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We’ve teamed up with teacher and podcaster Craig Barton to create a podcast series which lifts the lid on how exams are developed.

Find out how exam questions are created, discover what happens behind the scenes at AQA, and get to the heart of the latest issues as teachers bring us their stories and experiences, direct from the classroom.

Listen to every episode right here, or on your favourite podcast app. Then be sure to come back and check out the extra resources complementing each of the main episodes.

© AQA 2019

De-icing with death and Jane Eyre’s flamingos

Bonus: Episode 1
Published: 2 May 2019

Learn how assumptions over the humour or literary references students will follow, can sometimes be way off the mark.

AQA Head of Curriculum for English, Deborah Pearson discusses the importance of cultural capital when studying texts and explains how effective back planning can help students untangle a text from its context.

Featured in this podcast

Deborah Pearson – AQA Head of Curriculum for English

Hi, I am Deborah Pearson, I am Head of Curriculum English for AQA. I am talking to you today about the concept of cultural capital and what it means in the context of education and, specifically, in the context of English teaching. It is probably a good idea to start with the theory and where the concept emerges from.

So, what is cultural capital? Well, it was a term coined the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu in the 1950s and it deals with the idea of students’ backgrounds and their experiences from a particular social class, or a particular knowledge and educational curriculum, that gives them access to a wealth of information that allows connections to be made, particularly when studying texts.

In terms of the English Curriculum we work in an environment where texts are unseen for English Language and whole texts for English Literature. There are a broad range of texts that students are assessed on in exams. So, in that challenging context and particularly the context of whole texts, including 19th century texts for literature, students need increasingly, a broad set of cultural experiences to comfortably and confidently access texts in their learning and exams.

Often the barrier isn’t a case of being unable to decode the words on the page, but it comes from a lack of knowledge about, or familiarity with, subject matter and this can position students as either insiders or outsiders, privy to that knowledge.

And so, the theory of cultural capital suggests that by equipping students with broad, cultural knowledge and experiences, we put them at an advantage in terms of them being able to engage with text in an exam context.

I was at a meeting recently and one teacher asked, “Is cultural capital even a thing now?” and we talked about how, in the teaching community, the English teaching community, cultural capital is intrinsically linked to the study of GCSE English Literature. It is intrinsically linked to the assessment objectives and the skills that they represent.

So, students will need to understand more than one layer of meaning, if their response is going to show more than limited understanding or awareness of methods. But, obviously, in a school context there is only so much we can do.

If broad cultural knowledge benefits all students in their study of English literature, what can we do in a school context? We can’t compensate for a student’s home or family life and the context they’re in, but we can make sure that we take an approach of 'intelligent backward planning'.

If we think about Amanda Spielman’s recent statement in 2017, Amanda Spielman talks about 'intelligent backward planning' in order to achieve a coherent curriculum sequence from age 11 to 16. And, this shouldn’t come at the expense of the Key Stage 3 curriculum breadth and depth.

Key Stage 3 is a great opportunity to provide students with an introduction to stories that are full of allusions to myths, Biblical tales, legends, for example. And, in doing so, students will then have a background, in this particular example.

So that when they come to study, for example, Shakespeare or modern prose such as Lord of the Flies, the Biblical references, the references and allusions to myths and legends, will be recognised by students because they will have prior knowledge that they can activate from their learning at Key Stage 3.

Such knowledge can also be useful for the unseen texts at GCSE English Language as well. So being able to pick up on the implicit meanings, the associations, references and allusion and make connections, that’s a useful skill for GCSE English Language too.

We can’t assume anything about a student’s upbringing and their exposure to a variety of different reference text types and many texts that we study in GCSE English Literature make references to objects and animals that are an everyday part of the UK and British culture.

But, if a student misses those allusions, they might be able to make comments at a certain level about what they’ve understood from the text, but we want students to be able to respond in a way that shows they have a deeper understanding and meaning that’s shared. A deeper understanding of the references that are given.

So, for example, if we think about texts such as Jane Eyre and we think about ornithological references, birds are used often in literature to help convey meaning and to help give emphasis and to help sort of make links and give associations. Shakespeare’s plays are full of references to falconry, for example. So, if students don’t have an understanding of falconry terms, they’re going to miss out on the allusions that were intended to inform the reader.

If we think about birds in terms of used as an aid to plot, theme or character description, a student’s interpretation is going to be limited if they aren’t aware of the specific bird referenced. So, the example of Jane Eyre then, if you think about an extract from Jane Eyre, where Jane visits Mr Rochester at Ferndean. After spending a night at Ferndean, Jane goes out to meet Mr Rochester in the grounds.

Just to quote an extract from Jane Eyre, “Oh, you are indeed there, my skylark! Come to me, you are not gone: not vanished? I heard one of your kind an hour ago singing high over the wood, but its song had no meaning for me, any more than the rising sun had rays. All the melody on earth is concentrated in my Jane’s tongue to my ear. I am glad it is not naturally a silent one. All the sunshine I can feel is in her presence. The water stood in my eyes to hear this avowal of his dependence. Just as if a royal eagle, chained to a perch, should be forced to entreat a sparrow to become its purveyor.”

You would assume that students would understand the reference of skylark, eagle and sparrow. But, we have to ask ourselves have students ever seen those birds? Have they seen the size of them, have they seen them fly and are they aware of the connotations of each type of bird in that extract?

