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Alignment across History and English: surely a good thing?

A few years ago my colleague in English Richard Gleig mentioned the benefits of cross-curricular alignment. We spoke about it then, but did very little to see any kind of plan come to fruition. In actuality, his curriculum was in a far stronger state than my own, and the idea of alignment felt like a daunting prospect that I wasn’t ready for (I was also desperate not to let Richard down by failing to adequately deliver on my side of the bargain). In fact, at the time I simply assumed that the vocabulary and grammatical skill of students taught in Richard’s English class would spill over into my History class. We were, after all, talking and writing in the same language, and the analytical skills and rich vocabulary appeared conveniently transferrable. Lucky me, I thought.

Sadly, however, the mind doesn’t work like that. As Daniel Willingham (2009) points out, “students are often unable to transfer knowledge from one area to another.” Which is why all those years ago Richard’s English students wrote with a precision and fluency that never manifested in rich historical writing in my own classroom. In fact, the very act of knowledge transfer is a sign of a deep and robust understanding (Barnett and Ceci (2002) call it the hallmark of “true learning), not some easy-to-master skill that we can lazily rely on. To assume it will take place without deliberate planning is wishful thinking.

Years later and Richard and I are once again talking about alignment across English and History. This time, however, we are both in a far stronger position (insofar as we are both in the process of fairly major curriculum redevelopment), and the stakes are higher (in that we are now involved in trust-wide curriculum projects). And so therefore this time, we are taking things a little more seriously.

Alongside the Oasis National Curriculum Lead for English, Josie Sacks, we have been considering what the benefits of alignment might be – and, indeed, what this might look like. The common theme here is that the team at OCL English is incredibly strong, and in most cases I am talking about bringing History in line with a set of practices already commonplace in English. As far as we see them, the benefits look something like this.

Vocabulary instruction

I have already written about robust vocabulary instruction and the potential for its success in the History classroom. One of the keys to embedding new vocabulary into a student’s lexicon is to demand the use of these words in transferrable settings. Imagine, then, that a collection of tier 2 words are identified in tandem with the English department and assigned to specific units and terms. Transferability, in this sense, becomes pre-ordained, and the development of student vocabulary a feature of the school curricula.

Our English department have been using versatile vocabulary lists that are, in some cases, actually far more relevant to studying English than History. But in most instances, the words satisfy much of what I would look for when considering new vocabulary to teach in that they are; words that our students are unlikely to come across in their everyday experiences, words that are clearly diverse and transferrable (and capable of being used in multiple contexts), and words which carry with them what Beck, Mckeown and Kucan (2013) call a “constellation of understandings and experiences.” The type of words that have the power to alter the way children see and think about different topics.

So a situation where vocabulary lists are built collaboratively across both History and English is not particularly farfetched. These words could be deliberately taught using similar modes of instruction, at similar times, but in different settings. A student would be able to both describe the volatility of the Gods in an English units on Greek myths, while also expressing the apparent volatility of the Anglo-Saxon population beneath their newly Norman rulers. With the planning done in advance, entire vocabulary banks could be built that we would expect all students in year 7, year 8, year 9 etc. to know and use. We could reasonably demand the continued use of these words as students progress through school, allowing for a progression in both student expression and modes of thinking.

The model I use for vocabulary is taken from one that Richard and Josie have put together for OCL English (though they teach binary couplets and they have already mapped out 5 years worth of powerful words). This example is obviously for GCSE content, but the idea is clear. Such words have power in both subjects, and we shouldn’t miss the opportunity that is provided by teaching them across both contexts.

Writing instruction

I have written  a fair amount about the benefits of direct writing instruction. Though my interest in this topic was born out of a deep frustration with inadequate student writing at A Level, the practical guidance on how to address this issue was provided by the genius of Josie and Richard. It is their writing curriculum that I have amended to suit a History setting, and it is their model of instruction regarding grammatical structures that I find so exciting.

If you are interested in seeing what this might look like, then you can find the original post here. For now, however, a quick note on why an aligned writing curriculum at KS3 would hold enormous benefits. Firstly, the work that Richard and Josie have put into this writing curriculum is astonishing. The sequencing is both ambitious and inclusive, and the aim is clear. By equipping students with the requisite grammatical tools to write analytically and persuasively, we are preparing our students to answer any question type, across any subject. Writing becomes a decision-making process where students have agency to move beyond pre-defined structures. As such, I think alignment makes total sense at KS3. In this model, all year 7 students are introduced to subordinate conjunctions at the same time, before all year 7 students move on to noun appositives. It goes without saying that by focussing student writing on single grammatical structures across two core subjects, the cognitive load placed on them is dramatically lowered, and the prospect of mastery considerably increased.

The attached model is my attempt to map a conventional History curriculum onto the grammar curriculum created by Richard and Josie. As such, their writing curriculum is identical in terms of sequencing, but applied to an English context. If you subscribe to the Hochman method, then aligning explicit grammatical instruction in this way doubles the prospect of producing students who write with confidence and fluency.

Below is an example of how we might take the writing curriculum and put it into action. As above, I have amended this specific episode of writing instruction to follow the exact format of an English lesson. In this case, Richard and Josie have once again thought hard about the most straightforward and deliberate way to teach this stuff (in this case the teaching of subordinate clauses to year 7). If I want students to use this structure, and want to see the long-term writing curriculum come to fruition, then visual and instructional alignment with English makes total sense. In the same week, students may come across the same visual guide, and go through the same practice, but in different contexts. The burden on cognitive load is reduced and – again – I double my prospects of mastery. Transferability becomes a feature of the curriculum.

Topic alignment

Finally, I think there is real scope to achieve some form of topic alignment across both subjects. When Richard first approached me regarding alignment, his feeling was that minor changes in sequencing could have a significant impact on both subjects. Why, for instance, was the poetry of Wilfred Owen being taught at a time when students had not yet studied the First World War in History? And surely the comprehensive understanding of Dickensian social inequality garnered from a unit on Oliver Twist could provide a stable platform of knowledge upon which a historical study of the industrial revolution could build? In effect, symbiosis (where possible, and never forced) across both subjects was something that seemed self-evident.  

In our current context, this is made all the more achievable by the fact that, in Richard’s own words, the English curriculum has essentially “been planned historically.” As such each year is both thematic and chronological – the historical context provides the roots of the analysis. And while there will no doubt be many instances where chronological alignment across both disciplines makes little sense, there will equally be opportunities to move students beyond the often shallow knowledge they acquire from learning in a single context, towards a deeper, richer understanding of time and place.

Years on from when Richard first broached the topic with me, and I think that we (and now Josie) are even more interested in this idea. A curriculum should weave a narrative and take students on a journey across the very best our subjects have to offer. But where that journey can run in line with another curricular voyage – to the benefit of both subjects – I think we should allow this to happen. In fact, there are times when I think we should deliberately plan it into our long-term curriculum design.

Final thoughts

I have tried to map out why I think a degree of alignment across both English and History makes sense from a curricular standpoint. And in effect, I think one could easily summarise the benefits as follows. If we accept that we want students to leave year 11 with a deep and meaningful vocabulary that can be used with power and precision, with an understanding of how to craft brilliant analytical essays, and with the type of rich contextual understanding that allows them to flourish at A Level, then the work starts in year 7, and the work is made twice as easy if alignment is accepted and embraced.



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