For some time, I’d been thinking about how KS3 English could be approached through a fresh lens; one that equipped students with the core skills of comprehension, knowledge regarding the language and structure of texts, and plentiful writing opportunities – all wrapped up in thematic packages that would allow students to develop over time.

In my role as principal examiner for the foundation tier, I’d been involved in the development of the new GCSE English language exam for one of the major exam boards, through which I developed a GCSE (9–1) exam practice textbook for Collins.

I wanted to establish a clear methodology for GCSE English students, in which success would be achieved by directly targeting assessment objectives and alleviating what I considered to be its greatest myths.

The myths in question are those things that cause the least confident students to become anxious or disengaged – that there ‘isn’t a right or wrong answer’; that ‘the marking of English is subjective’; and that ‘you can’t revise for English. GCSE at KS3

Almost as soon as the textbook was published, I began to hear that some schools were so concerned about the demands of the new specification that they had started teaching the relevant texts right from Y7.

My thoughts therefore turned to KS3, and how could we seamlessly embed the skills required for the new KS4 without repeating texts, while opening up opportunities for more breadth and enrichment.

The vision for the Reimagine Key Stage 3 English project began to emerge after I returned to KS3 teaching as a head of department. I’d been disappointed to learn that prior my arrival, students had essentially commenced their GCSE course from Y7.

This prompted me to initially implement my GCSE methodology with the Y10 and Y11 cohorts I’d inherited, but also find ways of rolling this back into KS3.

That way, once students came to KS4, the key methods would already be securely in place. They would only need to practice and apply them to the specific questions on the language paper, and the essay tasks on the literature papers.

This also meant that my students would have extensive experience of a range of texts, around which they could build cultural capital, before tackling the increased rigour of the new specifications.

At KS4, we could thus focus on building confidence in approaching unseen material, develop students’ writing skills and really enjoy the study of the literature texts, knowing that every student would have clear methods for addressing the exam tasks already in place.

Varied texts

So it was that long before Ofsted frowned upon the practice, I removed all references to KS4 from KS3. With the GCSE so prescriptive, and with such little room for coursework, KS3 can become this magical opportunity for departments to really make the most of those three years, by providing a varied, diverse and broad learning experience.

For each year group I introduced a work of modern prose, a collection of poetry and a Shakespeare text – one that we definitely wouldn’t be studying for GCSE. But there was something missing.

I proceeded to devise a project for each year group, based on an overarching theme. For example, the theme ‘ How We Treat Others ’ came about in the course of us looking at The Diary of Anne Frank for our prose study, a collection of war poetry spanning WWI to the present day, and The Merchant of Venice in Y8.

The projects I created represented a half term of work, alongside my other texts and study.

Slowly, the vision of a wider resource emerged – one that could be used in each term, or in a differentiated way, to underpin teaching at KS3 and introduce clear methodologies from the very start of Y7 for all students, irrespective of the skill they brought with them from primary.

It was out of this that Reimagine Key Stage 3 English began to take form. While developing the idea for Collins, I came to the conclusion that each project should contain some 19th century prose and some classic poetry, which would lead into some creative writing.

The focus would then shift to 19th century non-fiction, since I knew this to be a source of anxiety for many colleagues.

We would then link in some modern non-fiction, and finish with some discursive writing. These projects weren’t intended to be just about imparting comprehension and analytical skill, though; I wanted each project to contain a range of texts on a key theme to build contextual knowledge and cultural capital in a subtle way, rather than through ‘bolt-on’ quasi-history lessons.

This is just my personal view, but for me, nothing kills a text more quickly than starting it with three weeks on ‘ The Life of Dickens ’! Advice from examination boards for many years has been to similarly avoid this approach when it comes to essays.

Contextual understanding should always emerge from the study of the text – not the other way round.

Literacy attainment – Transformative results

So what of the results? Within my own department, we saw students becoming very confident with AO1 comprehension methods by the start of Y8, confident with AO2 analytical methods by Y9, and able to build longer, essay-type responses before embarking on GCSE course content.

Even with a wide range of abilities and a high number of EAL students, we still saw a clear increase in our

GCSE exam performance, compared to similar centres. Following the publication of the resource last summer, we’ve received some amazing feedback from teachers.

It seems that the highly structured and well-planned lessons have been a boon for busy departments during periods of lockdown learning. After all, the planning is done, the sequencing is meaningful and the projects are differentiated.

More than that, though, it seems the Reimagine Key Stage 3 English resource has also lent itself really well to online delivery. Each lesson has an accompanying PowerPoint, and every worksheet is fully downloadable for easy submission by students to platforms such Teams and Google Classroom.

Our lesson plans are sufficiently detailed that they can be readily used by non-specialists, or perhaps in tandem with tutors helping to provide interventions. Heads of Department can meanwhile feel confident that pupils are experiencing consistency.

As a writing team, we’re proud to have been able to support remote learning in such a way – something which has been a real bonus, on top of our original intent.

7 key ingredients that make up Reimagine Key Stage 3

  • Flexibility:
    can be used before, or alongside a class reader to complement its themes and ideas
  • Supportive:
    ideally suited to differentiated teaching and class cover involving non-specialist teachers
  • Rich and varied:
    utilises a selection of texts that are age appropriate, linked to theme and which have word counts that build reading stamina over the course of the Key Stage
  • Stepped approach:
    involves the study of three projects in each year group, based around a common ‘introducing’, ‘developing’ and ‘securing’ structure
  • Detail:
    includes sequenced lesson plans that contain clear objectives, suggested answers and timings
  • Well designed:
    supporting materials that include friendly worksheets, as well as PowerPoint presentations containing tasks, modelling, key exposition and colour images
  • Student friendly:
    progress trackers to help students identify skills they have acquired and reflect on their understanding

Jo Heathcote is an experienced teacher of English based in Manchester, as well as a former principal examiner for a major examine board, principal moderator and author of numerous textbooks and study guides.