One of our favourite things is when we are asked to visit a school to help shape their English curriculum. This is an enjoyable task for many reasons: it allows us to recommend texts that we believe will both engage and stimulate young minds, whilst supporting teachers to cover the requirements of the Primary English Programme of Study; it gives us an opportunity to suggest some of our favourite children's literature - always chosen on merit, be it a significant author or laureate, award-winning novel, novella, picture book (sometimes wordless!) or just a stone-cold classic; it challenges us to think about progression of texts and to consider what children's books we would have want to have been exposed to ourselves at school; and often (more and more so in fact) it pushes us to begin to group these books together into when and where and how they might sit as a collection of texts and sequences across a term, a year, a phase and a key stage.
Those of you who have attended one of our training courses will have undoubtedly heard us discuss the merits of such preempt and forward planning: the opportunity to craft a programme of study around a progression of literature; the chance to carefully consider the content and subject matter; the option to match texts to events within and across the year. However, you will have therefore heard us champion the need to always go in text first rather than slotting texts around predefined topics or links to other subjects (humanities are often the driver here). In a world where book-led curricula are (thankfully) becoming more and more prevalent, it is vital that the quality of the text is put on show here and the other curriculum areas follow-suit, slotting in and around where they naturally fit. Where we have been asked to recommend texts that match generalised topic areas (pirates, Tudors, Volcanoes), the choice of text can sometimes become tenuous and forced as we scramble for books chosen for their historical or geographical context.
So text-first is our recommendation. However what we would advocate more is to explore the thinking behind how really meaningful connections between groups of literary works can be made. We believe that where children are given the opportunity to investigate, interrogate and think critically about literature, the very best way to do this is to think about some of the literary themes that are woven through and across them. In fact, the Primary Programme of Study is quite clear about children needing to think thematically when it comes to texts (and we can't help but think this a very good thing indeed)! Themes are an interesting way into and through a text and our engaging starting points when planning sequences often - if not always - begin with the theme, for example Black Dog, the beautiful (and award-winning) book by Levi Pinfold, is a text we always begin by discussing and ranking our fears. This theme is then revisited throughout a sequence of sessions and once more at the end.
So what should our starting point be when thinking about a thematic curriculum. Well, themes are prevalent in the best works of literature and some are definitely more 'child-friendly' than others. We like to use themes such as 'Heroes and Villains' in Key Stage One as it lends itself to so many texts that explore the power of good versus bad as well as giving us freedom to discuss heroes (and superheroes!) in our own lives, interrogating texts such as 'Send for a Superhero and 'I Want My Hat Back'. At Lower Key Stage Two, we love using 'Invention and Innovation' as books like 'FArTHER' and 'Until I Met Dudley' (as well as a dozen others we could name!) fit into the theme beautifully. In Upper Key Stage Two, we can get more literary still and explore 'Ambition and Desire' whilst exploring such texts as 'The Man Who Walked Between the Towers' and 'King Kong'.
In thinking in this way, we are not necessarily suggesting that you need to throw out any current themes and start afresh. Sometimes stepping back from chosen topics and thinking more broadly can pay dividends - taking a step back from 'Volcanoes' and considering 'Natural Disasters' or even 'Disaster and Resolution' can open the theme and links therein even further, allowing children a whole new way to explore a text. Moving away from a historical topic (often the most restrictive when it comes to choosing a quality text) such as 'Romans' and instead investigating 'Cities and Civilisations' or even 'Exploration and Discovery' can open up the choice of texts and you may end up stumbling upon such gems as 'Weslandia' which would fit such a theme perfectly.
Of course thinking in themes doesn't automatically shield us from making the wrong decisions about text, and we should always begin with a book of quality and make a choice based on knowledge of our children and their interests, and we certainly wouldn't want themes and texts to remain set-in-stone for evermore - keeping it fresh is key to maintaining engagement. However, thinking in this way can open up both our own and our children's minds when it comes to planning sequences of work, and when considering the depth with which we are able to interrogate the texts we have chosen for them. Thinking thematically really does open up a whole new world of possibilities.
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