Why Key Stage 3 English really matters

David Grant, full-time writer and consultant, and former Head of English explains that, by getting Key Stage 3 right, we can set students on the path to international GCSE success. The international GCSE years of Key Stage 4 are important. We all know that they...


David Grant, full-time writer and consultant, and former Head of English explains that, by getting Key Stage 3 right, we can set students on the path to international GCSE success.

The international GCSE years of Key Stage 4 are important. We all know that they can determine students’ entire futures. Oh, and we’re sure the Primary Years of Key Stages 1 and 2 are pretty important as well. It’s there that the foundations of learning are laid. And then, in between, lies the sometimes forgotten no-man’s land of Key Stage 3… This is where… er… well, what?

What exactly is the point of Key Stage 3?

The fact is that Key Stages 1, 2 3 and 4 are as key as each other. But the neglect of Key Stage 3 makes getting it right even more important. It’s where we have to build on the primary years and fire students into their international GCSEs at the very top of their game.

On our first sight of a new intake of Year 7, we hope for students able to read and write and spell and punctuate with some accuracy. We hope for students with a growing vocabulary. We hope for students that can engage with texts and are beginning to respond to them.

Three years later we demand students who can respond in depth and detail to texts – and write texts that engage and produce a significant response in readers, whether moving or persuading or informing them. It’s a steep stairway we expect students to climb. So it’s vital that we engage students, help them to build confidence in their skills, and confidence that they can build those skills, teaching competence to build confidence –  to light their way up those stairs.

So how do we build a curriculum that helps students climb that stairway?

Naturally, we must expose students to a wide variety of texts from poetry to short stories to persuasive advertisements to informative leaflets etc etc. Clearly, they must be given the opportunity to write exciting stories, empowering articles and engaging information texts. Yet the opportunity to practise and consolidate skills already acquired is not enough.

If you keep asking students to do the same thing, they may make marginal improvements but it is only with explicit focus on specific skills that you can develop the skills that make better readers and writers. If you ask a bad carpenter to make you a table, you won’t be surprised when it turns out to be a bad table. If you keep asking that same carpenter to make you a table, they won’t get any better. You will end up with a lot of bad tables.

Your carpenter won’t get any better just by being told to improve. Perhaps they need to be shown a great table – and helped to see how that great table was made. Perhaps they need to be shown how to use a saw or a hammer – and how not to. Perhaps they need to be taught the different ways in which one piece of wood can be attached to another – the tools they’ll need for each one – and which method is most effective for building a table, and for other, different projects.

Creating an effective Key Stage 3 English course

To create an effective Key Stage 3 English course – like Inspire English – we have to take the same approach. Telling students to choose the right words and put them in the right order isn’t enough – just as telling the carpenter to put a flat piece of wood on top of four upright bits of wood is unlikely to succeed. Students need to understand how to structure a text, how to build and gather the vocabulary they will need, how to select and position that vocabulary for effect, and how their reader might respond to it. In other words, knowing it’s important to do it isn’t enough. You need to know and be taught how. And when students know how it works, they can begin to understand why it works.

This is the key to getting skills embedded and making them retrievable – making them more than a rote checklist task of jobs, forgotten as soon as the checklist is out of sight. To take a very familiar example, it is worthless teaching students to scatter rhetorical questions, alliteration and repetition through an argument text like confetti. But teaching students how to use these rhetorical devices, to understand the effect they can have, and so be more able to identify when they want to create that effect and whether they have achieved it, is invaluable.

Inspire English is built on this premise of explicit modelling, explicit teaching and explicit learning – not by osmosis, but by example.

Moreover, returning to those skills again and again in a variety of contexts is vital in embedding and securing them more deeply, embedding understanding of the impact that the writing choices we make can have, and the responses we have to texts and how writers can and have achieved them. If students have secured these skills in one context, and are supported in applying them in others, their toolbox begins to fill up and their competence in using those tools begins to grow.

Getting Key Stage 3 English right

If we can get Key Stage Three English right – setting our and students’ expectations as high as they must be to get them up the stairway from Year 7 to Year 9 – then International GCSE English will just be another step upwards on that brightly-lit stairway, and not a leap in the dark.


About the author

David Grant is a full time writer and consultant, and former Head of English. He is the author of Pearson’s Inspire English International series.

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