Teaching the syllabus…1

I got an email a few days ago from a lady who’s got a degree in English and an MA in creative writing. She was wondering where she should go to get to grips with the curriculum for Junior and Senior Cycle, as she’s thinking about giving grinds but obviously she wants to know what she’s doing before she gets started…

So I sent her in two different directions for Junior Cycle, both old and new. A bit of a pain for her, I’m sure, but watcha gonna do?

I was in 5th class in primary school when the ‘old’ junior cert syllabus came out and I’ve had to do quite a bit of searching to find a scanned in copy of it online (I’ve still got the hard copy I was given in 2001 when I was doing the H.Dip).


I also found these guidelines for implementing it:


For the new Junior Cycle English course [specification, syllabus, curriculum – call it what you will], I should have sent her instantly to the specification:



but instead I sent her to these screencasts the team of JCT English advisors made recently (I did the voice-over)


(You can watch them all here…if you click)

I don’t know why I didn’t automatically default to the primary source, the specification itself. I studied history in college. I know secondary sources are interpretations and to get an initial sense of what something is, a primary source is the place to go and yet…

And yet…

It got me thinking. When I started teaching in 2002, the ‘new’ senior cycle English syllabus was already ‘in’ so I didn’t get any training per se. At the time, our H.Dip English methodologies course wasn’t the Mae West [or perhaps I’m being unfair] and of the total hours we spent learning to be teachers, there wasn’t very much time devoted to developing our subject specialist knowledge. The presumption being, I guess, that we had that grounding from our primary degree…

Of course, what we needed was not training in ‘how to be good at English’ but training in ‘how to be good at teaching other people to be good at English’. Subject specific teaching methodologies rather than subject specific knowledge!

So how did I learn what I needed to know?

As I recall it, I did look at the syllabus, but I also let textbooks and exam papers ‘teach’ me the new course.

Primary and secondary sources….

… and then I taught with it.

The more I taught with it, the more confident I became that I knew what I was doing. I got to know it by teaching with it.

After a while, I think I stopped really engaging with the syllabus. I don’t know why. Partially becuase I felt I knew what I was doing and partially because there were more exam papers available and partially… well, I don’t know why else! But the primary source is some ways got superceded by the secondary sources and by experience.

I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing or just life. Once I felt I’d internalised the syllabus, I didn’t feel the need to consult it anymore. But perhap I’d internalised ‘my version’ of the syllabus – not the thing itself, but my vision of the thing itself…


And perhaps something got lost in translation.

I will say that there were moments in the past few years where I was surprised at something that came up in the leaving cert exam – for example, a few years back when one of the options in the composing section asked students to write a modern re-telling of a fairytale. And yet now, when I revisit the syllabus, I can clearly see ‘parable and fable’ listed as some of the genres students would be expected to explore as part of the language of narration. Now that I look at it closely, I also see mention of ‘satirical texts’ in relation to the language of persuasion and yet I’m sure if a rich piece of satire appeared on the exam, a lot of people would howl in rage at the injustice of it all…

For my part, I can’t see myself howling in rage. There are plenty of options on the paper and a higher level paper should be challenging.

But I can imagine I’d be hoping that my weaker students steered clear of it.

Even as I type that I’m thinking  “Am I even allowed to say that? Is it politially incorrect? Should I say instead ‘my students who have greater literacy challenges and who have been exposed to less literature and less complex forms of language throughout their lives and who thus have a weaker vocabulary and a lesser grasp of the subtelties of genre‘…” which I guess would be more accurate. Political correctness be damned, but I do believe in being accurate and precise with language. And I’ve often met students whose intellectual capacity far outstripped the language, vocabulary and experiences they’d encountered thus far in their lives. In these cases, largely through no fault of their own, their ability to ‘show off’ their intellect was weakened, dampened down, compromised, by a variety of factors, many of which were outside of their control…

[Then again, anyone can value literature and choose to read a lot, right? So we shouldn’t be making excuses for them? Well, it depends on your viewpoint. Do you belong to the ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps‘ brigade who believe that with effort and determination anything can be overcome? Or are you a ‘bleeding heart’ who believes that inequality is so embedded by the time a kid starts school that reversing that is simultaneously extremely difficult but is also the moral imperative of our time? I don’t put myself in either camp. I think the truth is more complex than either of these positions recognises…]

So what else has this email asking for guidance on how to know and internalise the curricula for English got me thinking?

It’s got me thinking about textbooks. The best book I ever used to teach the new syllabus was one of the earliest ones published – it was called “Language, Literature and Style“.

I can’t find an image of it online. I don’t even recall who the author or authors were. It was A5 in size with a blue cover.

I’ve just run downstairs to see if I could root out a copy of it and take a photo to upload, but I can’t lay my hands on it. It was the first Paper 1 book I taught with and it was the best.


I don’t know. It was thick. It was meaty. It was rich in ideas and offered real depth in terms of getting to grips with genres and the five language categories. Perhaps it just suited the students I was teaching at the time, the context in which I was teaching. Perhaps in another school, in another context, that book would be either far too difficult or perhaps even too easy (although this, I feel, is unlikely. It was not an ‘easy’ textbook).

I wonder if it was an advantage for the author to be creating a textbook JUST with the syllabus as his only source. His decisions of what to include and what to leave out were neither diluted nor polluted by exam paper trends and other textbooks. He was simply creating a secondary source from a primary source – the syllabus itself.

It strikes me as perhaps a little embarassing that on a website that calls itself ‘Leaving Cert English.net’, up to this moment there has not been a single mention of the syllabus – the foundation document upon which the entire senior cycle English curriculum is built; and the document surely that those who create the exam papers we’re all so obsessed with dissecting and analysing consult in order to create their tasks. For, after all, if we want to know what’s being assessed, we need to know what’s being taught, and if we want to know what’s being taught, we surely go back to the expectations for learners and ask ourselves, what exactly is it we want students to know and be able to do by the time they’ve completed their study of Leaving Cert English?

As an aside, obviously, some students will be better at doing these things than others, which is why we see different levels of achievement in students classwork and in their exam performance – we’re not all equally good footballers or musicians – so why would we all be equally good writers / thinkers / exam takers?

In any case, in order to get clarity on the question of what exactly is it we want students to know and be able to do by the time they’ve completed their study of Leaving Cert English, it’s back to the syllabus I go, to refresh what it is that I think I know and to see the gaps in my wisdom, once more.

Postscript –

christ, this self reflection mullarkey is exhausting!

One response to “Teaching the syllabus…1