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IB English: Exciting changes to the English A syllabus

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As part of every curriculum review, the Prescribed List f Authors for the studies in language and literature courses is updated. That means that as we begin to plan for the new course, we also have to consider the changes to the book list. And this time around there are a lot of changes that might impact what you do in the classroom.

First off, the new list--now officially called the Prescribed Reading List, or PRL--will combine all of the authors chosen for study from all of the languages in IB (i.e., there is no separate list of works in translation). If you want to choose a work in translation, you can simply choose any work written by any of the authors on the list whose work was originally written in a language other than English. Other languages have highlighted some possible choices to help you narrow things down, but essentially you have thousands of possibilities for works in translation.

Perhaps more interesting, though, are the changes to the Prescribed Reading List in English. While the current PLA was never intended to be a list of canonical “classics,” it was a list that compiled relatively well-known authors whose work was appropriate to study. It represented a wide range of works in the drama, poetry, prose fiction, and prose other than fiction from different places in the English speaking world. But a lot of people asked whether or not the list fulfilled its purpose. While everyone wants their “favorite” author to be on the list, some had deeper concerns about whether the list painted an accurate picture of the variety of authors that might be appropriate to study. The philosophy and purposes of the PRL are stated in the guides and the list itself reflects two years of research and revisions. To compile the list we polled teachers on the OCC (every single author mentioned was considered in the mix), senior examiners and workshop leaders. We also researched book lists from around the world (at institutions such as private and public schools in places like India, Canada and New Zealand). We considered entry-level university courses and popular anthologies. In the end, we listened to as many voices as possible, read extensively, and then crafted something that was diverse in terms of period, place and gender--something that would be familiar and surprising at the same time.

The new list is certainly new. One thing you will notice quickly is that this list isn’t separated by genre. Any work in any genre can be studied by any author who is on the list. This gives teachers more flexibility in finding works to study, perhaps--to choose one example--expanding some nonfiction choices. But there are more exciting changes that better represent the diversity of literature in English, offer schools opportunities to engage students in new ways, and even help to guide the “free choices” that we make in the rest of syllabus. Here is just a brief comparison of some of the key changes:

Old PLA      New PRL
170 male, 69 female     145 male, 146 female
Asia: 9 authors (all from subcontinent)  Asia: 21 authors, 13 from subcontinent
Oceania: 25      Oceania: 38
Canada: 7      Canada: 19
Caribbean: 6      Caribbean: 18

More exciting changes are in evidence beyond just the numbers. The new list includes authors of science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels and song lyrics--all genres that have been under-represented and are now commonly studied in secondary school and university. Just a few of the new names give an example of the variety: Ali Cobby Eckermann, Joe Sacco, Kamila Shamsie, Jay Z, NoViolet Bulawayo, Madeleine Thien and Helen Oyeyemi. And not all of the new authors are “new”: Margery Kempe and Aphra Behn, for example, add to the depth and breadth.

You may be wondering, though, what got lost from the old list. You might be shocked not to find authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Chinua Achebe. In order to make room, choices had to be made. But these decisions weren’t made lightly. First, “free choice” is much more flexible in the new curriculum where these authors may still be used and may even be used for the Paper 2 exam. Second, authors such as Fitzgerald and Achebe are often taught at other grade levels. Some authors, such as Achebe, again, or Athol Fugard “opened the door” for other authors and now that the door is open, it is time to make room.

Creating a syllabus from the new list should be an enjoyable process. Many teachers might find themselves taking almost all of their texts from the list. But at the same time, some of the names on the list and mentioned above might be unfamiliar of seem daunting-- we don’t have all the time in the world to read through works by several new authors. Creating a new syllabus is all about balance, thinking first about the needs of our students but also considering our own experience or the needs of the wider community. Resources such as the Oxford University Press Language and Literature course book can help. The text was written with the new list in mind and was written by the people who compiled and edited the new list. The two years of research that went into the new PRL also went into the new coursebook. So, teachers should enjoy the breadth of the new list and also know that there is support in the TSM, workshops and in textbooks.

Brian Chanen is an English teacher, principal examiner, workshop designer and member of the curriculum review. He was the editor of the PRL and is a co-author of the OUP Course Book for Language and Literature.

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