Just before the summer I had a meeting during which someone important in a school told me that they’d like to start preparing students for the demands of the new GCSEs from Year 7. This could be radical practice in some schools; we seem to have lost the knack of joining the thinking between the key stages.
Do we often underestimate what students are capable of at KS3? We may think they enjoy drawing a poster of Skellig’s garage (or whatever) but actually they really want to unpick a bit of Jane Eyre. In fact, they are often far more open to challenging 19th century texts than KS4 students who are self-conscious about appearing geeky and weird if they admit that Dickens’ language is actually quite clever and, at times, quite funny.
So if you map out the kind of reading skills required for the new Language GCSEs, there is really nothing there that we wouldn’t already be teaching Year 7:
- Read a range of 19th, 20th and 21st century non-fiction, fiction and literary non-fiction
- Explore themes and thematic links
- Identify explicit and implicit information
- Select precise quotations and make close reference to the text
- Synthesise evidence from two texts
- Analyse language
- Analyse structure
- Explore how a reader can be influenced by a text
- Use a wide range of subject terminology
- Compare writers’ ideas and perspectives
- Evaluate texts from a particular standpoint
What they need is the kind of mental toolkit which will enable them to apply these skills to a range of texts that they read, regardless of the century in which it was written or the degree of challenge we assume it has. Yes, we need to differentiate but we have to do that anyway. I once took an extract from Frankenstein and along with the same part of the text from the Pullman play version and a Ladybird version for small children – they could all access this and, interestingly, when it came to commenting on language, the lower ability wanted to comment on the Shelley original just as readily.
What’s wrong with saying, ‘You don’t need to get all of this; let’s see if we can find the gist of it and identify some of the ways the writer uses language and then see if we understand it better.’? This is pretty much what we do with poetry all the time. Adopting this kind of approach might just mean that 4 or 5 years down the line, students don’t freak if they encounter a text they don’t understand on first reading in the exam (and for many of them this is quite likely!).
One of the things I have heard recently is ‘We are dropping DNA and going back to ‘An Inspector Calls’ because there is so much more to comment on in terms of language. Perhaps this sums the situation up – students need to have material to which they can apply the skills they are learning and are expected to have – and challenging texts offer exactly that.