English for Gifted and Talented Students 11–18

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Geoff Dean

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    Dedication

    With great thanks to those colleagues who contributed so importantly to the English committee I chaired for the National Academy of Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY) 2005–2007:

    Peter Thomas, Paula Iley, Erica Glew, Simon Wrigley, Mike Jones and Louisa Shorland.

    About the Author

    Geoff Dean began his teaching career in an English department of a boys’ grammar school in Northamptonshire, before becoming Head of English at an upper school in Suffolk, where he was later Senior Teacher and Head of Sixth Form. He became Deputy Head at Sharnbrook Upper in Bedfordshire, from where he moved to become English Adviser (later Inspector) in Oxfordshire in 1988. He was appointed English Adviser to Cambridgeshire in 1997, then moved on to Milton Keynes in 1999, where he is currently a School Improvement Adviser.

    Geoff has taught English, drama and media studies, and is a senior examiner for AQA A level Media Studies. He is the former Chair of the National Association of English Advisers. He has written five books: Challenging the More Able Language User (1998/2001), Teaching Reading in Secondary Schools (2000), Teaching English in the Key Stage 3 Literacy Strategy (2002), Teaching Grammar to Improve Writing and Reading in the Secondary School and Improving Learning in English – all published by David Fulton. He leads many courses and speaks regularly at conferences, mostly on his specialist subjects of ‘more able English pupils’ and reading. He is an avid film fanatic and an enthusiastic reader of texts for young people.

    Acknowledgements

    The author would like to acknowledge permission given to him by: Simon Wrigley – for use of his reader self-evaluation questionnaire; Professor Ron Carter and the English department of Nottingham University – for use of materials from the LINC project.

    Introduction

    While writing the first words of this book, I listened to a radio news item about the government requiring secondary schools to identify and register their most able students, and I reflected on how dramatically trends have changed in education. Only twenty years ago, many English departments would have been very uncomfortable with the idea of making special provision for their most able students. The suggestion of separating ‘the sheep from the goats’ was anathema to the prevailing English teaching sensibilities. Now, all schools are expected to identify their more able students, and forward their names to a national database. More able/Gifted and Talented students have moved to centre stage.

    Yet many more able students in all subjects in secondary schools are still at some distance down the ‘pecking order’ of most teachers' priorities. Anybody carefully analysing the lesson or unit planning of the vast majority of teachers, in all phases of education, will recognise a universally practised pattern. This process involves establishing learning activities and ideas for the majority of students in the group as the first step, followed by setting up appropriate support for the students who are least confident and the more challenging learners, with – almost as an afterthought – some final attention given to the two or three most able in that class. This procedure for designing lessons has become so commonplace that it is now wholly accepted as unproblematic. But it does not have to be the prevailing template, and challenges to that orthodoxy are considered more carefully in the chapter on learning in English.

    Until quite recently, there was usually little argument about which students qualified as ‘more able’ in English. They were those who read widely and often, without prompting, and/or those who wrote fluently in an engaged manner, possibly arguing and speaking at a sophisticated level. They were mostly the young people who went on to become members of English A level groups, and many eventually read English as a university subject. Yet, as English teachers have begun to acknowledge and embrace a broader range of texts as eligible for study in their classrooms, including those which they realised had more to do with the ordinary lives of their students, so the criteria for identifying students who might be thought of as ‘more able’ in language-related activities have also grown. Teachers are increasingly noticing students who are assured and confident film-makers and film viewers; young people in their classrooms who are ‘expert’ computer games players, with a strong knowledge of complex narratives; avid and critically discerning readers of graphic novels; young people who are wholly at home on many areas of the internet, who might even run their own websites and regularly ‘blog’. These activities have simply never been validated as being part of ‘official’ English by most English departments, yet they are patently pursuits relying on high levels of language and communication skills. I believe that teachers of English have to review fundamentally the formerly established historic characteristics of their supposed more able students, and adjust the programmes they currently offer in their classrooms.

    Throughout this book I shall refer to the ‘more able’. I believe this to be a more accurate, comfortable and helpful term to describe the sorts of student dealt with in this context. The government in England insists on labelling these young people as ‘Gifted and Talented’, although they are referred to in other terms in other parts of the British Isles. ‘Gifted’ in the government's view (apart from all the other loaded implications associated with the word) is understood to refer to those who have academic capabilities beyond age-related norms; while ‘Talented’ is a term applied to significant abilities in the creative arts, physical and musical arenas. This crude differentiation presents a multitude of problems for teachers of English, who would not, for instance, easily be able to classify an act of narrative fictional writing in the ‘academic’ or ‘creative literary arts’ categories. Just as difficult would be the demarcation of students who might thoroughly understand a scene from a play, and then perform it magnificently. ‘Gifted’ or ‘Talented’? Why have two labels, when one will do? I also believe that teachers in Wales more often refer to these students as ‘more able’, so there will be groups who identify more closely with such a designation.

