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Designing curriculum in secondary English

Written By: Andy Tharby
4 min read

This case study is written by Andy Tharby, Research Lead and English Teacher at Durrington High School.

As you read this case study, reflect on how the curriculum has been shaped and developed. Take some time to think about how some of these approaches might translate to your own context.


Making decisions about curriculum

I believe that all decisions about an English curriculum should start with two questions. ‘What do we value most about English as a subject?’ and ‘What do we want our curriculum to achieve?’. These questions have lent both clarity and conviction to my decision-making and I would advise all new teachers to ask them of themselves and the curriculum they are teaching before considering the mechanics of short-term and long-term planning.

In my opinion, a successful English curriculum needs to provide an opportunity to read great literature that not only takes students outside the realm of their everyday experience but also provides a gateway to the universal ideas and truths that define us as human beings. My department’s curriculum must develop our students’ vocabulary, cultural capital and subject knowledge so that they can read, write and think about language and literature with knowledge and discernment. All our subsequent decisions stem from these underpinning values.


Curriculum in action

Our approach to designing an English curriculum is supported by five key principles.

  • The five year curriculum. It is unhelpful to think of Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 as separate entities. Learning in English is cumulative, which means that each new text and topic adds extra richness and substance to students’ growing knowledge of the subject. Our curriculum carefully sequences topics across five years so that students are able to use their prior knowledge in new contexts. To prepare students for studying A Christmas Carol at KS4, for example, students are taught Victorian stories, themes and contexts through two units in KS3.
  • Universal themes. So that each new unit and lesson connects with the overall story of the subject, we teach English through the lenses of five universal and interweaving themes: power, gender, love, nature and conflict. These help our students to make bridges within and between our units: for example, they compare ideas about the representation of gender in modern speeches with ideas in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.
  • Portable and non-portable knowledge. We are very clear about what we want children to learn from each unit they cover. ‘Portable knowledge’ includes subject-specific vocabulary and concepts that will inform later study, whereas ‘non-portable’ knowledge is specific to a single context. Portable knowledge about ‘Of Mice and Men’, for instance, includes ideas about Biblical allusions, tragic structure and foreshadowing, whereas ‘non-portable’ knowledge includes specifics about plot and characters. We prioritise the learning of portable knowledge over non-portable knowledge as this will develop students’ subject expertise over time.
  • Explicit vocabulary. Our curriculum is explicit about which Tier 2 and Tier 3 words all children must master. Our evidence-informed approach to vocabulary teaching includes student-friendly definitions, exploration of morphology and etymology, multiple exposures and practice opportunities, and the use of assessment.
  • Metacognition. We explicitly teach students how to plan, monitor and evaluate their reading and writing through regular teacher modelling and student practice. We ensure that these approaches are consistent across the department and that time is built into the curriculum to ensure that students are able to master these.


What have I learnt about curriculum?

First, that the English curriculum has a tendency to become muddled. There are countless competing approaches, philosophies and emphasises that might influence its design. In my experience, the disputed nature of the subject can result in a disorganised, piecemeal curriculum which forms an unintended barrier to student learning. This is why it is vital to work with our colleagues to come up with an agreed set of values and methods.

Second, that means and ends are not the same thing. For example, I have always wanted to help my students become critical and discerning readers. In my early years of teaching, I thought this could be achieved by designing plenty of tasks that gave students the opportunity to think critically. Frustratingly, this was ineffective because my students did not have the knowledge, vocabulary and literacy skills they needed to do this. I now know that this end can only be achieved through a well-sequenced curriculum that supports students’ development of subject knowledge cumulatively over time. 

Third, that good English teaching is not enough on its own. I once believed that if I put my heart and soul into teaching every lesson as well as I could, then my students would naturally become great learners of English. Over time, I realised that learning is a long-term venture and that an individual lesson is only ever a drop in the ocean. It makes much more sense to think of learning in English lessons as something that happens over a sequence of lessons than something that happens over a single hour. The answer lies not only in good teaching, but also in a good curriculum.

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