In looking at some of the texts for English Literature with my students (you know, the ones from over a hundred years ago that they struggle to relate to) I’ve noticed that pop culture references play a huge part in the understanding of the text.
This is difficult enough when a text is modern, when the references to pop culture are cemented in T.V programmes made famous throughout the 80s and 90s. Pre-twentieth century cultural references – the traditions of Christmas or the understanding of workhouses and debtor prison essential to understanding A Christmas Carol, for example – are almost inaccessible for some students.
Which isn’t to say that learning about these things isn’t a valuable and educational experience in and of itself. Learning the history of our culture can bring sense to many things students have seen and heard for years without understanding. But does it need to be an essential part of reading, something so intrinsic to a text that not knowing it hinders reading comprehension?
I think particularly of some of my students when I say this. Students whose parents emigrated to the UK in the sixties and later who, whilst classing English as their first language, sometimes lack the breadth of pop culture that might be shared by someone who has parents and grandparents who threw out and then explained vague pop culture references throughout their childhood.
Pop culture is meant to be something that unites us, but in the context many young people experience it, it is something that further isolates them from the text. After all, each generation has its own pop culture references, its own set of essential experiences that bind it. But these often fail to make it to set texts in English until many years later, meaning that young people have to interact with and try to understand a culture that does not include them. For example, Monty Python references probably do not hold much humour for someone who has never seen or appreciated them for the contribution they made within the pop culture of the time.
Pop culture and literacy are both important facets of education, but I will always argue that literacy is the most essential for success in general. So maybe it’s time that essential texts didn’t focus quite so heavily on a culture that is, in a lot of cases, no longer relevant.
In a recent Guardian Secret Teacher, a teacher commented on the fact that teachers aren’t reading, so we can not therefore assume students will.
In this article, the teacher raised the fact that, when teaching a book for English Literature, most teachers give students extracts, and, even, that most teachers also only read the extracts. These are the extracts that are deemed most important parts for exam analysis.
But is that teaching the book? I agree with the time limits – they’re tight. I also believe that, without the whole book, students don’t have the whole picture. A novel is a complete piece of work, and asking a student to comment on a character’s journey throughout a whole book by giving them ten extracts is akin to asking someone to comment on an artist’s use of colour by giving them the bottom corner of a painting.
What I also find problematic is that this article suggests that there is a common belief that reading the whole book as a class would only be useful for one thing – for the study of that work of literature. I wonder, then, why the benefits of group reading, of vocabulary building, of comprehension and inference learning opportunities are dismissed so easily.
I’ve said before that you can have literacy without literature, and I still believe this.
But can you have literature without literacy?
Read the whole book. It will be worth the time.
In this recent post for TES, Cynthia Murphy reminded teachers (as if we needed reminding), that modern children’s literature is excellent. Children’s authors manage to intertwine a challenging level of language with a gripping story and a dose of social issues that mean most children can see themselves represented in a main character.And this is a wonderful, wonderful thing. In order to really engage with literature, children – and young adults – need to feel like it means something. Like most of us, if it has some connection to them, children feel like it means something.
Which makes me wonder why GCSE syllabuses now only focus on pre-twentieth century literature, and what we can do to make these stories as relevant as possible to the children we teach.
First of all, retellings will be your friend if you’re trying to bring Shakespeare or Dickens to life. But there is only so much you can offer with an alternative version of the text. Sooner or later, students have to engage with the original, verbose, unwieldy – and, to some, incomprehensible – text.
But many of the issues addressed in these texts are universal. Once you have read through the text with students – and I would advise fully reading it through, no matter how long it takes – you can use many exercises to bring the text back to the twenty-first century.
Students can write agony aunt letters as the abandoned Miss Havisham, tweet about their exploits as one of Fagan’s gang or move the workhouse to a modern day children’s home.
And once they understand what the characters are experiencing, they can empathise. Not the same as seeing yourself on the page, not at all as valuable, but a good place to start.
Reading can be a daunting task for a lot of people. Even finding time can be difficult in our daily lives of work, school, family. But starting with something that is fun and accessible is the key to helping students embed reading in to their lives. A lot of students have a degree of fear when they look at a book or a piece of print (see my post on Reading vs Swimming for further details), so it’s important to meet readers where they are.
Here are three great apps that can help struggling or reluctant readers make time to read – all available on itunes and google play at time of writing.
If you plan to use these with younger teen readers, I’d advise scoping out the stories first, as all of these are crowd sourced so some content may not be suitable for all ages.
Hooked is a great app which tells stories of all genres in the form of phone text messages. The first advantage is no one need know if they glance at your phone that you’re reading a story, which for some readers takes away the embarrassment of being seen to read. Another great feature of Hooked is that stories are offered in a wide range of genres and levels, so that everyone can find something that suits them.
Because stories are written as messages, there are no chunks of descriptive writing to read. This can be seen as an advantage, however, as it allows readers to practice their inference and contextual comprehension skills.
Yarn Chat Stories.
Again, Yarn offers a wide range of stories in multiple genres and readers can work through at their own pace. Readers can also add stories, which is a great way to encourage involvement.
Tap (a Wattpad app).
Wattpad is a platform that allows writers to self-publish their stories, and tap is their on-the-go phone service. Again, readers are more likely to be able to find a story that appeals to them than they may be within a traditional reading scheme.