    In actuality, this book is not concerned with the ‘gifted’ or ‘highly able’, those young people of exceptional ability that most teachers come across rarely, if ever at all, in their maintained school classes (although some of their needs could be met by including them in the sorts of suggested activities). My attention is fixed firmly on those students who are – by very simple definition – more able than the majority of their chronological peers. Some students have to be ‘more able’ than the others. ‘More able’, in this context, means those students who are notably comfortable in, and display high attainment in respect of, more demanding language, linguistic and literary studies.

    How to Use this Book

    This book makes a number of fundamental claims:

    • The more able students in any subject should be of major concern to their schools, and their special needs should be understood, clearly articulated and addressed.
    • More able students in English should be studying and exploring in curriculum contexts well beyond the programme required for National Curriculum compliance.
    • More able students in English should be capable of increasingly independent study and determining and pursuing their own areas of further learning.
    • More able students in English are not merely those who attain highly in examinations and tests, or who will go on to study English in Higher Education settings.
    • More able students in English will flourish in circumstances where they are encouraged to ‘personalise’ their programmes of study.
    • More able students in English require access to more than the traditional ways and resources of demonstrating their understanding, knowledge and skills, which is usually through writing.
    • Paying proper attention to more able students raises many difficult questions for teachers and schools that cannot be answered with simple solutions.
    • Paying proper attention to the needs of the more able students is an important step in raising expectations, and ultimately the academic standards of all students in the school.

    In the early years of the twenty-first century schools are, at last, being asked to pay proper attention to their more able students:

    • The government requires all mainstream maintained schools to register the names of the students identified as more able to ensure that schools will not allow them to underachieve and to ensure that they gain appropriately high examination and test grades.
    • Ofsted includes in its criteria of what distinguishes a successful school that the school should ensure its more able students succeed at levels commensurate with their abilities.
    • Enlightened school senior managers recognise that ‘inclusion’ can only become a reality if all groups of students are genuinely provided for in an equitable manner.
    • Personalisation is increasingly being regarded as a necessary direction for educational development, and the more able are being regarded as that group of students who will truly benefit from experiments with this approach.

    Yet there are few secure and straightforward sources of advice and support for teachers confronted with the requirements which stem from these new demands.

    This book is designed to raise an agenda and set some focused issues in respect of more able students in English, and offer some practical advice, based on work undertaken in classrooms and through discussion with many teachers and students. The matters raised are designed to enable teachers of English to review their practices in the light of changing demands on and in the subject, and – ultimately – to bring about improved achievement in a range of respects for more able students.

    The ideas for this book have grown over a number of years of involvement with more able language users and their teachers, in Foundation Stage, primary and secondary schools. Some ideas have emerged from working with more able students directly in their classrooms, others have developed as a result of devising and presenting many courses across the country since the early 1990s. As a local authority adviser during that period, I have enjoyed the opportunity of working alongside English departments in two shire counties and a unitary authority, in a very wide range of school backgrounds, in both the maintained and independent sectors. I am immensely grateful to a large number of teachers who have allowed me access to their students, and have also contributed to, challenged and amended the ideas I have shared.

    More recently, I have enjoyed the privilege of chairing, first, the English ‘think tank’ at the National Academy of Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY) based at the University of Warwick, and, subsequently, the English working group drawn from the original body of ‘thinkers’. These groups have been prepared to consider a radical agenda, capable of providing a much changed programme of English studies for more able students different from the historical orthodoxy. In the partly frightening and partly exciting context of subject content change and developing school reorganisation (e.g. personalisation), English teachers have a significant opportunity at this time to think beyond the many constraints and strictures that have so invasively damaged the professional involvement in and broad infrastructure of the subject since the late 1980s.

    After years of perceived, or actual, increasing centralised prescription of the contents of the English curriculum and associated methods of teaching, schools are now being encouraged to think more creatively. Primary schools received documentation in 2004 entitled Excellence and Enjoyment, urging review and reconfiguration of their learning programmes, and secondary schools are beginning to respond in similar ways. A few schools are in the process of radically adapting the organisation, accessibility and content of their provision, yet even the most cautious institutions recognise that some form of change has to be acknowledged and that all groups in the school will benefit from more focused attention. There are many suggestions about how some of those changes might be effected in different settings.

    The reader will also find advice on identification of more able students and the sorts of responsibilities and tensions such identification inevitably brings about. Identification should be a shared strategy in English departments; all the teachers involved should be confident that they have agreed criteria for recognising the wide range of factors that might qualify a student as ‘more able’. If the ways of ‘looking out for’ the more able are collaboratively agreed, there is a stronger likelihood that the individual members of the English staff will be conducting lessons in similar ways capable of supporting students to the best possible achievements. Departments not so attuned might well overlook students who do not comply with the idiosyncratic personal definitions of each separate teacher.

