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Sequencing an English Literature Unit

‘Curriculum, ultimately, is (metaphorically) a narrative, a journey, a conversation… a development of meaning over time. Our overarching approach, then, should at times be that of the narrator: to present things in an order that makes sense, to allow things to unfold meaningfully, to deliberately craft readiness for things to come.’ Ruth Ashbee, Curriculum: Theory, Culture and the Subject Specialisms

Curriculum is about choice. When designing curricula, we make choices about what to teach, to whom and in what order. In a previous blog post, I shared some thoughts on how to choose what to teach. After making those decisions, the next step in preparing to teach a GCSE English literature text well is to consider how best to sequence this knowledge.

What do we most need to know about sequencing?

‘To create a sense of coherence…we need to ask ourselves: Why this? Why now?’ Kat Howard and Claire Hill, Symbiosis: The Curriculum and the Classroom

Prerequisites: what needs to be known first to make sense of what comes next?

In ‘The Research Ed Guide to Curriculum’ Neil Almond offers the analogy of the curriculum as a TV box set. Almond uses The Simpsons as an example of a TV show that can be dipped in and out of; missing one episode does not hinder your chances of understanding the next. In contrast, Line of Duty has an overarching plot - a thread that ties all of the episodes together. Someone starting with Season 7 would struggle to make sense of the intricacies of the plot and characters; their understanding would be significantly hindered due to missing earlier episodes. Line of Duty is designed to build that knowledge over time. Each episode and each character action or choice links together to create a coherent and cohesive narrative. There are similarities with the way we design our curricula. We make careful choices about what to teach at what moment, so as to build deep knowledge of our subjects. If knowledge is missing due to missing links in our sequencing, it will be very tricky for students to make sense of what comes later, just as someone starting Line of Duty in Season 7 will struggle. Josh Vallance explores this idea eloquently and in more detail here.

Preemption: what errors do we need to anticipate and prevent?

Doug Lemov states here that ‘planning for error might be an educator’s most powerful tool’. In teaching, prevention is far better than cure; preemption is better than reactiveness; upstream is better than downstream. When planning our curricula, we should be asking ourselves: what are the mistakes our students make every year with this topic, or across multiple topics? How can we adapt our teaching sequences long-term to avoid these errors repeatedly recurring?

Memory: how do we move from simple retrieval to deeper connections?

Joe Kirby writes here that the content within our curricula must be sequenced cumulatively and incrementally, including lots of revisiting and consolidation, with application of the knowledge to harder materials over time. Sequencing our unit plans carefully ensures we are deliberate about this revisiting, we prevent our students from forgetting, and we find opportunities to build more connections and a deeper understanding.

Why does sequencing matter?

Overload: we know how easily our minds are overloaded. If we’re given too much to juggle, we soon drop the balls. There is a high risk of overload in our subjects because so much of our subject material is new to our students. Careful sequencing helps us introduce the new knowledge in stages, reducing the likelihood of overload occurring.

Distraction: we learn what we attend to, and what we attend to depends on how many distractions we have to navigate our way through. Sequencing knowledge carefully means we can be highly deliberate about what our students attend to within each lesson, avoiding a situation in which we just ‘analyse everything and hope some of it sticks!’ (Zoe Helman and Sam Gibbs, ‘The Trouble with English and How to Address It’).

Forgetting: we also know how easily we forget. As we’ve learnt from Ebbinghaus, 70% of what we learn is forgotten if it is not reviewed. Sequencing knowledge carefully enables us to revisit often and deepen knowledge over time, in order to prevent this forgetting from taking place.

How can this be applied to a GCSE English literature text?

I find the principles above extremely helpful when planning a unit in English literature. Taking ‘A Christmas Carol’ as an example, I’ll talk through a possible approach, step-by-step.

1. Selection: what do students most need to know?

Selection is key. Before considering what order to teach the knowledge in, careful decisions have to be made about what to teach. This is explored in my previous blog post here.

2. Prerequisites: what needs to be known first to make sense of what comes next?

Broadly, English literature would be considered a cumulative subject, as it contains fewer threshold concepts. That said, there are still hierarchies within English. Taking 'A Christmas Carol' as an example, it wouldn’t be possible to consider Scrooge’s character development, and Dickens’s use of his transformation to convey a message about Victorian society, without first understanding the plot. Similarly, it would be very difficult to offer a meaningful interpretation of the message behind Scrooge’s character without first understanding something about Dickens’s life and Victorian society. Knowing this informs the sequence of lessons within a literature unit plan. As ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a short novella, the unit begins with a reading of the text. The aim of the first reading is to enjoy reading the novella and to understand plot and characters’ actions.

Similarly, certain context is frontloaded, in recognition of the fact that it informs students’ understanding of Scrooge’s character in Stave 1.

In recognition of the fact that vocabulary needs to be explicitly taught and that this is a prerequisite for understanding characters and themes, in addition to being able to speak and write confidently about the text, vocabulary words are identified in each lesson. Those in blue are taught for the first time. Those in green are revisited within the lesson - not just the recap.

