As an English adviser, I am often asked this question - and others like it. The motivation behind this line of questioning is quite understandable: a primary school teacher, faced with the mammoth task of covering all the content that needs to be taught across the different subjects within the primary curriculum, is seeking to make the best use of the time available by using the English lesson to teach (or at least bolster) the knowledge requirements specified by another subject domain – in this instance, history. Or, it may be that the teacher wants to use the ‘reading aloud’ time that is bequest to them to reinforce or enrich some of the learning from another subject. Or, it may be that they hope to make the learning that is taking place in the History lessons – let’s stick with this subject for now – more pertinent and meaningful to the children by selecting a class read that relates in some way to the facts that they have been learning. Whatever the motivation – well intentioned as it may be – I would urge teachers to carefully consider the legitimacy of following this route of text selection.
Quite simply, there are so many beautiful, challenging, profound, witty, rewarding (I could go on…) books available for us to plunder with our children, that to limit our selection to one that has a - sometimes vague - link with another subject matter is not only demoralising for both us as teachers and the children, I would argue that it is detrimental to both the subjects in question.
I understand completely where this thinking stems from, and I am not judging teachers for going down this route: I have done it myself. It seems like a streamlined approach; a sure-fire way of killing two birds with one stone, so to speak…we are reading a book and thus engaging with the world of literature, and we are reinforcing content from another subject at the same time. But, alas, I soon realised that superficial nods towards linking content rarely work in the way intended. The actual outcome was that both the children and I had to wade nobly through a rather dry narrative, meeting rather dubious snippets of embedded historical facts along the way, at the same time muddying the carefully selected knowledge that I had tried so carefully to impart in the first place. Clearly, not a win: win situation, by any standards.
To elaborate, I allude to an anecdote shared with me by my colleague, Michelle Nicholson. She recalled an incident when, following a read of Raymond Brigg’s delightfully humorous text, Ug – a text chosen in this instance to support the Stone Age topic, some children were left thinking that Stone-Age wives (was there ever even such a thing?) habitually made trousers for their husbands by carving them out of boulders. A delightful, but potentially damaging misconception had thus arisen.
The worst-case scenario in my opinion is that a text is chosen for its potential to link to a subject, without adequate regard given to whether or not the text is suitable to meet the demands of the English curriculum. And, this is where my real argument lies. Although it is true that English is a vehicle – we teach children to speak well, read and write so that they can apply these skills to learning in other subjects – we must not forget that English is a subject in its own right. Within that over-arching subject title, we have many realms, including spelling, grammar, drama, literature – to name but a few. Each realm has its own history; its own internal dramas; its own traditions and on-going debates. If English lessons become seen as merely a vehicle through which other subject content can be taught or revisited, then where is the space for the English subject to thrive? Thinking particularly of the literature realm, if English lessons are subsumed within a drive to acquire and fix knowledge from other curriculum areas, then where will children find the time, space and guidance needed to ‘appreciate our rich and varied literary heritage’? How will children be nurtured to develop ‘an appreciation and love of reading’? How can reading ever hope to ‘open up a treasure-house of wonder and joy for curious young minds’ (italicised wording taken from NC2014)?
This is not to say that in some circumstances, a well-chosen text that contains strong contextual links to a topic being studied, cannot be used within the English lessons to develop a well-structured unit of work, that not only works towards developing the objectives as set out in a school’s English curriculum but that also supports development of knowledge in another subject. It can be done. It is a particularly relevant route to explore when there is a breadth of highly regarded literature linked to the topic available, for example, World War 2, where we are spoilt for choice with texts such as Rose Blanche, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Goodnight Mr Tom – to name just a few. But, my point is that it is not easy. The teacher needs to be confident that the text is worthy enough to occupy the precious space that is the English lesson time. They also need to be confident that the knowledge presented in the text will support, rather than hinder, the development of knowledge prescribed in the programme of study for the other subject in question. They then need to be able to consider how to marry these two aims, ensuring that neither is compromised.
To summarise, I believe that the books we choose to use in our English lessons should, for the most part, be selected, not based on what they can do to support achievement in other curriculum areas, but based on what they can do to support children to meet the ambitious aims as set out in the English Programme of Study. Books should therefore be selected for their ability to captivate; to invigorate; to stimulate; to electrify; to confuse; to shock, to provoke… not because they happen to be set in ancient Rome.
The fortuitous truth is that a good book – regardless of its context - may well end up doing more to deepen and strengthen curriculum knowledge than a contextually relevant, but poor quality text, could ever do. A good book has the power to provoke discussion, and it is through discussion that children can branch out in their thinking. When branching out, children use the text as a leap pad from which they make observations; test out predictions; offer tentative explanations – all of which require them to tease out and pull together information from a range of other sources; a good teacher can then support the children to see how their learning in other subjects has helped them to gain insight into the matter in hand. All this is done in a way that retains integrity to the subject that is being taught.
Therefore, to end my thoughts on this matter, and to take us back to the very title of this piece, when I am next asked the question: ‘can you recommend a good book about the Romans?’ my response will be: ‘No – but I can recommend a good book’.
Are you keen to engage further in curriculum debate across all primary subjects?
We are pleased to announce the impending arrival of the HfL Primary Curriculum Symposium – a space for leaders to hear from informed leaders, theorists and phase/subject specialists on the topic of curriculum design and implementation. The symposium will launch in summer 2019.
Follow the link to book:
Primary Curriculum Symposium 2019: Conference Programme - 20th May 2019