the creative with the analytical. I would also be interested in some more detail about your assessment plans, particularly in light of the uncertainty of post KS3 levels and pre-GCSE numbers. I like the idea of one examination per year with a range of assessment types, but am less sure about how this might fit in with a model that encourages more opportunities for longer pieces of extended writing with multiple redrafts using the critique model. This is an area I have not yet managed to fully resolve myself, so would welcome your thoughts.

    Great work. Very inspiring!

    1. Hi Joey,

      Thanks for the feedback. Our next steps are certainly looking at the assessment & standards we want to apply. We are looking at it as a whole school, so I am wary of moving to an idiosyncratic model that doesn’t fit the school approach. I too am a big fan of critique and drafting. I think we will have outcomes that encourage that approach – we just haven’t decided on those unit outcomes yet! Oh, and we need to raise some funds to bring in a shed load of extra book stock!!

      I’ve not read the Trivium. It is an oversight on my part as I know it will be fit up my street. I have just been wary of my huge pile of edu-books growing ever bigger! I think it could be an Xmas purchase.



  4. Within the context of history teaching, I’ve spent a long time trying to design and make the case for a curriculum which teaches (and goes beyond) the historical ‘canon,’ while also arguing that it what is taught must be connected to our students’ lives, interests and priorities if it is to ‘reach’ them and have the transformational impact it promises on students’ world views and lives. These two ideas are so often treated as an either/or, quite unnecessarily in my view. This is possibly the best synthesis of the two that I’ve read, demonstrating how challenging and analytically powerful ideas can be intertwined with contemporary culture and students’ pre-existing ideas. It’s a really impressive curriculum design and aI can’t wait to hear how implementing it works, and the effect it has. Thanks for sharing this Alex.

  5. This piece got me to thinking about contemporary culture and the significance of it…generally and in relation to teaching English. I think that there is an important distinction between contemporary and non-contemporary; contemporary has a lot of ‘noise’ associated with it. A contemporary piece (of writing, or film, or any other communication medium) can be extremely important in the moment, but have no long lasting significance. Most of contemporary stuff is like that. Not to dismiss it, though; most of our lives consist of this. The significance of other stuff can shift and change, as events happen. This is as it is; we live in a dynamic world.

    What about schools and education? What we do with the students must engage them, of course. But, how does ‘contemporary’ relate to engagement? In some important ways schools are outside of the everyday. Everyday life for the vast majority of people has nothing to do with schools. The world of work isn’t school-like. The world of the home isn’t school-like, either. Students’ non-school time isn’t school-like. And that’s the way it should be. Schools are a privilege of joy; they are emphatically not establishments to keep kids out of the workplace and off the streets….they are the most important places in the country…..horizon expanding and empowering. Can this be communicated to students, with the consequence that they will be engaged? Not because a particular topic/text relates to something in contemporary culture (which it will, of course), but because this is *something else*.

    Passion in teachers is very important. It is the medium which engages the students most. If the connection between contemporary and literature particularly fires up the English teacher, then they should harness this. But is it *necessary* to entwine the contemporary into the literature in order to foster engagement?

    1. Not for the sake of ‘engagement’ alone. They can better remember the challenging canonical stuff if they hook it into the mental Velcro of their prior knowledge. Most of their prior knowledge clearly has a contemporary bent. For example, I have been teaching Beowulf recently and the knowledge of Thor in popular culture was a good hook into them learning new knowledge about Anglo-Saxon and Viking tribes. The misconception of the filmic Thor being blonde is a good way of dispelling common historical misconceptions and embedding better contextual knowledge. I want them to be thinking about Beowulf next time they watch Avengers Assemble and I want them to pick up a book and love reading rather than watch Avengers Assemble over and over!

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  8. There are some great texts here but it worries me that these are very nearly all white men. This will not empower the kids I teach. People were irate about Gove’s totally British History curriculum and I am anxious that teaching like this does the same thing. What would you point of view on that be?

    When we teach canonical texts there should be a big discussion about patriarchy and colonialism because to not do so in a multi cultural country is wrong. Sadly, those things made the canon. It’s so hard to squeeze it all in…

    1. It is a catch 22 scenario. The canon is what it is – full of dead white men. I wholly agree that the issues of patriarchy and colonialism are very real. I am teaching Dr Faustus at A level now and we have analysed how women are demonised throughout recorded literature, right down to the oral tradition of myths. This would be an inevitable point of analysis in most texts we study. The reality is that if our students don’t have a grounding in the foundational texts I think we are doing them a disservice – robbing them of cultural currency. I want them to understand the tradition of stories, including the archetypes and sexist stereotypes, so that they may challenge them and when they read modern texts they can understand the roots and patterns of influence.

