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Reports Part of series: BCF Curriculum Investigation Grant Research Reports

Sounding right, sounding white: Interrogating language, race and curriculum in secondary education

Funded by the British Curriculum Forum Curriculum Investigation Grant 2021–2022, this project explored the impact of offering lower KS3 pupils a curriculum that contrasted significantly with the commercially produced curriculum, ‘English Mastery’, which they were previously offered. Using anti-racist pedagogical practices, pupils were permitted to explore both their understanding of, and relationship with, the English language with a level of freedom and creative expression not formerly permitted by their usual curriculum.

Data were gathered through interviews with teachers, pupil-led discussions and recorded pupil responses using project workbooks. Through these data, the project concludes that there is a fair amount of misunderstanding about what ‘Standard English’ is and its role in further marginalising racialised bodies and creating stigma about other varieties of the English language. Furthermore, pupils were able to perform only within the restrictive parameters of the former curriculum. Once those restrictions were removed, pupils were eventually able to produce work that was rich in meaning and showed enthusiastic engagement with their learning.


Summary

Over the course of the 2022 summer term, lower KS3 pupils in Claire Ellis’s school were offered a curriculum that contrasted significantly with ‘English Mastery’: the commercially produced curriculum they were previously offered. Their usual curriculum was very prescriptive and followed the tenet that some form of mastery within the English language could be achieved through rote learning. English Mastery did not appear to allow for independent, learner-led inquiry or discussion as the focus appeared to be centred around basic recall of information as opposed to independent, critical thinking skills. We found English Mastery to be especially problematic for language, because the materials were rooted in the ideology that low-income and racialised children are required to appropriate the language of white speakers if they are to be deemed successful and academic. This was problematic in any context, but especially so given the demographics of Claire’s school, which serves a large majority of economically deprived and/or racialised children. 

Using anti-racist pedagogical practices, coupled with creating a curriculum that was designed with pupils and teachers in mind, pupils were permitted to explore both their understanding of, and relationship with, the English language with a level of freedom and creative expression not formerly permitted by their usual curriculum. This was, in part, achieved by deploying literary and non-literary texts written by the author, Benjamin Zephaniah, with a focus on his novel, Windrush child, in which language stigma and the ideology of ‘sounding right, sounding white’ is a central theme. This text was used as an anti-racist tool to open mirrors, windows and doors (Bishop, 1990) and created opportunities for students to see and hear representations of themselves and others within the fictional world of the text through critical conversations about language, school, race, identity and power. Through providing learners with the space and means to interrogate language and race, we were able to move away from the deficit model of English language learning and to instead move towards a social justice model that better empowers young people to see their own language as it should be seen by all: a language that is rich in cultural detail, linguistically dexterous and one that, just like its users, has a lot to offer society. As previous work has shown, deficit models are increasingly pervasive in England’s schools, such as through narratives of ‘word gaps’ which frame the vocabulary of low-income, racialised children as deficient and lacking (Cushing, 2022). 

Throughout the course of the project, data were gathered through interviews with teachers (from early career teachers through to experienced practitioners), pupil-led discussions and recorded pupil responses using project workbooks. Through these data, it is reasonable to conclude that there is a fair amount of misunderstanding about what ‘Standard English’ is and its role in further marginalising racialised bodies and creating stigma about other varieties of the English language. Furthermore, through this project, it became apparent that the former curriculum, far from creating any level of mastery, instead highlighted that pupils were able to perform only within the restrictive parameters of that framework. Once those restrictions were removed, pupils were eventually able to produce work that was rich in meaning and showed enthusiastic engagement with their learning. 

Authors

Profile picture of Claire Ellis
Claire Ellis, Mrs

Neurodiversity Support Manager at Ministry of Justice

Claire Ellis started working in education in 2014 in London before moving to Manchester where she spent five years teaching English across KS3, KS4 and KS5. In that role, her interests were centred around Curriculum Decolonisation and Critical...

Ian Cushing, Dr

Senior Lecturer in English and Education at Edge Hill University

Ian Cushing is a senior lecturer in English and Education at Edge Hill University.