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From Shakespeare To Ihimaera: New-look English Curriculum Planned

John Gerritsen, Education correspondent

Compulsory Shakespeare and grammar lessons will feature in a new-look secondary English curriculum that ranges from contemporary New Zealand authors to Chaucer and Beowulf.

The Year 7-13 curriculum is being rewritten, with lists of recommended texts in different categories for each year group, and a draft is expected in about a month.

The people behind the changes insist teachers will still have a wide choice over what they teach.

Some English teachers had feared the rewrite could lead to strict lists of books they would be allowed to teach with an emphasis on works many students might find inaccessible.

But a member of the writing group, Auckland University professor Elizabeth Rata, told RNZ the aim was to create a knowledge-rich curriculum.

"Every child throughout the country has the right to the very best English language and literature," she said.

Rata said the group was collating lists of recommended titles in categories including popular stories, novels, and short stories, but they would not be compulsory.

"If we turn to the novels programme we have once again an extended list of recommended titles with the addition that teachers will also be able to select their own titles as well."

She said the recommended novels might include Pōtiki by Patricia Grace and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck at Year 11, with Year 12 recommendations including 1984 by George Orwell, Witi Ihimaera's The Matriarch and Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

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"We've chosen novels that have literary qualities so that when a young person studies the novel they're able to study the structure of the novel, the linguistic style... the features of the novel," she said.

Rata said a category of 'traditional stories' would include creation myths and heroic myths to explore themes like redemption, folly, and injustice.

It would include recommended stories such as Maui's attempt to cheat death, the Greek legend of Narcissus, Beowulf, and Dante's Inferno.

"We've had two or three decades without any content, or up to individual schools to write their own. Teachers can't be curriculum designers as well as teachers, it's just been impossible and that's why we've seen English emptied out of content so we're really bringing back content," she said.

Rata said Shakespeare's plays would be compulsory for senior secondary students.

"The other thing we've prescribed is grammar. There'll be grammar prescribed from Year 7 to Year 13 so they know how to put sentences together," she said.

Rata said she expected parents would be delighted with the changes and she hoped teachers would embrace it.

A select group

RNZ this week received confirmation members of the Ministerial Advisory Group on English and maths were helping rewrite the English curriculum up to Year 13 - something teachers had suspected for some time.

The Ministerial Advisory Group was initially set up to advise on English and maths in primary schools only, but its work was later extended to the first years of secondary school, Years 9-10.

The five-member writing group for Y7-13 English included Rata, two staff from Auckland Grammar School and one from each of St Cuthbert's College and Manurewa Intermediate.

Advisory group chairman Michael Johnston said: "The MAG worked on issues up to Year 10. However, to ensure the curriculum writing process, which, again, is a separate process, is coherent across all year levels, it goes up to Year 13. This will also enable the development of achievement standards for NCEA that are derived from a knowledge-rich curriculum."

He said the writers for the secondary school English curriculum were chosen for their expert knowledge of subject English, their teaching expertise, and their expertise in curriculum design.

"The writing group also includes a member from Manurewa Intermediate and other members have previous experience working in low-decile schools. All children, from all communities, are entitled to be taught rich knowledge, guided by a well-structured and sequenced curriculum, comparable with the best in the world. The writers were chosen for their ability to deliver that," he said.

Pip Tinning from the Association of Teachers of English said lack of communication about who was involved with the work and its aims was worrying.

"We definitely feel there has been some secrecy about it, which seems really strange" she said.

"We would love to have some input or at least some clarity about what's happening," she said.

Tinning said teachers were expecting the work would result in a far more prescriptive curriculum, with teachers required to teach from a list of particular texts.

She said some level of prescription might be helpful, but it needed to be balanced with the freedom to choose texts that worked for particular students.

"One of the joys that comes with teaching English is the freedom that we have to choose texts and contexts that work for our students. Enjoyment has been part of the English curriculum ever since I started teaching," she said.

For example, Tinning said teachers might not offer Shakespeare, but they would still choose texts that were complex.

Tinning said the group working on the secondary English curriculum seemed too narrow.

"I work in a western Bay of Plenty school so our context is very different from Auckland Grammar, from St Cuthbert's, from Manurewa... we don't all have that level of resourcing or support for our students."

Tinning said it was not clear if there was Māori representation on the group, something she said was important for the English curriculum.

She said teachers would have an opportunity to comment on the proposed changes, but it would be good to have input to the initial work.

Rata said the writing group's members were chosen for their experience in writing knowledge-rich curriculums.

She said she had taught in a variety of schools including low-decile schools and a Māori girls' schools.

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