High School English Curricula Explained, Year by Year

Preparing Students for English Core Classes, Grades 9-12

Stack of School Books
Vertically aligned curriculum in English in Grades 9-12 allows student the opportunity to build on skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening. Steve Wisbauer. Getty Images.

Every student takes high school English. There is legislation state by state that sets the number of English credits required for a high school diploma. The subject of English is defined in the Glossary of Education Reform as a "core course" of study:

"A core course of study refers to a series or selection of courses that all students are required to complete before they can move on to the next level in their education or earn a diploma." 

Most states have adopted credit requirements for four years of English classes, and in most states local school boards may adopt additional graduation requirements beyond those mandated by the state.

Most schools will design their four year English course of study so that it has a vertical coherence. This vertical coherence allows curriculum writers the opportunity to prioritize learning, "so that what students learn in one lesson, course, or grade level prepares them for the next lesson, course or grade level."

The following descriptions provide a general overview of how four years of English is organized. 

Grade 9: English I

English I is traditionally offered as a survey course that serves as an introduction for the rigors of high school reading and writing. As freshmen, students will participate in the writing process by constructing thesis statements, and writing essays in multiple genres (argumentative, explanatory, informational).

In writing, students will be expected to be familiar with specific grammar rules (ex: parallel structure, semicolons and colons) and their application in writing. Students will also learn both academic and content specific vocabulary.  In both conversations and collaborations, students should be prepared to speak and listen daily in class.

  The literature will represent multiple genres (poems, plays, essays, novels, short stories), and in their analysis of literature, students will be expected to look closely at how the author's choices of literary elements have contributed to the author's purpose.  Finally students in grade 9 should be explicitly taught how to research a topic using valid sources and how to use valid sources in an organized manner as evidence in making a claim.

Grade 10: English II

The vertical coherence established in the curriculum for English I should build on the major principles of writing in multiple genres. In English II, students will continue focus on the skill sets for formal writing using the writing process (pre-writing, draft, revision,final drafts, publishing).  Students will continue to expand (about 500 words annually) both their academic  and content specific vocabulary.

In English II, the literature offered may be selected because of their thematic connection such as Coming of Age or Conflict and Nature. Another format that may be used in designing curriculum may be horizontal coherence, where the literature selected may complement or be associated with another sophomore level course such as social studies or science.

In this arrangement, the literature for English II may include selections from World Literature that may be horizontally coherent with social studies coursework in Global Studies or World History. Students will continue to focus on increasing their comprehension skills while analyzing informational and literary texts. They also examine each author's use of literary devices. Students are expected to present information orally and learn more about correct research techniques.

Grade 11: English III

In English III, the focus may be on American studies. This focus on a particular literary study will provide teachers another opportunity for  horizontally coherence, in which the literature selected may complement or be associated with materials from the junior level social studies coursework in American History or Civics.

Students may be expected to successfully complete a research paper this year in English or in another discipline, such as science.   Students will continue to work on their formal forms of written expression in multiple genres (personal essays as preparation for the college essay), and understand and apply the standards of English, including the hyphen. They will also need to continue to practice speaking and listening in conversations and collaborations as well as a study of rhetorical style and rhetorical devices.  Students will be expected to analyze informational and literary texts in multiple genres (poems, plays, essays, novels, short stories) and critically evaluate an author's style and purpose. 

Students in the junior year may choose to select a course in  Advanced Placement English Language and Composition (APLang) that could replaces English III. According to the College Board, the AP Lang course prepares students to reading and comprehend rhetorically and topically diverse texts. The course will prepare students to identify, apply, and finally evaluate the use of rhetorical devices in texts. The course will also require that students synthesize information from multiple texts in order to write a well-organized argument.

Grade 12: English IV

English IV marks the culmination of a student's English course experience, for thirteen years from K-12. The organization of this course is the most flexible of all high school English classes, and may be organized as a multi-genre survey course.

There could be, however, a focus on a genre of literature (ex: British Literature) or as a senior project selected by a student to showcase a set of skills. By grade 12, students are expected by graduation to have mastered the ability to analyze various forms of literature including informational texts, fiction, and poetry. Seniors will demonstrate their ability to write formally and informally, and speak individually or in collaborations as part of college and/or career ready 21st Century skills.  Finally, students are expected to complete several research papers or projects with written or verbal expression. 

AP English Literature and Composition typically replaces the English IV requirement. Again, according to the College Board, this course is designed to engage students in the careful reading and critical analysis of imaginative literature. Through the close reading of selected texts, students can deepen their understanding of the ways writers use language to provide both meaning and pleasure for their readers. As they read, students should consider a work's structure, style, and themes, as well as such smaller-scale elements as the use of figurative language, imagery, symbolism, and tone."


Many schools may choose to offer English elective courses for students to take in addition to their core English coursework. Elective credits may or may not serve for English credits required for a diploma. Most colleges encourage students to take the required core classes, which may or may not include electives, and college admission officers generally look for a student to complete academic requirement before expressing their interests through electives.

Electives introduce students to a completely new subject to challenge themselves and stay motivated throughout high school.  

Some of the more traditional elective offerings include:

  • Journalism: exposes students to the basic concepts of reporting and non-fiction writing. Students work with various article formats. Journalistic ethics and bias in reporting are generally included. Students write news to develop and improve their writing in a variety of styles and formats. Journalism is often offered with a school newspaper or media platform.
  • Creative Writing:  Either through assignments or independently, students write fiction, narratives, using description and dialogue. Works by established authors may be read and discussed as models for student writing. Students may complete in-class writing exercises and commenting upon each others' creative work.
  • Film and Literature: Students may explore texts to their film versions to analyze the narrative and artistic decisions of the writers and directors and to better understand the art of storytelling and its purposes. 

English Curriculum and the Common Core

While the curriculum for high school English is not uniform or standardized state by state, there have recently been efforts through the  Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that identify a set of specific grade level skills that students should develop in reading, writing, listening and speaking. The CCSS have heavily influenced what is taught in all disciplines.  According to the introduction page of the literacy standards, students should be asked:

"....to read stories and literature, as well as more complex texts that provide facts and background knowledge in areas such as science and social studies."

Forty-two of the fifty U.S. states adopted the Common Core State Standards. Seven years later, a number of these states have since repealed or are actively planning to repeal the standards. 

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Bennett, Colette. "High School English Curricula Explained, Year by Year." ThoughtCo, Jan. 18, 2017, thoughtco.com/creating-a-vertical-coherence-for-english-curriculum-4123868. Bennett, Colette. (2017, January 18). High School English Curricula Explained, Year by Year. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/creating-a-vertical-coherence-for-english-curriculum-4123868 Bennett, Colette. "High School English Curricula Explained, Year by Year." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/creating-a-vertical-coherence-for-english-curriculum-4123868 (accessed February 23, 2018).