Ten ideas for improving subject knowledge in an English department

With the exception of a reading list before starting my PGCE, there was little (to no) focus on subject knowledge when I trained to be an English teacher. I’m not sure that it’s indicative of the course I studied, but rather the focus on certain types of pedagogy when I trained. I was taught how to engage students, with a focus on activities rather than learning. A lot of what I have learned about texts has been self-taught, or picked up along the way, and now, as a Head of Department, I’m not happy to leave this to chance.

Last year I was on a bit of a mission to improve the subject knowledge of my team. My first year as HoD was ruined by Covid, so I wanted to make it a real focus for all of us in 2020-2021. This was rarely using official meeting time, so if you’re a Head of Department thinking “I don’t have time to focus on this”, I just think it’s one of those things you have to make the time for. The reality is that no-one wants to be bad at their job, and it’s clear that subject knowledge makes us better English teachers. After a couple of questions about department CPD, I thought it might be useful to put together 10 practical choices/strategies I have used. I’ve tweeted about a lot of these along the way, so have included some tweets – click on them to see the discussions created.

1. Start with a subject audit

When I became Head of English back in September of 2019, I started the year with a subject knowledge audit. This created a lot of useful information in about 10 minutes. The tweet below has an example of the audit I used, which is available to download on LitDrive here. This one has a focus on GCSE content.

I started by looking at the units that were coming up first, and any trends across the department. This enabled me to decide the best way to target subject knowledge at both department level and on an individual basis. It also helped me to see which areas teachers felt confident with – this would later be useful when I moved on to subject knowledge masterclass sessions. If you are not a HoD, you can still audit your own knowledge – this will help you to prioritise where you need to improve and what you might feel you can share with others.

2. Begin with easily accessible CPD

Some of the first sessions I held were just lunch time sessions where we would discuss and annotate a poem together. Often these were particularly useful for the trainees we had with us at the time, and the newly qualified teachers, but I gained a lot from listening to people talk through how they analysed ‘The Prelude’ – even though this was a poem I rated highly in my own subject knowledge audit. I originally picked things that were low across the department scores, and then just got revision guides and blank copies of the poems, and we discussed them over lunch. It was pretty casual and was not compulsory – but all of the staff who were able to would attend.

3. Giving the time and resources

Post the first lockdown, I made the decision to start an English teacher CPD library. I put a lot of my own teaching and learning books in there, but then bought what I would consider to be English subject knowledge books (thanks to anyone on Twitter who offered recommendations!) – these covered books which would support subject knowledge from KS3 through to 5. Examples of books were Norton critical editions of A Level texts, through to the Connell Guide series for things we teach at KS3 like Gothic literature. The Amazon wish list I sent to finance is still available to view here, if you’re wondering the type of things purchased.

As you can see from the tweet above, these were prepared with a note and handed out before Summer. The note explained to staff that the book was selected based on what they were teaching next year (although I looked at the subject knowledge audits for the GCSE texts) and that we would share our findings from the book on the first summer back. The expectation was that all staff read the book – this was quite different to the optional “drop-in” style used in the lunch time sessions previously.

4. Focus on knowledge nuggets

The summer passed and I read the Connell guide to Atonement which I gained a lot from. On our return, I started the first session of INSET with asking teachers to fill in the sheet given to them. The idea was that they gave a short overall review of the book – who it might be useful for, what the focus of the book is etc, and then explained three knowledge nuggets they took from the book.

We then went around everyone and just shared the new knowledge. This took a lot of INSET time, but it was incredibly valuable, and so interesting. I wanted one person’s gain in knowledge to kind of snowball around the whole department, and then grow, as another person shared some ideas. The second purpose was that people would get interested in each other’s books – in particular the Arden Shakespeare Macbeth was very popular after the nuggets shared were particularly interesting. See below some examples of the sheets.

5. Utilise internal and external expertise

I’ve mentioned on Twitter before that we’ve had lecturers from our local university and our history department carry out high level lectures for our students. These have always gone down well and been an extra-curricular activity with a tangible impact on student progress. However, I think what gets forgotten about these sessions, is that teachers gain a lot from them too. I gained so much from the history teacher lecture about poverty in Victorian England that I now use every time I teach A Christmas Carol, and I know others did too.

6. Watch videos individually/ collectively

We have watched a LitDrive video over lunch and discussed our thoughts – these are great to use as they are only 25 minutes, but still feel like you gain a lot from them. We also subscribe to Massolit for students as well as staff. Before a department meeting, I asked staff to watch a video of their choice, and then, much like with the books, I asked them to record what they took from the video. This again was designed to have the impact of encouraging others to watch the videos mentioned to them, but again generated some interesting discussions around texts. The form I used to record their thoughts is below

7. As confidence grows, begin masterclasses

My next aim was to use the subject knowledge audits combined with improved subject knowledge to get staff to lead subject knowledge sessions. Unfortunately, the 2021 lockdown and then CAGs put this on hold – although our NQT decided to run a subject knowledge session as part of a task that was given to her by the NQT lead. She talked about act 4, scene 3 of Macbeth, having watched a LitDrive CPD session. She used about 10 minutes before we started an intense standardisation session to talk through some high level ideas about the scene. It’s definitely something I want to continue doing, with the time to do so, and the confidence from individuals to share!

8. Encourage chunked reading

We have access to JStor, and I did share some journals prior to some of the poetry sessions we did. However, there are so many great subject knowledge blogs available, often written by teachers for teachers, and so these are great to share with staff, along with British Library articles and any other chunked reading. I share a fortnightly newsletter, and on this I include a suggested read that ties in to what we are doing. Sometimes they are focused on pedagogy or curriculum, but often they are subject knowledge articles tied into what is currently or about to be taught. Timing is everything here – if reading something might have an impact on a lesson within the week, it seems like a good use of time. A couple of examples from previous newsletters are shown below.

9. Even a little time is enough

It’s easy to think that there’s not enough time for subject knowledge development, but the reality i, it’s a lot quicker and easier to prepare than the implementation of a new pedagogical approach. Sometimes in fact it can take no planning at all – just printing an extract, and everyone sharing what they would cover with the class, and each person annotating it, can be a useful exercise. Little and often is better than never, and sometimes it’s just about making the time for everyone, and using the wisdom of the whole team, in order to constantly develop subject knowledge.

10. Keep the cycle going

Finally, I think it’s important to keep things accessible and maintain momentum. I’ll be honest that the whole CAG/TAG process killed the focus for me, and whilst staff said it would be great to read books over summer again and share ideas, I felt strongly that I didn’t want that to be an expectation again following the term from actual hell! However, the books remain available, I’ve kept up with the Massolit subscription for the whole school, and I continue to share articles on the department newsletter. And I have a few ideas about how to renew the focus this year, once we are fully back into the swing of things!

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