      Would I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein over Stoker’s Dracula because of a gender imbalance in terms of authorship? Perhaps. More likely I will pick the text that best fits the group. Dracula may well engage females more because of the influence on modern literature and the interests of our female readers. A key factor in our approach also looks at the literary and historical context. We will of course analyse and debate gender in this study.

      One key aspect of our plan is that all of our home work (competitions etc.) will be directed at wider reading of modern literature (or more classic lit) depending on the interest of the student. We have a good stock of Meg Rosoff, for example, and I will direct many students, both male and female, to read Rosoff’s books. They will hopefully recognise the great tradition of dystopian literature she builds upon in How I Live Now and they may move towards reading to Atwood etc. later on.

      I may have stated it the post, but every curriculum is going to be subject to painful omissions. I don’t think we address “seminal world literature” in a direct way like other schools will, but we have to make a choice. I think our students need the story of literature to be outstanding A level Lit (and indeed English Language) students and so that they can engage in understanding their world of TV, games, and modern lit, in a way that doesn’t disservice them in higher education, or when they are in social company, using the tropes, cliches and language of Shakespeare and more.

      A final point. Most of my department are female. Their enacted curriculum will I’m sure make an apt judgement about the literary representation of women. We will hopefully encourage an army of students who love reading and their interests will shape the canon of tomorrow. If they have the tools we hope to provide them then some may even stake their own claim to be writers in the canon.

      I understand your concerns. I want to avoid ‘squeezing it all in’ to the detriment of the story we will build. If we teach it right their experience will lead far beyond dead white men. That is my hope and intent.



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    1. It makes for fascinating reading. I thought the early publicity on the Myhill research and the huge effect size in favour of the approach was grossly over-exaggerated. This study evens out the playing field to say the least!

      I do think their lesson schemes have some really useful approaches. Personally, revealing all my biases as well as my school experience, I think that the Myhill approach is useful, but not comprehensive enough. I also think a decontextualised drilling approach helps with writing automaticity, but it can be done badly and can be wholly unmenmorable in the wrong hands. I think the grammar for writing approach is actually most helpful for the required reading skills our students need to exhibit at GCSE and A level. Drawing out the grammar features from a text may well be most useful for reading assessments rather than their writing development. There is some research in that!

      We are therefore creating our own approach. We are developing scheme specific assessment objectives for SPaG – with grammar for writing style elements that links the texts they are studying to essential steps in their grammar knowledge. We will also identify escalating stages of appropriate grammar study for each year of KS3, with drilling where appropriate. For example, our opening year 7 scheme is effectively a language change SOL, therefore it offers the opportunity to engage with Old English etc. and engage with and analyse morphology and orthography in an interesting and memorable way, but we will also embed into the SOL tasks that ensure that students become drilled in understanding these patterns.

      Put simply, we are combining some aspects of grammar style approaches, with some decontextualised drilling that builds up a core knowledge of grammar. We will have end of year tests that can set a high bar and measure progress.

      My personal opinion is that a key threshold concept for our students is understanding syntax and sentence construction. If they can analyse and grasp all the brilliant variations in our rich language and literary history, then that is the core knowledge that will help them to be fluent readers and adept writers. We will repeatedly focus upon the essential construction of a sentence. Incredibly simple and incredibly challenging!

      Thanks for sharing the research. I hope to have a bid accepted for a neuroscience project from the EEF in the coming months. Fingers crossed! I would appreciate any useful resources or research regarding grammar, or anything else really, that you possess or find. I’m always interested in your research and opinions.


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  19. Hi, I know I am commenting on an old post but I have just been given the task of starting an 11-19 English department from scratch, designing my own curriculum and this post was so inspirational. However, none of the images on the post exist. Have you removed them? I would just have loved to have seen what you did with Booker’s 7 plots – a book that has inspired my key stage 5 curriculum at my current job.

    I was also wondering if you had started teaching it and how it was going.

    Anyway, thanks for giving me more food for thought regardless.

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