Whether you see English Literature as purely skills-based, or full of content to be learnt and recalled, or a clear mix of both – and more – there’s no getting away from the fact that confidence with texts is born out of familiarity with texts.
It can be hard to remember exactly what it’s like to be a novice of English Literature. Usually, the texts we teach we have studied at degree level or above, or taught many times before, or studied them in order to teach them. Our students do not have this luxury of pre-existing knowledge, and the subject content for all of the exam boards is heavy. I have felt flashes of frustration with GCSE students unable to recall specifics of a text, before reminding myself that they have usually only read a text once, and that they are often trying to study for up to 9 other subjects alongside English Literature.
Keeping knowledge fresh for GCSE students
How, then, do we ensure that a text studied in Term 1 of Year 10 is still fresh in Term 4 of Year 11? How do we keep the quotations flowing, and the devices, structure and writer’s craft fresh in their minds? We have tried a few methods, and I hope that some of these will work well for your students:
This is a variation on Rebecca Lee’s ‘Five a Day’ quotation strategy (an approach in which students are quizzed every lesson on 5 quotations from a previous text/scene/chapter). We set a quiz to include points of context, structure, some brief analysis, and quotations. We do this every Friday in our department, and it’s become competitive across the classes, as we log the scores on a central sheet.
Just before the pandemic, my Year 10 students went on work experience. One of them returned from a law firm, utterly gloomy that she had just been put in the post room. She brightened, though, when she told me that she had been allowed to listen to music on her headphones but chose instead to listen to the audiobook of Lord of the Flies on repeat. She knew characters, events, sequencing, and loads of quotations inside out.
This prompted me to set listening homework – I ask students to listen to audio recordings of sections of the text that we have already studied. The more they listen, the more willing they become to listen to more. They don’t need a subscription; YouTube has audio recordings of many of the set texts. Many shorter extracts are copyright-free, and in cases where the author died more than 70 years ago, the entire text is copyright-free.
A spaced curriculum
At my last school, we would teach anthology poems on Fridays. This avoided the inevitable panic of trying to revise the lot in one go, and the drip-feed worked well across the year. We also worked on poetry essays, comparisons, and unseen poems in this time. It worked so well that we introduced it at KS3 too, so that Friday became a poetry day across the faculty! It was fantastic for collaborative planning too, and the confidence levels with poetry shot up.
There’s no simple answer, but the repetition of content doesn’t have to be boring. Good luck for all those preparing students for summer exams right now; it feels like a long time since we’ve done this now, and I wish you all the best.
Author Bio: Sarah Barker is an English teacher of 18 years. She grew up in Bristol, where she still lives and works. She is interested in supporting all students to become fully literate adults, and in widening the worlds of our young people through literature. She tweets at @mssfax and blogs at www.roundlearning.org