I am sure many of you will have seen comments in the media over the past few days about the benefits or costs, practicalities or need for students to memorise poetry as part of their secondary school education. This debate appears to have grown from a misunderstanding about the assessment requirements of the reformed GCSE English literature exam. So let me take a moment to set the record straight so that the debate can continue in a more informed way.
Some commentators are arguing that students will need to learn poems by heart to succeed in the reformed exam, but that is simply not true. Rather, it is a deep understanding and breadth of reading that will get students good marks.
The content requirements produced and published by the Department for Education require that students’ study ‘whole texts’. These can range from an anthology of poetry to lengthy novels. The Department also requires students be able to critically compare these texts using ‘relevant quotation and detailed textual references’.
In order to access higher grades students will therefore need to be able to show that they are familiar with the texts - that they have studied them – and their understanding be sufficiently developed to be able to compare them with other texts that might be presented. But there is no expectation that students should have to regurgitate paragraphs of text in the exam. Assessment is about learning and understanding, not memory.