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What do students most need to know for the English literature GCSE?

‘Time is finite, and so curriculum can never include all the knowledge, or anything close to all the knowledge in the field. As such, curriculum is necessarily exclusive: decisions must be made as to the knowledge that is included and that which is excluded.’ Ruth Ashbee, Curriculum: Theory, Culture and the Subject Specialisms

Selection: a big question in curriculum design

One of the big questions we grapple with when approaching curriculum design in any subject is: what do students most need to know? If we’re going to make sure knowledge is long-lasting, remembered by students in their future lives - not just in lessons, end-of-topic assessments or GCSE exams - we need to specify and prioritise the knowledge we teach so that students are taught what matters most and revisit it often in multiple contexts.

We’ve recently been rethinking our Key Stage 4 English curriculum principles, our sequence, and the selections we are making within our GCSE texts. Rethinking and revisiting this has reminded me of the complexity involved in making these decisions. Once we’ve landed upon text choices for GCSE, we must next pin down exactly what within those text, from the seemingly infinite options, should be prioritised within our teaching. This is no mean feat!

What is it, then, that students most need to know for the English literature GCSE?

First, there’s the text itself. We need to make decisions about what we will teach within these areas:

Characters: actions, choices, contrasts

Context & writer’s message


Quotations (or references)


Vocabulary (Tier 2 and 3)

Then, there’s the writing knowledge. Not only do we need to teach the content from the texts, but we also need to break down the complex task of analytical writing into its micro-components, and teach these explicitly:

Write topic sentences answering the essay question with either characters, relationships, tensions, ideas, emotions, setting, narrative structure or a combination.

Write sentences connecting plot events to the characters or relationships.

Write sentences connecting plot events to the themes.

Write sentences connecting character actions to themes.

Write sentences with quotations embedded well.

Write sentences connecting actions or quotations to the characters’ motives or characteristics.

Write about the characters’ or writer’s reasons for using certain words or phrases or techniques and what is suggested.

Write context sentences connecting the context to the writer’s intentions.

That’s quite a list! Which is why being selective within texts is vital, if we are to make the most of the lesson time we have and help our students develop deep understanding of our subject’s concepts.

Why do we need to specify which knowledge?

Avoid expert blindness: our English teachers are too good! At times, the abstraction of our subjects is so deeply buried that we struggle to articulate what students most need to know. (Zoe Helman and Sam Gibbs, ‘The Trouble with English and How to Address It’)

Make better decisions: in-the-moment selection decisions are hard! There are so many other decisions that we must make in every lesson. Choosing what content and concepts to foreground through our annotations and explanations in-the-moment is tricky, and is less likely to be organised and coherent.

Develop deep knowledge: we’re using the text to explore the deep concepts in English. Being selective helps us foreground these concepts in a more organised way, rather than analysing everything and hoping that some of it sticks. (Zoe Helman and Sam Gibbs, ‘The Trouble with English and How to Address It’)

Leave nothing to chance: specifying what students need to know means all students learn what we’ve collectively decided is most valuable and most versatile, no matter who they are taught by.

Know the pitfalls: collaborating in advance on what students most need to know means we can preempt and avoid the pitfalls.

Why do we need to be highly selective?

Avoid overload: our students study multiple subjects for GCSE and have huge amounts of content to remember. Being selective reduces overload and increases the chance of remembering.

Avoid forgetting: we forget 70% of what we learn within 24 hours if we don’t revisit often. Being selective means less to remember and more opportunities to revisit.

Help novice learners: our students are novices and are easily overloaded by the abstraction and complexity in our subjects. Writing, literature, reading, cultural knowledge and language are highly complex and highly interconnected. Being highly selective avoids overload and creates time for expert modelling.

How do we begin the process of selecting knowledge?

