Wednesday, 30 October 2013

What does teaching "literary texts" mean in the new national curriculum?

So here we are, in limbo, with the previous national curriculum for modern languages "disapplied" as we wait for the next, really slim one to come into force in September 2014. Curious, that, isn't it? The national curriculum can be ignored by half of English secondary schools and the large majority of primaries, whilst in 2013-14 we don't even have one anyway. Will teachers survive this academic year without a national curriculum? It makes you wonder. In the meantime, Ofqual and the examination boards will use the new national curriculum to guide their next generation of exams, which is ultimately what teachers will focus on, as they always have done. So maybe we have a de facto national curriculum anyway. It all seems, as Jerry Seinfeld once put it, "a tad askew".

However, in short, teachers will need to be aware of what's in this new curriculum and to understand why course books will change their focus somewhat.

For secondary teachers, a significant new focus will be on "literary texts" - meaning stories, letters, poems and song, with, we are told, a greater focus on grammar and accuracy. Expect to see more of these in text books and examinations. Expect to see CPD courses with a focus on literary texts too - my Association for Language Learning (Yorkshire) information already has some in the coming weeks: "Fun with Grammar and Literacy Skills", "Literacy, languages and ICT" "Rigour, but not the O-Level way" - these course titles give a flavour.

Now, I have to say that I have for a long time felt there was a lack of narrative texts in course books. Too many dry articles relating to the GCSE topics, not enough story-telling, not enough human interest. So, in general, I would welcome a better balance of texts. However, the key thing will be how stimulating texts will be. Any target language input is good provided it is meaningful and interesting, or "compelling" as Stephen Krashen would put it. You can have boring literary texts and boring non-literary ones. What we need is material which is meaningful, interesting and suitable for exploitation in the classroom.

I spend a lot of time seeking out good texts for and there are two key criteria for texts: are they interesting and do they lend themselves to classroom exploitation? What can you do with them? Some pieces look great, but when you then think how you might use them, you run into a brick wall. Other texts can be mundane, but open themselves up to all kinds of linguistic activity.

The best texts achieve both those goals. "Literary" or narrative texts can be particularly good because, at the level of meaning, they often involve personal human experience and can stimulate the imagination, whilst, pedagogically speaking, they can be exploited in different ways. For a detailed list of means of exploiting texts see here. Tasks which fit particularly well with narrative or literary texts include: detailed question-answer techniques using past tenses, creative writing (e.g. writing summaries, changing the narrative point of view, writing alternative endings) and dialogue creation based on the text. Simple poems open up the possibility for enjoyable creative tasks such as designing calligrams (though, in general, poems, by their syntactic nature, are not the best source of input). Songs lend themselves to pleasurable close listening (gap fill, retranslation, matching etc). All of these tasks contribute to building up a student's internalised syntactic competence.

But we need to be careful here. We are in baby and bathwater territory. We do not want a return to O-level style texts which neglected practical, transactional language. We had good reasons for moving away from an over-emphasis on literary narrative. We do need to provide enough material to develop the ability to cope in everyday situations. We do still require plenty of input relating to intercultural understanding and everyday situational tasks. So what teachers should hope for is a sensible evolution in text books, not a revolution. Let us also hope for courses with an impressive array of creative teaching ideas, not the recent, rushed out exam board sponsored efforts which unimaginatively resemble GCSE assessments.

What really counts is that, whatever their style, our texts be stimulating and usable.


  1. Astute as ever, Steve. Good to see you mention our ALL talks - will you be attending any this Autumn? It would be good to see you there!

  2. Thank you, Carolyn. I was tempted to come along to one or two. Unfortunately they clash with other diary commitments.