Friday, 20 September 2013

More Thoughts on Junior Cycle English

I've been thinking about the JC English specifications. I did fire off one of the online forms last May, but since then have been thinking much more. Here are three ways I think they could be improved. Junior Cycle English could be simpler, with more flexibility and less box-ticking. It could be more challenging, with texts selected that offer students a decent intellectual stretch. And I'm going to add "externally assessed".  Continuing to spend millions on an exam only to mash up the results with the class teacher's assessment is a futile exercise. All the AfL and innovative pedagogy in the world won't compensate for the damage this will to the student-teacher dynamic.  And this is Ireland where until the automatic ones arrived, every door in the country had a sign saying "pull".  All of us know that in two years' time we'll have parents waiting at reception, waving print-outs of the sample answers and asking "What the FOQ do you mean he/she only Achieved with Higher Merit?"


There's a moment in Robert Redford's film "A River Runs Through It" that gets English teachers everywhere nodding their heads. It's when the home-schooled hero goes up to his father's desk and presents him with an essay. The paper is handed back to the child with the instruction to go away and take out half the words. The writers of the Specification would do well to take this advice. (Although I won't be as harsh as the Rev. McClean and suggest they discard their efforts.  Reform is badly needed and it's about time we had a discussion about what and how students learn) Too many learning outcomes can make classroom teaching an exercise in ticking off items on a checklist.  The basic things we want students to be able to do, in my opinion, are
 - write clearly and coherently in plain English.
 - unless SEN is a factor, students should leave Junior Cycle reading at an age-appropriate level.
 - comprehend the spoken word and make notes on some-one else's oral presentation
 - communicate effectively through speech
I've based these of the four aspects of language but equally the study of English is the study of language as art and language as a means of knowing the world and of influencing others.  There are instances where language as art is wholly text based but it is also valid to study how language can work with other art forms and with other media other than print and speech, such as drama, film and increasingly, digital and multimodal material. Unlike the specifications I think there always should be some aspect of language in the texts that are chosen for study. There is much to be said for developing visual literacy, but time within the English classroom is limited. I'm almost alone in saying this but I don't like spending class time analysing and decoding pictures or photographs. I say analysing here in a technical sense;  visual texts can be an invaluable starting point for creative writing. So another general learning outcome I favour would be
 - demonstrate understanding of how language can be used to create narrative and lyrical art.

There is an assumption behind the Specification that breadth is better. Text can mean anything, in any medium, in any language, or without language. We see the phrase again and again that students must study "a variety of."  The digital era means we need to choose carefully; all texts are not created equal.  There is a danger of students accessing digital media and even creating digital content, without learning anything meaningful.   In my view, enforcing learning outcomes around digital literacy is not only useless without targeted and effective CPD for teachers, it could be detrimental. There are so many resources, so many tools and so many possibilities that teachers and their classes could spend class after class apparently engaged but without learning anything that's applicable beyond the products being used. So another learning outcome with the caveat that digital and multimodal texts play an important but limited role in the classroom and, even more crucially, that training for teachers is essential.
-interact with digital media and produce work using digital tools.

More Challenging

But isn't the Specification full of challenging ideas? In the previous post I wrote about the fabulous things students will learn to do, like manipulating language, writing in different voices, and being creative with syntax. The thing is that students are often quite skilled at doing these things already, at a basic level, but very few of them are capable of genuine manipulation or creative playfulness with language. More of them could be, if they first mastered plain English.
After poetry, plain English is the hardest English of all to write. Writing succinctly and coherently is a challenge for nearly all students. I've seen first year students write poems, direct drama extracts, create digital mind-maps and take part eagerly in class discussion, yet struggle to write two paragraphs on a given, or chosen, topic. It might seem awfully nineteenth century, but we have to require students to put pen to paper and write real sentences. And I mean pen to paper, not hand to mouse. Drafting and redrafting a handwritten piece of work may seem ridiculously tedious and laborious these days but it remains the best way to develop and hone writing skills.

