Why do we recycle the same old texts in our English curriculum?

Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens: are there no new books to compare? Ben Leto/Flickr, CC BY-SA

If you look at the texts you studied at school, you’ll probably find they were quite similar to those being studied by your kids and perhaps even those studied by your parents.

For decades the same English texts have been recycled on prescribed lists. Newer texts are hardly ever added to the curriculum. Is this because there is just nothing new to compare to Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dickens, or is there something else behind the choice?

Text selection in Australia and the UK

I looked into the text selection practices in Australia and England and found two patterns.

Firstly, the texts are not really chosen with the students in mind, so engaging students does not seem to be of highest priority for curriculum boards.

Secondly, in both systems it was well known that the current texts are constantly repeated or reshuffled from other areas of the curriculum into different English sections or study units.

This means that not only were there texts that did not engage current students in English, but fewer recently published texts were being added to the curriculum for teachers to consider when planning lessons.

Both case studies in Australia (New South Wales, Board of Studies Higher School Certificate HSC) and England (Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) A-Level) show that older or traditional texts in both curricula have been on the prescribed reading list for decades. This means that the well-known texts published pre-1900 to 2000 far outnumber the texts published from 2000 onwards.

How many of you studied this old biddy? srgpicker/Flickr, CC BY

In one section of the NSW English curriculum I found that in 14 years 16% of the texts were published up until 1900, 47% of the texts were published from 1900 to 2000, and only 37% of texts were from 2000 onwards.

Even the texts from 2000 onwards were choices that were repeated or reshuffled; they were not newer options. I found some texts have been on the curriculum for over 50 years, such as Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Even if the argument is made that Great Expectations is a great text and undoubtedly a shorter text to teach, it is further limited because it is a choice of one in five texts that teachers can pick from in the curriculum.

So text choices are even further limited not only in the variety or types of texts and their publication dates, but also in the quantity of texts teachers are able to choose from when selecting from available options.

Similarly in England, over eight years for a contemporary English unit of study, 81% of the texts listed were published from 1900-2000, 19% of texts were published from 2000 to present. Even after their most recent education reform, only one new text - The Help - was added to the list scheduled to be taught from 2015-2017.

This means only one new text would have been added to the prescribed list, which was published in 2000 and is intended to be taught until 2017. This evidence suggests that after major education changes in the UK, the English curriculum seems to include even more well-known, traditional texts (published prior to 2000) rather than a wider range of modern choices.

…and this one? Liam Pye/Flickr, CC BY

This is interesting given the public appeal by a former education secretary, Michael Gove, to reduce the number of American classical texts on the current English curriculum to accommodate more contemporary British options.

Why are there few new options?

When the curriculum boards (NSW Board of Studies; AQA) were questioned about text selection practices, they said texts were repeated or reshuffled because of the lack of resources and limited skills of teachers to manage newer texts. They also said teachers were the ones who often repeated texts and did not make use of the newer choices that were added to the prescribed lists.

However, 80% of all 48 teachers interviewed for this research argued that this was not the case.

Teachers, in both case studies, argued that text selection was a burdensome process for them. They felt the main issue was not being able to select texts that were most appropriate for their students and their learning abilities.

Teachers agreed that most times texts were repeatedly taught because of the lack of resources at the school, or the limited time available to design new lessons.

However, they voiced that the current lists of prescribed texts were often boring to teach, felt like texts were forcibly used to address aims in the curriculum and that, to an extent, the current selection even disengaged students who once did enjoy English literature.

Research into text selection argues that if students enjoy the texts they study at school, the meaning becomes reinforced and the curriculum aims are better achieved.

This isn’t to say we should reduce the number of texts or well-known favourites in the curriculum. But we do need to select texts that engage our contemporary and culturally diverse students, while also achieving the learning goals set out in the curriculum.

Melissa will be on hand for an author Q&A between 3 and 4 pm AEST on Wednesday April 15. Post your questions in the comments section below.