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Understanding The Changes To HSC English

Fiach Smyth

Jul 22, 2016

This week the Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli, announced the Stronger HSC Standards initiative, with the intention of improving HSC outcomes for NSW students completing their senior schooling by reviewing the way certain subjects are taught.  These changes will affect students who commence Year 11 in 2018 (so students who are currently in Year 9 or earlier). 

This reform is significant, and effects a range of subjects, but we want to focus here on the changes to English and general literacy.

First of all, whether you're a student or a parent, none of these changes should be scary.  Although this is certainly a major reform, and the goal is definitely for students to have stronger educational results by the end of their senior years, these changes do not make school harder, or really impact anything you've done up until now.  How literacy is supported, and how texts are taught and essays assessed, are the bulk of the changes.


What does it mean by 'Literacy'?

One of the most significant changes is the requirement that students meet a minimum proficiency in literacy and numeracy in order to be awarded their Higher School Certificate.  So what does this mean? 

You know the NAPLAN tests? The basic skills testing that students do periodically throughout their early years at school?  These tests are intended to identify key markers in literacy, and how a student compares to those markers.  The markers include things like comprehension of text passages, understanding of referents in discourse, and the ability to structure sentences.  It's pretty basic stuff, by intention.

So what level of literacy are students expected to reach to graduate high school?  The specifics are yet to be published, but we're not talking about attaining a complete command of Oxford grammar.  The goal here is to catch students who do not have functional communication skills and to address that.  For almost all students this won't be relevant, but for those few for whom it is, the renewed focus on identifying their needs will be a great help to them.

This specific requirement applies to students graduating in 2020, which means students currently in Year 8, and who will be in Year 9 in 2017.  For students older than this there is no minimum level required, though older students will still benefit from an increased focus on these skills from next year.

So how will this be incorporated into the curriculum?  The thing is, these skills are already built into the current high school syllabus; the major change here will be the way teachers assess and support a student's capabilities.  We're not going to suddenly start teaching formal grammar instead of text analysis or anything like that.  Literacy is not confined to English classes; teachers in all subjects will have a role in identifying and supporting their students' abilities in this area.

What about English text analysis?

This is where the biggest change comes in.  For almost two decades senior English has been divided into modules wherein a set of texts are discussed in the context of an overarching concept.  For instance, you might study Looking for Alibrandi in the context of the idea of Belonging, where the teacher guides you in breaking down the text and understanding what it has to say about this idea, and how it says it.


Going forward we will no longer have these modules as the primary organising principle behind the teaching of texts.  Instead the focus will shift to thinking about what made a text significant at the time it was written, and what makes it enduring today.  Basically, why is a text effective, important, and good?

This change really puts the emphasis on the context in which a text is written, and the context in which it is read, which brings English much closer to academic critical analysis, the sort of stuff you'd expect to do at a tertiary level.  It also puts far fewer constraints on how a text can be explored, and allows students to see meaning and understanding emerge from a text rather than knowing there is an endpoint their analysis is supposed to reach.  This should make reading texts a lot more fun, and a lot more rewarding for students, as well as giving much more scope for students to explore texts rather than focusing on memorising what's going on in them.  It also probably means essay responses are going to be more open, but also a lot less dissimilar between modules; rather than learning that Belonging essays are going to ask this, and Discovery essays are going to ask that, all texts are going to be discussed in the context of what made them good, and what makes them still important today.

Contemporary texts will still be taught alongside Shakespeare and Austen; television, cinema, and other multimedia texts will still be part of the curriculum.  Although some of the details are still to be worked out, and are being consulted on right now, there will probably be more opportunity for students to bring in their own texts for analysis, either as supporting texts for another study, or possibly as an independent study; the stated goals of this review seem to encourage this in general across all of senior schooling.

So what do I need to do to prepare?

You don't need to do anything.  The Board of Studies will do everything they can to make the transition seamless for students who are currently educated under the older system but who will be completing their HSC under the new system.  This is definitely a big change, and you should expect to see a lot of talk in the papers and the news about this, but don't let that scare you. 

These are really significant educational changes, but almost everything you learn up to Year 11 will be unchanged by this reform; essays are still written the same way, literary techniques are still literary techniques, and the skills you have now are the skills you will need in your senior year.

Further reading:

 If you need help with English or would like your essays or assignments reviewed, connect with one of our expert English Specialists or submit your essay to our 24/7 review service for detailed feedback. 

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