Literature is covered in the Specification under the heading of Critical Reading, focusing on the action of the student rather than any knowledge that can be learned. For assessment, students are required only to produce a "written personal reflection" based one significant literary text, combined (why?) with at least one shorter literary text.  I love this bit "Students may choose to pay attention to one or more of the following; beginning/ending....." Read that phrase again: "students may choose to pay attention..." I would hope that students are required to pay attention to whatever aspects of a text the teacher has chosen to focus on.  The notion of students picking which bits of the course they feel are important assumes a level of maturity and motivation that would be almost unnatural in a child of fourteen or fifteen.  It also implies that the teacher's knowledge of his or her subject, and judgement of what's of educational value, are of little importance.

But isn't the personalisation of learning an essential component of the new learning to learn? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that it is good to foster student autonomy and to give them choices where appropriate. "Personal writing"  carries the assumption of student input into the topics chosen and the approach taken. The oral presentation part of the coursework is a chance for students to research a topic of their choosing. Already we have two-thirds of the 40% largely made up of personal content. I will also say that when the subject matter is small, discrete units, students can be given the option to focus on which ones they like. For example many English teachers cover slightly more poems in Junior Cycle than are strictly needed for the exam, so students can, with the teacher's guidance, draw up their own final list.

There are instances, however, where personalisation of the curriculum is inappropriate and I'm going to say that studying a long text, like a novel or a Shakespeare play, is one of them. The parts come together to form the whole and must all be studied to the same depth.  I will add that the topics suggested - favourite characters, the ending - import the worst of the old syllabus into the new. The Studied Texts sections of the old paper are incredibly vague; they have to be as different classes study different texts.  This component of the new specification is an opportunity to assess this part of the course much more effectively by presenting students with questions and title similar to those in the Leaving Cert Single Text section.  These questions are focused on the actual text studied and tend to be much more meaningful than the vague "choose an important theme" of the current Junior Cert. 

It may be hoped that designating "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" as a significant literary text and giving students more autonomy in what they study will re-engage students and thus, by stealth, raise standards. This is a round-about way of thinking that will not solve the problems of disengagement and poor discipline but will deny children the chance to experience literature in a classroom setting. There is much promotion of the idea of private reading, with the expectation that more able students will gravitate towards the kind of books that will stretch them intellectually. But often even the most able need the incentive of compulsion, and it is certainly true that students tend to read for pleasure at a level below the kind of books from which they can benefit with guided study. I've just started "To Kill a Mockingbird" with my second years. When I announced that's what we'd be reading this year a few of them said they'd picked it up in the library but had only managed a few pages or the first chapter. A week later, and four chapters in, they're hooked.

I'm going to stick my head out and say that all mainstream classes should be studying a Shakespeare play at Junior Cycle. Yes, there can be some serious differentiation involved but studying Shakespeare delivers like no other English activity I've ever come across. It's a stretch but one that, contrary to pessimistic belief,  does not exceed the elastic limit of the average student, or even some of their less able classmates.

Externally Assessed

Like others, I welcome the idea of students preparing a portfolio of written work as part of the assessment. In traditional exams in English candidates only get one shot. This isn't as awful as it sounds; producing meaningful written work at short notice and under pressure is a skill in itself. But it doesn't reflect how English is used most often in life. The inclusion of editing and drafting skills is, I think, the aspect of the revised course that may have the greatest impact on literacy levels.  It is also crucial to students' development as creative writers.

The aims of coursework may be laudable but the pitfalls are many. The inevitable risks of plagiarism, helicopter parents and helpful grinds will have to be factored in. But when you include that the person who teaches the students will be the same person assessing the work for summative assessment, the value of the whole project falls into question. Yes, we'll have our Features of Quality and our online samples, and yes, there will be intramural moderation but we all know it's impossible to objectively assess our own students.
Arguments against this have been well-rehearsed elsewhere ( , ) but we can't have too many voices added to protest against the hybrid monster that assessment will become. At the very least, if we cannot have external assessment, moderation at least has to come from the SEC. Anything else and grades will inflate like the Weimar Reichsbank Mark. And soaring grades mean falling standards; the very thing Junior Cycle reform purports to address.



  1. Trying to get my head around new Junior cert after 18 months out of the classroom and this is most succinct explanation so far.

  2. Thanks Anest. I know we're all awaiting the final Specification with interest, and a little trepidation. Another issue that's arisen in conversations with colleagues is that students choose which of their written pieces goes forward for assessment. How can we ensure that they put the same effort into all the work, all year?