An Auckland school dumped Shakespeare and replaced him with magazines in a bid to get students through their external exams.
The change, believed to have been at Aorere College in Papatoetoe about 10 years ago, did not last because the college's English teachers rebelled against it.
But an Auckland University researcher who has written about the incident in her doctoral thesis, Dr Claudia Rozas Gomez, believes it was part of a growing trend to use simpler texts in senior English classes to get students through the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA).
Hamilton Boys' High School associate principal and English teacher David Williams says there has been a "gradual slippage" towards simpler texts in English departments since NCEA was introduced between 2002 and 2004.
A revised NZ curriculum in 2007 also does not require students to study any particular kinds of texts, but sets general objectives such as being able to "make sense of increasingly varied and complex texts".
"The system allows teachers to not teach literature but to just teach films if you wanted to," Williams said.
"There are lots of schools where a student could do secondary English without having encountered a novel."
Rozas Gomez, who came to New Zealand as a 6-year-old refugee from Chile in 1976, says in her thesis that she received a "rich" education at Aorere College ranging from Shakespeare's Macbeth to contemporary American "new journalism".
But when she returned to the college as a teacher from 1999 to 2004, she was disturbed at the changes in her last two years there.
"Short stories replaced novels, literacy skills replaced poetry, and communication standards replaced film," she writes.
For her thesis, which has just been approved, she interviewed heads of English at 10 Auckland secondary schools. She found that the pressure they felt to get students through NCEA, and to give them texts that they enjoyed, was in tension with what they wanted to do to be "true to ourselves as English teachers".
"James," the head of English at a decile 2 co-educational state school, "spoke about an external reviewer brought into the department to review their English programme."
"The reviewer suggested that students at this school should abandon Shakespeare and instead focus on texts that were simpler and more appealing to the student population - magazines were suggested as a better alternative," Rozas Gomez reported.
"Another result of this review was to abandon external assessments that year."
James told her they "tried one year without externals and that everyone followed the same plan, which was, as the reviewer recommended, magazine-based".
"It was the year, as this teacher remembers, that 'literature died'."
The experiment didn't last because of the teachers' objections.
"It was a year, and they found their way back, because of that extraordinary resistance from teachers in low-decile schools. They become English teachers for a reason," she said.
But poet and Papakura High School English teacher Zech Soakai said that on the whole English teaching was still moving towards simpler texts. He cited a rural boys' school that uses fishing and hunting magazines.
"They didn't have any novels. I was very surprised that they don't keep books," he said.
"The head of department is of the view that these boys just don't read, so we do have to just get them across [NCEA]."
In his own classroom, Soakai still uses novels to extend his students' horizons. This year he is examining race themes with his Year 12 English class using a 1988 novel by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions.
Tangaroa College deputy principal and former head of English Imeleta Faumuina said she resisted pressure to teach simpler texts.
"I was told by a consultant, she said to me you can't teach Shakespeare to decile 1 students, maybe decile 10 but not decile 1," she said.
"I told my class at the time. They were so angry! And they produced some of the best results. Many kids got excellence, even at Year 13 for Othello, and quite a few got merit."
A former Aorere College English teacher who said "I think I might be the 'James'" who spoke to Rozas Gomez, confirmed that the college replaced Shakespeare with magazines on the advice of an external reviewer about 10 years ago, but said: "The 'experiment' wouldn't have lasted long, and only within selected classes."
The college's current principal, Leanne Webb, a former national president of the Association of English Teachers who arrived at Aorere a few years later in 2014, said the school now introduces students to a wide range of contemporary and historical NZ and international literature.
"We teach a wide range of comparative texts and we teach students reading strategies to enable them to understand them. We don't dumb anything down," she said.
Aorere and Tangaroa both run intensive "reciprocal reading" programmes for new Year 9 students, working in small groups where each student takes a role such as "predictor" of what will happen next, "clarifier" of new words or ideas and "summariser" to sum up what a text is about.
"It's teaching students the skill of reading automatically, the things that expert readers like you and me do automatically. We explicitly teach those skills," Webb said.
Post Primary Teachers' Association president Melanie Webber, a former media studies teacher, said current NCEA reforms would force schools to offer more coherent English courses rather than cherrypicking "easy" bits such as short texts and films.
"There are some less challenging texts being taught than there ought to be in places," she said.
"I'd say there is a problem, and the problem is being resolved."