English Literature GCSE: The Curriculum ‘Big Picture’

In Memory for Learning, Teaching & Learning, Teaching English by Alex QuigleyLeave a Comment

I read today an excellent blog by the English teacher, Paul Moss, on ‘Telling your Curriculum’s Story’. He explores in helpful detail the rich connectedness of the social forces and ideas that impact upon writers in the English Literary canon that is present in the GCSE qualification.

What Paul elaborates upon is the ongoing narrative that connects each author across time. It synthesises a history of ideas that is so often hidden away from our novice students. The blog unpacks the importance of the background knowledge relating to social context that is so key to deep understanding, offering ideas for teachers to discuss.

Without labelling it explicitly, Paul evokes a rich, interconnected schema for the English literature curriculum. I have written here about how this schema, or ‘mental model‘, for our complete curriculum needs discussing, devising, and, over time revising (with some broader considerations, such as developing essay writing over time etc. – see HERE). Paul also exemplifies the rich, deep expertise we are looking to cultivate in our pupils (see my blog on expertise HERE where I draw upon theories like the ‘seven basic plots’ to help unify the complex narrative of the English literature curriculum).

Of course, defining the ‘narrative’ of the English curriculum – to help our pupils more clearly see the ‘big picture’ – is something that teachers need to debate and devise in their curriculum planning. As 2019 will likely prove the ‘year of the curriculum’ – it is a timely debate. It also reminded me of strategies I have used directly with my students to help them cohere and revise their studied texts (and much more) for GCSE English Literature.

Strategies for teaching the ‘big picture’ of English Literature

We know from many an exam board feedback session, that our students struggle to write about structure adequately (in English Language too). In part, this is because they don’t easily see the ‘big picture’ of texts and the broader chronology of ideas throughout literature.

The nature of the examination questions mean that we are unlikely to emphasise making many explicit questions between texts (as we know there is a danger of pupils going ‘off piste’ in their exam talking about other texts when they shouldn’t!). But in narrowing the curriculum to the test, we fail to help our pupils see the ‘big picture’ and make memorable thematic links, historical parallels, spying character archetypes, and more. It is such meaningful connections that deepens their understanding which has an indirect, but important impact on ideas conveyed in examination essays.

Here is a great ‘revision’ task to help our students make meaningful connections – ‘Connecting the Big Ideas’:

  • List the texts you are currently studying at GCSE.
  • Now, list as many big ideas/themes you can think of that relate to those literary texts (including poems)
  • What big ideas/themes overlap? What are the three most salient big ideas/themes that connect the texts at GCSE?

We can take different lenses on helping our pupils see the ‘big picture‘. You could further identify and explore connectedness in a number of ways – making ‘mind maps’, ‘concepts maps’, arranging structured debates around these big ideas, or similar:

  • Themes and ideas e.g. power; social class; gender differences; violence etc.
  • Society and audience e.g. parallels such as James I as a particular audience for the play Macbeth, or the proletariat masses considering revolution, as an audience for Blake’s London.
  • Character e.g. comparing Macbeth and Ozymandias as ‘characters’

The ‘Big Ideas’ with individual texts

When you do narrow down into a singular text, it is once more helpful to see the ‘big picture’ of the text structure. This then can be made explicit – making the ‘mental model’ more visible to our novice students – helping them make connections across texts much easier (especially if they have the lingua franca of literary terms to describe structure e.g. Aristotelian terms to describe dramatic structure).

My favourite teaching strategy in this regard is identifying ‘anchor passages’. These prove the line, speeches, scenes and passages that best exemplify one of the aforementioned ‘Big Ideas’. So, for example, your ‘big idea’ may be familial love in Romeo and Juliet. Here is the process:

  • Identify the ‘big idea’ e.g. familial love
  • Ask students to decide upon the anchor passage – that is to say, the passage/quote/speech that best exemplifies familial love (for good or ill) in the play e.g. the infamous father daughter scene: Act 3: Scene 5
  • Then, students need to be prompted to connect the internal structure of the play by moving ‘forwards or backwards’. So, if they have to move ‘backwards’, they connect Act 3: Scene 5 to another scene, such as Friar Lawrence acting fatherly in Act 2; Scene 3. 

After four or five attempts at shifting ‘forwards of backwards’ to different ‘anchor passages’, students have all the tools they need for an essay plan or a fulsome argument. With some debate and discussion, we make the implicit and subtle structures of the text more visible explicit to our students.

With some practice, our students can better cohere the ‘mental models’ or schemas so critical to examination success. We also offer a much deeper narrative of the great literature we study – making it memorable far beyond the school gates and the relatively narrow parameters of a school curriculum.

To summarise in the artful prose of E.M Forster:

“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted…”

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