High School English Curricula Explained

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Every high school student in every state must take English classes. The number of English credits required for a high school diploma may differ according to legislation state by state. Regardless of the number of required credits, 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 requirements of four years of English classes, and in many states, the 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 or a progression from year to year. 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 participate in the writing process by constructing thesis statements and writing essays in multiple genres (argumentative, explanatory, informational).

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. In all written responses, students are be expected to be familiar with specific grammar rules (ex: parallel structure, semicolons, and colons) and their application in writing.

Students also learn both academic and content-specific vocabulary. In order to participate in both conversations and collaborations, students should be prepared to speak and listen daily in class based on the activity (small group work, class discussions, debates).  

The literature selected for the course represents multiple genres (poems, plays, essays, novels, short stories). In their analysis of literature, students are expected to look closely at how the author's choices of literary elements have contributed to the author's purpose. Students develop skills in close reading in both fiction and nonfiction. Close reading skills should be developed so that students can use these skills with informational texts in other disciplines.

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 should continue to focus on the skill sets for formal writing using the writing process (prewriting, draft, revision, final draft, editing, publishing). Students can expect that they will be required to present information orally. They will also learn more about correct research techniques.

The literature offered in grade 10 could be selected based on a theme such as Coming of Age or Conflict and Nature. Another format that may be used in selecting the literature may be horizontal coherence, where the texts selected are designed to 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 texts that may be horizontally coherent with social studies coursework in global studies or world history course. For example, students may read "All Quiet on the Western Front" while studying World War I.

Students continue to focus on increasing their comprehension skills by analyzing both informational and literary texts. They also examine an author's use of literary devices and the effect an author's choice has on the whole work.

Finally, in grade 10, students continue to expand (at minimum 500 words annually for each year in high school) their academic and content-specific vocabulary.

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 horizontal coherence, in which the literature selected may complement or be associated with materials for required 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 continue to work on their formal forms of written expression in multiple genres (EX: personal essays as preparation for the college essay). They should understand and apply the standards of English, including the use of the hyphen.

In grade 11, students practice speaking and listening to conversations and collaborations. They should have the opportunities to apply their understanding of rhetorical style and devices. Students will be expected to analyze informational and literary texts in multiple genres (poems, plays, essays, novels, short stories) and critically evaluate how an author's style contributes to the author's purpose. 

Students in the junior year may choose to select a course in Advanced Placement English Language and Composition (APLang) that could replace English III. According to the College Board, the AP Lang course prepares students to read and comprehend rhetorically and topically diverse texts. The course prepares students to identify, apply, and finally evaluate the use of rhetorical devices in texts. In addition, a course at this level requires 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 after thirteen years from kindergarten to grade 12. The organization of this course may be the most flexible of all high school English classes as a multi-genre survey course or on a specific genre of literature (ex: British Literature). Some schools may choose to offer a senior project selected by a student to showcase a set of skills.

By grade 12, students are expected to have mastered the ability to analyze various forms of literature including informational texts, fiction, and poetry. Seniors can demonstrate their ability to write both formally and informally as well as the ability to speak individually or in collaborations as part of college and/or career ready 21st Century skills. 

AP English Literature and Composition may be offered as an elective (in grade 11 or 12). Again, according to the College Board, "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 in English include:

  • Journalism: This course 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 participate in creative writing to 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 comment on each others' creative work.
  • Film and Literature: In this course, 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) to 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. Regardless, all secondary school level English classes are similar in their design to promote the skills of reading, writing, speaking, and listening needed for success beyond school.

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Bennett, Colette. "High School English Curricula Explained." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/creating-a-vertical-coherence-for-english-curriculum-4123868. Bennett, Colette. (2021, February 16). High School English Curricula Explained. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/creating-a-vertical-coherence-for-english-curriculum-4123868 Bennett, Colette. "High School English Curricula Explained." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/creating-a-vertical-coherence-for-english-curriculum-4123868 (accessed March 28, 2023).