KS3 text choices for English Literature

Time for a Change? Why refreshing KS3 text choices should be your priority this summer

How often do you review your KS3 text choices?

End Sexism in School’s research into what is being taught in our English classrooms at KS3 and KS4 has revealed that not only are women and people from minoritised ethnicities either invisible or victims in the texts we teach, but that the pool of texts being taught to young people is vanishingly small.

Most KS3 pupils are taught from a selection of five novels:

  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens,
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck,
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding,
  • The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne and
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell.

The vast majority will only ever study a Shakespeare play. Those who do study another playwright will probably read An Inspector Calls by J B Priestley, or Blood Brothers by Willy Russell.

At KS4, the options are even more limited. Over 70% of all pupils are taught A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (some for the second time, as so many also study it in Year 7) and 80% are taught An Inspector Calls by J B Priestley.

So what can we do about it?

Well, as we near the summer holidays and start to think ahead to next year, we can all think seriously about our KS3 text choices, and whether it’s time for a change.

  • What beliefs are we holding that lead us to think we must teach a nineteenth century novel at KS3?
  • Why do we think A Christmas Carol or Of Mice and Men are superior to any other novel we might teach at this age?
  • Are we really convinced of their innate pedagogical value, or are we teaching them because we always have done, or maybe because someone influential has told us we should?
  • Do we really think these novels offer pupils something no other novels can? What would happen if we didn’t teach them?
  • What opportunities might we open up if we taught entirely different novels, about entirely different topics?

Choosing a new KS3 English Literature text

So what criteria might be helpful to use when choosing a new KS3 English Literature text?

For KS3 pupils, in my view, the main goal of reading a text should be to develop their enjoyment of and engagement with literature. I came to the conclusion after my first year of teaching that the best novels to teach my classes were ones that they would find unputdownable.

Books with characters they could care about, fast-paced and intriguing plots, a setting that offers a window into a world different to their own, and moral dilemmas they could both relate to and enjoy debating. The writing should be of good quality, of course, with plenty of opportunity for pupils to learn about how writers use language and structure for effect. But the language itself shouldn’t get in the way of pupils’ ability to enjoy what they’re reading.

Promoting inclusivity and diversity in KS3 text choices

Engaging pupils with their reading also requires us to carefully consider who is writing the texts we’re asking them to read, and who those texts feature.

Inclusivity should be at the heart of what we choose to teach, but the evidence shows that the overwhelming diet of literature in our schools is written by white men, and about white men. Over 50% of children and young people in our classrooms are female, and for many of us teaching in urban areas, a majority of the children in our classrooms are from minoritised ethnicities.

How can we ensure that all pupils see themselves reflected in what they read, and we don’t continue to perpetuate the damaging beliefs that only male and white voices matter?

A new KS3 text can be a reminder of why you love English Literature

I know how exhausted we all feel at this time of year, and thinking about developing a new curriculum and teaching a new text can often feel overwhelming or impossible on top of everything else there is to do.

However, finding new texts to teach is a great way to reinvigorate your love of the subject, and, creating new curriculum materials livens and shakes up your teaching, giving you the chance to try out new activities and methodologies. A change is often as good as a rest!

Moreover, it helps us to reconnect with why we became teachers in the first place. We didn’t become teachers to perpetuate outdated ideals and limit children’s experiences of the world. Amidst the drudgery of the day to day, we have to remember why it is we’re here: to inspire, to illuminate, to broaden and to connect. We can’t do this if we teach material that does the opposite.

Inspiration and resources for KS3 English literature texts

If you need help finding a new KS3 text to try, a great place to start is by reading the Carnegie prize shortlist. If you have a school librarian, check with them what’s proving popular, or pop into a local bookshop and see what’s flying off the shelves in the YA section.

#EduTwitter is also a fantastic resource. Asking teachers what’s working for them often results in a long list of options to try.

What’s more, on the End Sexism in Schools website, you’ll find schemes of work and resources for several exciting novels by and about women. The work has already been done for you, so why not give one of these a go?

We’re adding more content all the time, so do keep checking back. You can also read my article from NATE’s Teaching English magazine, which gives more ideas for new texts to try at KS3.

Rachel Fenn
Rachel Fenn
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