In an extreme case, if a student recognises the names of the species of birds as birds, but doesn’t understand the connotations and, instead in their own mind, replaces those species with birds that they are familiar with, so instead of sparrow, eagle and skylark, perhaps replaces it with a mocking jay, a pigeon and a flamingo. It changes the meaning of the text completely and this will interfere with, it will hinder the student’s interpretation of the extract.

So, we can’t stop-start teach all the time and throughout literature, keep pausing and explaining different references, but what we can do, is think about what it is that we are going to choose as our text at Key Stage 4, from the choices that are given and backward plan, and think about what we’re going to teach in Key Stage 3.

If we think about prior knowledge, there was a report by the Education Endowment Foundation in 2017, called Improving Literacy In Key Stage 2 and it focused about linking to prior knowledge, making personal connections, and that leads to strength in terms of students’ ability to interpret the text that they are presented with.

So, a quote from the report says that, “Pupils think about what they already know about a topic from reading or from other experiences, and they try to make links. This helps pupils to infer and elaborate, fill in missing or incomplete information and use existing mental structures to support recall.”

If we think about a great example that was provided recently in one of our hub activities, we gave the example of where students were introduced to the poem Vultures by Chinua Achebe. And, we thought about the example because it was a good example of how cultural capital was needed to understand the poem. And students were given a full version of the poem and asked to blank out all the words that they didn’t understand.

And it became evident to the teacher that her class, in the main, had very little understanding of what a vulture was and, therefore, had blanked out many words in the poem that referred to the bird of prey, including the title itself.

So we have to consider how difficult it would be to study that particular poem because of the lack of cultural context necessary to understand the allusions and the connections and the associations within it – it’s impossible.

So again, using that imagery of birds, vultures, it was really important for the teacher to introduce what a vulture was, what it stood for and represented, in order then, for students to make connections in the poem and have some basic understanding of the poem. Then link it to experiences and associations that might be relevant in terms of the universal human condition.

A friend of mine in the north east told a great joke, or she thought it was great at least. It goes like this. ‘I went to my car one frosty morning. The car was covered in frost. Next to the car there was a figure dressed in black, holding a scythe. A grim figure. And I realised, as I started to scrape the ice off my car, that I was de-icing with death’.

The students, of course, that she told this joke to, didn’t understand the humour. They didn’t recognise the allusion to the figure. The traditional figure of death cloaked in black holding a scythe, and they didn’t have the experience of de-icing a car. So, the connection of de-icing with death just was lost on them. It’s a great example, really of context in terms of just general life experience.

So in terms of wider cultural knowledge and experience, what can we do to help? What can teachers do to help and how can we achieve a broader cultural knowledge that benefits all students in their study of English literature and language?

Some ideas are very practical and free, which are accessing the British Library. The British Library has a great bank of resources that provide context to a whole range of literature.

In terms of funding cuts, we know that schools do struggle to fund activities, but you know, the experience of going to see a Shakespearian play is so valuable. Some students will never get the opportunity to visit the theatre. So, if that can happen at Key Stage 3, that’s a great thing to offer for students.

Taking students to museums. Many students won’t set foot inside a museum, but most museums offer free tours and guides for schools to focus on particular pieces of work.

The same with art galleries as well. You know, each picture tells a story and if you take students to a local gallery, there’s bound to be a curator who can tell the story behind the images in the picture and the connotations of the symbols in the pictures that are captured. So, that’s well worthwhile doing, and most often that’s free too.

Other things that are free and that are easy to do within school, set up a culture club. So, a club where students have access to quality newspapers, films that you might wish to show students and discussion and debate about topical subjects and use examples of materials that support those debates.

Using project approaches. So, asking students to do a research topic that give a broad understanding of the world. We touched on the idea of birds, ask students, as a homework task, to product a research project on maybe a subject like birds which you know birds are going to be important, certainly in literature, if you’re studying Shakespeare, falconry as we said. Whatever it might be.

Going back to Amanda Spielman’s suggested 'intelligent backward planning', what happens at Key Stage 3 is really important for the body of knowledge that a child needs so that they can flourish in the future at Key Stage 4.

So, thinking about the Key Stage 3 curriculum and using backward planning to design the curriculum so that, in the future, students can tap into prior knowledge and remember, with fondness and excitement, what it was they studied at Key Stage 3 and make links with the texts they're studying in Key Stage 4.

The National Association For The Teaching of English annual conference has a workshop called ‘Understanding by Design’, using backward planning to design our English curriculum. So, that’s worth having a look at, for some advice and guidance.

In terms of Key Stage 4 GCSE English Language, obviously the wider the experience that students have in terms of reading texts and novels from this century and the 20th century and the 19th century, the better, because the texts are unseen in GCSE English Language. Those texts will require the application of skills that students have learnt through practise and will require students to be able to apply and understand contextual knowledge, a wide range of vocabulary, and make connections and links, and show their understanding of a wide range of themes.

So, some final thoughts then. We need to be aware of the context of classrooms and students and each context is different, depending where you’re teaching and the students who are in front of you. And, we need to think about ways that we can help students tackle GCSE texts.

I would advocate that wide reading at Key Sage 3 is a really great step forward to take this further. I hope this has given you some food for thought in terms of cultural capital and some ideas about what you’re going to do for your students.

So, it’s over to you.