    Schools now have access to huge amounts of data about their pupils, and it is possible to ‘track’ all students from the earliest days of their formal education until their final examination results. More importantly, it is possible to see whether individual students have made the sorts of progress they should have done, relative to their former achievement, and that they were truly capable of making, at all stages of their education – especially in a ‘core’ subject such as English. Yet there are areas of possible progression in English not covered by examinations and tests, and teachers should be aware of ways of growing and making academic advancement in this subject beyond numerical data.

    Of course, any advice about improving the conditions, opportunities and support for more able students will not just be about raising the levels of achievement of that single group. Improvements and positive change for those young people will also influence and bring about change for all other students served by the English department or faculty. The much quoted maxim, ‘a rising tide raises all boats’, is very relevant in these circumstances. If teachers begin to think differently and more ambitiously about what their more able students might achieve, they raise the stakes for all other learners. The mainstream students can also be re-motivated and excited by seeing their more able peers bring about impressive outcomes of their study, and approach their work in a variety of unusual ways. This book, therefore, is not exclusively about the more able. It has been written to challenge a number of longstanding and apparently unproblematic routines and practices that have been common in English for up to five decades.

    Personalisation is one such example of an area of development worth exploring with more able students which has also the potential to be employed with all students in time. Because personalisation requires teachers and schools to work in unfamiliar and, in some circumstances, uncomfortable ways, it is an initiative worth exploring first with smaller groups of students who are capable of regulating their own affairs and who will probably be more highly motivated.

    Finally, this book does not claim to be exhaustive on the subject of providing for the more able in English. There are hundreds of teachers in schools across the country, already offering very worthwhile and challenging programmes of study for their ablest students, who will never employ some of the suggestions and ideas contained here because they have far better suggestions and practices of their own. It is a feature of the subject that it is capable of being approached equally effectively from a number of possible dichotomous directions. My approach is, unapologetically, mostly from a stance that Brian Cox, in his attempt to design the first national English curriculum, named as ‘cultural analysis’ (a view emphasising a critical understanding of the world in which children live, the possible ways of making meanings and the values they convey). I hope, however, that what is contained in these pages will contribute to significant discussion in some English departments and lead to focused and searching questions being raised about current provision, which might contribute to its improvement.

    Further Reading
    Cox, Brian (1991) Cox on Cox: An English Curriculum for the 1990s. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

    How to Use the CD-Rom

    The CD-Rom contains pdf files of resources from the book separated by chapter. You will need Acrobat Reader version 3 or higher to view and print these pages.

    The document is set to print at A4 but you can enlarge pages to A3 by increasing the output percentage using the page set-up settings for your printer.

    Throughout the book, you will see this CD-Rom icon used. This indicates that there is electronic material available on the CD-Rom.

    All material on this CD-Rom can be printed off and photocopied by the purchaser/user of the book. The CD-Rom itself may not be reproduced or copied in its entirety for use by others without permission from SAGE Publications. Should anyone wish to use the materials from the CD-Rom for conference purposes, they would require separate permission from us. All material is © Geoff Dean, 2008.

    CD-Rom Contents

    Graphic Novels

    Blogs in the Classroom

    Before devising your policy, do you have in place …?

    Outline Plan for School Policy for More Able/G&T Students

    Achieving the Best for More Able Students In Milton Keynes Secondary Schools: Advice to Schools – Spring 2007

    Using Bloom and the Taxonomy of Learning in English

    Alternative English Curriculum Model

    Rethinking the English Curriculum in Secondary Schools

    Long-term English Planning

    Long-term Planning Strands for Progression

    Medium-term English Planning

    Progression and Challenge for More Able Readers

    Qualities/Characteristics of the Reader

    Good Readers

    Reading is …

    Themed Book Suggestions

    Intertextual Relationships

    Rethinking the Ways of Tackling the Text

    A Framework for Looking at Texts

    Assessment of Able Readers

    Vocabulary of Learning

    Using Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning in Planning for English

    Learning in Reading

    Reflection and Self-Evaluation

    Reading Personality Questionnaire

    Able Writers' Questionnaire

    Concept Map of the Reader

    Picture Books List

    Using the Resources of the British Library Online

    Broad Booklist Suggestions

    Booklist for More Able Readers, Aged 14+

    Modern Author Study

    Recent Significant Fiction for Able Readers

    Things for the More Able to do with Rich Book Collections

    Spider Diagram – Thematically Related Texts in Different Media

    Radio in the English Classroom

    Visual Imagery and Poetry

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