‘Cultural literacy’ seems to be a ubiquitous and controversial term in education at the moment. In relation to our curriculum and its aims, the ‘cultural’ part relates to empowering students with the knowledge they need to be able to access their culture and engage intelligently with discussions, debates and political issues, while ‘literacy’ refers to enabling them to read and understand the world around them.
Within our curriculum, we want to offer all students this ‘cultural literacy’, with a view to narrowing the achievement gap, promoting An approach where a school aims to ensure that all children ... More and opening doors for the most disadvantaged.
The Radclyffe School is a large secondary in Chadderton, Oldham, with well-above-average proportions of Additional funding for publicly funded schools in England to... More and EAL students. Our students do not typically consider themselves ‘readers’ and, therefore, the cultural literacy we offer them through our curriculum is of the utmost importance and something they would not get access to without this deliberate planning.
There are 600 students studying Key Stage 3 English, 300 of whom (our Year 7 students) will complete the entire new Key Stage 3 course – they are the students we focus on when measuring impact.
The starting point: All students deserve access to ‘the best that has been thought and said’
This quote from nineteenth-century poet and social commentator Matthew Arnold (1869, p. 2) resonates with me. Why would we reserve ‘the best’ for higher sets or private school students?
Arnold’s phrase backs up arguments for knowledge-based curricula, particularly for the less privileged – the idea being that some young people will have access to the highest-quality literature no matter what we include in our curriculum, but it is those that don’t who need it the most. As David Didau (2013) states, ‘the more alien the culture of great literature is to your students, the more you owe it to them to permit them entry into this foreign country.’
The change to our curriculum revolved mainly around text choice: from teaching David Walliams’ Mr Stink with lower-attaining sets to teaching Homer’s Iliad and Shelley’s Frankenstein to all classes. The only difference would be the delivery: how we carefully scaffold the teaching of difficult texts for lower-attaining classes.
An example of this Progressively introducing students to new concepts to suppor... More would be pre-teaching challenging vocabulary and reducing cognitive load by discussing characters and ideas before reading a difficult text. We would also spend additional time modelling how to read, write and think like an expert. For example, with a low-attaining set, I would spend several lessons explaining how to construct a topic sentence, breaking it down into subject (academic), verb and object, giving students a clear structure to follow and time to practise in pairs so that they are working towards mastery of one micro-skill before moving on to building full paragraphs.
This is not to disparage the work of authors such as David Walliams, the likes of whom have undoubtedly engaged a significant number of students in reading for pleasure. These are the kinds of texts that students can access without careful teacher support and scaffolding and may well read outside of class, regardless of whether those texts are on the curriculum. Canonical texts, on the other hand, grant our students access to a world that may be foreign to them.
That said, making such widescale changes to curriculum content has its challenges – ‘a good curriculum will always be contested’. (Robinson, 2018) We were met with some initial resistance from staff regarding workload, as well as a change in mindset in terms of how we teach. Essentially, we were now asking staff to think about making learning hard rather than filling our lessons with engaging activities. Reservations were also voiced by the SEN department, who felt that we were making our curriculum inaccessible to the most vulnerable students.
It was important to be clear on our reasoning and how the hard work involved in making these changes would pay off. What we were working towards was a highly academic curriculum that all students could access through careful scaffolding.
We also worked on the notion that by not placing challenging, culturally-rich texts at the heart of our curriculum, we were missing an opportunity to make this great literature accessible to all students, through utilising our expertise as teachers to model our own thinking as we read and study ‘the greats’ along with our classes.
Our students’ lack of wider reading habits means that they come to us with little knowledge of grammar, despite the inclusion of grammar teaching in the Key Stage 2 curriculum. They are not exposed to complex sentence structures, punctuation and vocabulary through their personal reading and, therefore, the explicit teaching of grammar is crucial to developing their ‘cultural literacy’.
Since we cannot think about what we do not know, knowledge of grammar is particularly important, and we have a separate grammar curriculum running alongside our core Key Stage 3 curriculum. Our grammar lessons focus not only on knowledge of word, sentence and text-level grammar, but also on how great writers use it for effect: something that we want our students to learn to emulate. By explicitly teaching this, we can refer to grammar in core English lessons on a more sophisticated level, knowing that students will have the knowledge to engage in this kind of discussion, rather than constantly teaching them what an adjective is but with this knowledge never actually entering their long-term memory.
Again, there were challenges here, one being that there is a whole generation of teachers (me included) who were not taught grammar and therefore are not confident of their own subject knowledge, and many simply don’t enjoy it. Even those who acknowledge the importance of grammar may still see it as dull and dry. Our approach, however, is on experimentation and utilising grammatical knowledge to be creative in our writing and analysis, challenging the widely held perception that grammar consists of boring drills. Actually, grammar can be exciting when taught in a way that encourages experimentation and creativity, looking at how to use it for effect. For example, how does Dickens’ use of relative clauses evoke a grim setting and how can we emulate this in our own writing?
At the heart of our curriculum change was a focus on academic writing, and this is threaded through our grammar scheme as well as core English lessons, with an emphasis on modelling this academic style consistently through teacher-talk, student-talk and writing.
We have been teaching this new curriculum for the last six years now, and some of the notable changes have been:
- Standards of work have improved from the lowest-attaining students, many of whom were making much higher levels of progress in terms of their knowledge, reading and writing compared with previous years (studying the old Key Stage 3 curriculum)
- Students’ assessments at all ability levels have a more academic tone
- Many students are able to produce much higher-quality responses (both analytical and creative writing) in exam conditions
- Students are finishing Key Stage 3 with higher grades and the capacity to succeed at Key Stage 4
- We ‘engage’ students through a curriculum that is built on accessible challenge, rather than with ‘fun’ activities that do not necessarily result in learning.
It is clear to me that ‘cultural literacy’ encapsulates different elements in each subject area but, for us English teachers, the explicit inclusion of the highest-quality texts, grammar, academic writing and carefully scaffolded challenge are crucial in providing the best opportunities for students of all abilities and backgrounds.
Arnold M (1869) Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism. Oxford: Project Gutenberg.
Didau D (2013) Redesigning a Curriculum. Available at: https://learningspy.co.uk/english-gcse/redesigning-a-curriculum (accessed 17 June 2019).
Robinson M (2018) Curriculum: An offer of what the best might be. Impact 4. Available at: https://impact.chartered.college/article/curriculum-an-offer-of-what-the-best-might-be (accessed 3 September 2019).