A similar approach is taken to writing knowledge. An understanding of topic sentences precedes full essay writing, so writing is approached sequentially, in small increments.

3. Overload: how do we avoid distraction and overload?

To avoid distraction and overload or just analysing everything and hoping some of it sticks, knowledge is identified within each lesson. This knowledge is prioritised within the teaching. All practice exercises are based on this knowledge. Being selective in this way supports teachers as there is no longer a need to make in-the-moment decisions. Decisions are made carefully up front, in advance, which achieves greater coherence and is less likely to lead to overload.

4. Memory: how do we move from simple retrieval to deeper connections?

Revisiting of content is deliberately and carefully planned. Within the ‘recap’ column, the recaps are sequenced for the entire unit and a tally is completed to check that each concept is revisited enough in order for it to have a chance at being remembered. This deliberate revisiting helps all of our students remember in every classroom; none of this is left up to chance.

Concepts are also revisited carefully and deliberately within the body of the lesson. Understanding the concept of symbolism is vital in ‘A Christmas Carol’ as a means of understanding characterisation. Characterisation could be considered a threshold concept in English. We need our students to move from an understanding of characters as people to characters as constructs, created by writers to convey meaning. Teaching and revisiting symbolism within ‘A Christmas Carol’ helps students understand this. Being deliberate about where this concept is revisited ensures that these decisions are not made in-the-moment or left up to chance.

What are the pitfalls to preempt?

Autonomy vs consistency: one of the conversations we have often in our English team is that of the tension between autonomy and consistency. At times, there is a fear that centralised planning, with high levels of detail and specificity, removes teacher autonomy. But I’d like to suggest that consistency and autonomy don’t actually need to be in tension, and that the benefits of highly detailed, highly specific, highly collaborative shared planning outweigh any potential drawbacks. I am sure we’ve all spent evenings frantically planning for the next day’s lessons. I certainly remember them well in my early years of teaching! I would search through the shared folder, desperate to find a resource I could use. Not having any luck, I’d open up the scheme of work, which consisted of a list of generic skills plus a one-line summary for each week’s worth of lessons, and perhaps some suggested activities. Pushed for time, I’d find myself downloading a powerpoint from somewhere online, relieved to have something sorted, and just hope for the best. Could I be certain that students wouldn’t be distracted or overloaded in my lessons? Could I be certain that they’d be taught the most important and useful knowledge in the unit? Could I be certain that I’d planned well enough for them to remember? In all honesty, I couldn’t have answered ‘yes’ to any of those questions. I think I would have hugged someone if they’d shared with me a detailed unit plan and a suite of corresponding resources, as it would have freed me up to focus on my explanations, my live models and my understanding checks - all of which I rarely had time to consider - plus given my my weekends and evenings back! Centralised planning provides an excellent springboard and dramatically reduces teachers’ workload. It provides a consistent approach to the curriculum, meaning that all students are taught in a coherent and organised way. It reduces hours spent duplicating powerpoints and resources. It frees teachers up to focus on what matters most in the classroom. Teachers’ autonomy comes to the fore in contributing to, and preparing for, the lessons with shared resources: planning their explanations, practising their live models and preparing to share their deep expertise with the students in front of them in their classes. Consistency doesn’t remove autonomy. Instead it buys back hours of teachers’ time, freeing them up to apply their autonomy in the most impactful ways.

Expertise and passion: another reservation that arises in our conversations is that of dampening teacher passion and diminishing teacher expertise. It’s important that centralised resources such as unit plans and booklets are seen as a springboard - not a straitjacket. Nothing can replace the passion and personality of the teacher standing in front of the students; without this, a booklet is just a booklet! The students love being taught by that teacher with their relationships and their expertise and their passion. But what it does do is help free up our time and thinking, so that we can direct our expertise to some of the trickiest aspects of English teaching. Getting explanations right is extremely hard! My explanations, if they’re not planned, very quickly become garbled and overloading (I’ve often cringed when watching back my explanations on video!). Having some semi-scripted moments and recaps and practice tasks pre-planned frees the teacher up to focus on improving explanations in a different part of the lesson or to focus on live modelling writing, which is extremely hard to do well. Without teacher expertise and passion, any resource would fall flat. Shared resources improve the consistency of our teaching and free us up to focus on some of the trickier aspects of the lessons so that all of our students - including our most vulnerable - succeed.

In summary

Shared unit plans and resources with carefully selected and sequenced knowledge dramatically improve teacher workload while also improving the consistency of teaching across classrooms. What is vital is taking the time to collaborate on the sequence and selection so that others’ expertise is drawn upon, while also making sure good feedback loops are in place so that the resources can be continually improved collaboratively over time. This, like everything in curriculum design, is a work in progress.

If you’d like to see an example of a unit plan, you can download a unit plan for ‘A Christmas Carol’ and the booklet that goes with it here:

A Christmas Carol Unit Plan
Download DOCX • 942KB

A Christmas Carol Booklet
Download DOCX • 13.31MB

Booklets for lots of other units are available on the resources page of my blog.

Thank you for reading this, and thank you so much to the brilliant English colleagues I work with closely and the wider English subject community, who are informing my thinking every day.

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