As Kat Howard and Claire Hill explore in Symbiosis, often our CPD focuses on how we teach, and focuses less often on what we teach. We become preoccupied with tasks and activities, and lose sight of what knowledge students must remember. ‘It is the what that should how the power, because it is vital to the subject itself.’ (Symbiosis)

To make decisions about what, we need to find time in our CPD to read, discuss, debate and decide on what knowledge we will prioritise and, just as importantly, what we will leave out. We need to:

Know what excellence looks like and what underpins it, asking ourselves: what do excellent student responses look like? What is it these students include within their responses? What is the hidden knowledge they are drawing on and have automated, which we need to teach over the years and practise until it’s automatic, and not taking up scarce thinking space?

Read, discuss and debate, asking ourselves: which knowledge areas from the drafts shared matter most for achieving well in the literature and language GCSE?

Look outwards and learn, asking ourselves: what can we learn from other English curricula in other successful schools? Who in the subject community can cast a critical eye over our selection?

Test it out, asking ourselves: does the knowledge we’ve selected work for mid and top grade essays? Is the knowledge versatile?

Use subject CPD time, asking ourselves: how can we use subject CPD time to develop our English department’s expertise around knowledge selection? Asking teachers to do this is a good exercise, as it engages everyone critically with subject knowledge selection and the decision-making process.

How do we begin the process of specifying exactly what to teach and what to leave out?

To begin the process of specifying exactly what to teach, and what to leave out, we need to establish, collaboratively, some shared principles and examples of what these principles look like in practice. When it is likely to be contentious (which has a high likelihood in English!), it ‘becomes all the more imperative that these standards are outlined beforehand and a consensus is found’. (Kat Howard and Claire Hill, Symbiosis). To achieve this, we can:

Agree principles for unit planning, which we can keep coming back to. In our working draft, the principles are these:

Our unit plans:

  1. specify the precise knowledge we will teach

  2. are highly selective, choosing what not to teach

  3. prioritise knowledge we most want to be remembered in the long term

  4. establish knowledge required to access future topics

  5. deepen knowledge explored in previous topics

  6. give time for high volumes of independent practice of subject knowledge to fluency.

  7. revisit subject knowledge deliberately.

  8. are sequenced coherently, anticipating misconceptions and misunderstandings.

Share examples and non-examples in subject CPD, to demonstrate these principles in practice, for example:

Use subject CPD time to discuss, debate and decide upon the precise selections.

Test it out over time, refining it and improving it each year.

Potential pitfalls

When discussing shared curriculum planning, we often encounter a tension between collaboration and autonomy. Our teachers feel their expertise is being questioned and their autonomy stripped away through the use of shared curriculum planning and shared resourcing that specifies exactly what to teach and what to leave out. But couldn’t we achieve so much more if we combine our expertise and make these selective decisions together, drawing upon, in some departments, our 100+ years of collective teaching experience to make decisions about what students most need to know, and how best to preempt and avoid the pitfalls we’ve been encountering for years. After making these decisions, our teacher expertise can come to the fore yet again through explanations, expert modelling and subject passion in the classroom. Shared curriculum planning and shared resourcing provides a springboard from which all of these can fly.

Another challenge that comes between subject leads and curriculum planning is time. It can be very tricky to balance the demands of day-to-day teaching with deeper curriculum thinking. This is where strategic planning, with a timeline for curriculum development, and subject CPD time allocated specifically to this, can help. Keeping an eye on the long term - not just the day-to-day - and carving out time and space within teams for this thinking to happen is vital if any curriculum development is to happen.

The GCSE knowledge for the AQA literature texts that we teach is still undergoing constant development but the working draft that we are teaching from at the moment can be viewed here:

AQA GCSE English Literature_ Core Knowledge
Download PDF • 310KB

Examples of how these work within booklets can be found on my resources page here.

Thank you very much to the wonderful English teachers and curriculum thinkers that I have had the pleasure to work with, and learn from, so far, and to all those who continue to shape my thinking each day. What a joy it is to be a part of such a brilliant English subject community!

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