The changes in the English curriculum at KS3 and 4 have revived old, one might even say clichéd, debates about teaching the canon. It can seem as if one has to choose between texts that are ‘relevant and accessible’ or those that provide ‘cultural capital and challenge’. In practice of course, most English teachers have the good sense to aim for a broad and balanced curriculum with a mix of modern and classic texts, some providing challenge, others accessibility, some providing cultural capital and others relevance.
Taking as a given that the classics should be part of the curriculum (as they always have been, even in that much maligned decade, the 70s) how can we best engage pupils with the challenge they present?
EMC consultant, Kate Oliver suggests five tried and tested tips.
1. Focus on what they do understand
After reading a section, teachers often explain in their (teacher) words what’s going on, or start with a task like getting pupils to look up words they don’t know. This gives the subtle message ‘you won’t get this’.
Instead, first ask pupils to share with a partner and then the class, what they have understood. They will surprise themselves.
2. Use drama and performance
The kinds of interactive drama techniques teachers use with Shakespeare work just as well to bring novels to life.
Role play and hot seating illuminate character motivation. Role play can be done after reading, to explore a key moment in the text. It can also be used as a prediction exercise – give pupils the bare bones of what happens next and ask them to experiment with different ways it might play out, drawing on what they know about the characters and about how stories work.
Extracting a section of dialogue to rehearse and perform like a play gives pupils ownership of difficult language. Pupils can then think about what the narrative is adding to the dialogue.
3. Keep track of the story
Following the story arc can keep pupils engaged even when the language is difficult. Start and finish lessons by asking a pupil to give a quick plot recap. If you ask two or three pupils to do this, you can also talk about what different people choose to highlight or omit.
Read long sections without interruption so that the story has a chance to unfold, rather than stopping and starting with lots of questions or explanations during reading.
Plan where you will finish reading so that when you do stop it is at a point that makes pupils want to read on next time. I used to be able to time the reading of the opening of Poe’s classic story ‘The Black Cat’ so that the bell went just as the narrator cuts out the cat’s eye with a penknife. What could be more gratifying to an English teacher than finishing a lesson with pupils shouting out ‘You can’t stop there! Keep reading!’ – the challenge of the language forgotten in the desire to know what happens next.
4. Use the film of the book
If there is a film of the book, teachers often use it as a treat after reading, or to fill in the gap for sections not read in class. However, a closer study of a film version can be illuminating, as well as interesting and worthwhile in its own right.
Looking at the way a key moment is portrayed, or the way an actor presents a character on film or in different film versions opens up discussion about different readings.
Considering why a filmmaker has changed the order of events, or added or left out elements opens up discussion about a writer’s choices and possible reasons for those choices.
5. Hunt the main clause
One of the things that makes a writer like Conan Doyle or Dickens challenging is the use of long sentences full of subordinate clauses. Model and practice finding the main clause as it gives the gist and is usually pretty easy to understand. Consider this sentence, from Great Expectations:
The guilty knowledge that I was going to rob Mrs. Joe — I never thought I was going to rob Joe, for I never thought of any of the housekeeping property as his — united to the necessity of always keeping one hand on my bread and butter as I sat, or when I was ordered about the kitchen on any small errand, almost drove me out of my mind.
If you have understood ‘The guilty knowledge that I was going to rob Mrs. Joe almost drove me out of my mind’ then you have the gist of the sentence. You can then add the subordinate clauses back in, layer by layer, and consider the effect they have.
It’s a joint venture
Above all, explicitly embark on the reading of a difficult text as a joint venture: a challenge you believe they are up to; a challenge they can trust you to help them overcome; a challenge that will bring them pleasure and a sense of achievement.
How can the English and Media Centre help?
You may like to know that we are running a course, ‘Teaching Literature: New Challenges at KS3’ on Thursday 16th October. This course will provide you with guidance, ideas and resources for tackling three of the trickier aspects of the new KS3 requirements for reading: seminal world literature; the author study; teaching whole texts, including those written pre-1914
The ideas outlined above about high quality engagement with texts have been at the core of our work for the past four decades. Those interested in developing literary study at KS3 might like to look at our most recent publication, Literary Shorts: Creative, Critical and Comparative Approaches and its companion anthology of short stories.
A sample of the resources can be found by clicking on the image to the left.