Australian schools teach the same texts for decades:good policy or big problem?

By Melissa Jogie

Have you ever noticed your children are studying much the same English texts at school as you did years ago when you were a teenager at secondary school? Many parents tell me they have, and often it has been forty years or so since they were a school goer.

So I started looking into how English texts are selected and taught to secondary students in NSW and I discovered this has been happening for quite some time, so I decided to have a closer look at text selection trends in the past decade.

I investigated how texts are selected, how often texts are changed (frequency), diversity of texts (range), and how many texts teachers get to choose from (quantity) each year. I discovered there are problems as teachers try to teach to the wide range of 16 to 18 year old students in our schools today.

What I looked at: –

My study focused on text selection in New South Wales. I looked at how the NSW Board of Studies prescribes English texts for one section of the NSW English Stage 6 Syllabus, known as the Area of Study. (For brevity purposes, I concentrated on prescribed texts listed for the NSW English Stage 6 Syllabus, as the Area of Study is common content for students who sit the Standard and Advanced English courses for the Higher School Certificate.)

To paraphrase, the Area of Study encourages students to extract meanings from texts and apply their interpretations of these texts to their own culture and that of others. The Area of Study lists a main concept and prescribed texts are selected to guide students to make connections and personally reflect around that concept.

Therefore it can be assumed there ought to be a wide range of culturally diverse choices available on the prescribed text list, so that students can easily make connections to their own understandings of culture, whilst also engaging and fulfilling the aims of the Syllabus. Yet this does not seem to be the case.

So how are prescribed texts selected to be on the NSW English Stage 6 Syllabus?

Significantly, my research identified that over 11 years, despite the Area of Study concept being changed every 6 years, the majority of the prescribed English texts listed for study has stayed the same, or been reshuffled from other sections of the Syllabus. The prescribed texts listed for the Area of Study from 2009-2020, were to focus on the concept ‘Belonging’ (2009-2014) and now it is ‘Discovery’ (2015-2020).

However there have been hardly any new, or recently published, texts added to the prescribed text list.

I asked how the main concept in the Syllabus could change but the prescribed text list not be overhauled in order to include a wider range of text options? Won’t a wider range of choice invigorate and inspire teachers for the next 6 years and also be better for engaging our growing population of culturally diverse and contemporary students in the classroom?

I was told by the Board of Studies there is a “10-15% turn over of texts each time the Area of Study concept is changed.” My research found that for the 2015-2020 new concept ‘Discovery’, while there was indeed a different selection of texts offered for study (barring two repeats), these were not recently published or produced material, for instance from 2004 to 2020 (14 years of text selection) 16% of texts were published up to 1900, 47% were published between 1900-2000, and 37% were published from 2000 onwards. The publications from 2000 onwards mostly comprised of selections for the new Film and Media categories.

Of more concern, I discovered there were fewer options listed for studying the new concept ‘Discovery’ (Fiction and Non-fiction texts) than for the previous concept ‘Belonging’.

Also generally, the number of texts available for study are unevenly scattered under different textual types (Fiction, Non-fiction, Drama, Poetry, Film, Media and Shakespeare). This shift suggests that the choice in terms of the quantity of reading texts have been reduced in order to have more options for viewing (visual) texts.

This raises many questions. Is the process of reducing the quantity of traditional forms of text types (Fiction/Non-fiction), in order to introduce multimodal (Film and Media) texts, more beneficial for student learning and engagement? Will this better engage students in English studies? Will it improve student literacy levels?

The Board of Studies Senior English Officer explained the Board of Studies uses a framework for selecting texts based on; (i) merit and cultural significance, (ii) needs and interests of students, and (iii) opportunities for challenging teaching and learning (Board of Studies New South Wales, 2013).

I was also told it is difficult for the Board of Studies to add new or recently published texts to the Syllabus because of the lack of resources many schools experience and, anyway, often it is the teacher who chooses the same texts to teach year after year.

However, twelve English teachers across four schools that I interviewed in NSW argued that this was not the case.

Responses from Teachers on English text selection

I interviewed NSW Teachers from both public selective schools, with exceptionally high performing academic results in the HSC English exams, and from public schools where there were significantly lower academic HSC English results in comparison. Both types of schools taught English Standard and Advanced English classes to a range of students from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Teachers from both types of schools questioned the general purpose of the Area of Study section in the NSW English Stage 6 Syllabus, and pointed out the aims of this section and the subsequent concept they are required to teach are not generally compatible with the prescribed texts listed.

The teachers I interviewed said they were bored teaching the same texts year after year and also claim the current list of prescribed texts do not always satisfy the diversity requirements of the curriculum, nor, most importantly, meet the learning needs of all their students.

They also say the texts are not challenging enough for students doing the Advanced English course, but are often too difficult for many of the students doing the Standard English course. The teachers’ ability to select texts that meet the needs of their students or can engage them with the Area of Study concept is often limited.

Although most teachers like the concept based approach for teaching the Area of Study, they argue that it would be a more successful program if they were given more range and choice of prescribed texts.

Perhaps a solution would be not to remove the current list of well-known or traditional texts, but to add a larger quantity and wider range of newer and culturally diverse options, so that teachers have the choice of making better selections for their students.

Issues emerging from teaching the same texts year after year

Boredom aside, some teachers said they were forced to pick texts to suit the imposed teaching scheme rather than their students’ needs.

Currently there are only 14 prescribed texts listed for the Area of Study. Why? For some categories (like the current Media and Film) there is only one text listed for study. Even though teachers are not obligated to teach all of the listed prescribed texts, having only one text listed under a textual category removes the option for any choice at all.

Which brings me to perhaps my most profound finding: this lack of choice makes teachers force concepts onto texts. In other words teachers begin to search for connections between the concept and text that are not necessarily natural.

For example, one teacher summarised that making connections between the concept ‘Belonging’ to Shakespeare’s All’s Well The Ends Well, results in making superficial links between the play and the concept ‘Belonging’, which are already quite tenuous and results in no deep learning or discussion. Of greater concern is that students might actually leave secondary school believing that All’s Well That Ends Well is a play about “belonging”.

While the lack of resources and funding available to some schools is obviously a problem, it is difficult to comprehend if and why, particularly in our time of technological advancement, the NSW Board of Studies would be hesitant to expand the range and number of new texts to the NSW English Stage 6 Syllabus?

We need to consider the generation we are educating and how we can better engage them in reading, analysing and discussing cultural difference in contemporary Australian society.

And the biggest question of all: are the limitations of the current text selection impacting on literacy and student learning in NSW schools?


Melissa JogieMelissa Jogie is from the Australian National University. She conducts research into the selection and teaching of secondary school texts to students from diverse cultural backgrounds in both Australia and the United Kingdom. The senior secondary English curricula and pedagogy is explored to better understand how prescribed English texts are selected and mediated to engage students in discussions of cultural differences. Melissa is the recipient of two international conference awards for presentation on her research; International Presentation Award for the 13th Annual College of Arts and Social Sciences Conference (University of Hong Kong), 2013; Outstanding Presentation Award at the EU Graduate Research Workshop (RMIT University, Melbourne), 2014. Melissa has received a Visiting Fellowship at the University of Oxford (Department of Education) at the Centre for Comparative and International Education, 2015.

Find Melissa’s paper Desperate shadows of ‘Belonging’: Revealing pedagogical issues with teaching prescribed English texts in the NSW Higher School Certificate (HSC) HERE