Teaching English Literature

Teaching English literature to learners of English, whose level is not high enough to read the original, can still be done usefully and successfully. Most of the benefits of teaching English literature can be kept when using simplified materials, providing: the simplification is well done, you show the students the spirit of what was written and how this touches them, you supplement the materials with the original, and you supplement your class with relevant video or audio, where possible.

Here I use two examples of teaching English literature to teenagers and children. I used a graded reader, a simplified version of the Charles Dickens novel,'A Tale of Two Cities' and Samuel Johnson's 'The Vulture.' In neither case did the students have the level of English to read the originals unaided. With help, however, those using the graded reader, could read and understand extracts from the original novel, which enriched the class. I used 'The Vulture,' with a class of 11-12 years olds. The language of the original was well beyond what the students could understand. However, the story was not, and the class was successful. The students were able to understand and retell the story at the heart of the essay. They were also able to discuss, in a limited way, why humans wage war.

This is what I did, and how I stimulated the interest of my students in aspects of English literature.

Teaching English Literature - A Tale of Two Cities

Teaching English literature via a graded reader was only part of the course. The class was small - eight students, aged 14-16. Some of them enjoyed reading at home, some didn't, or were too busy with school work. I'd never read A Tale of Two Cities before teaching this class. The first thing I did was to buy a copy of the original novel. Although the class was using a graded reader, I wanted to have a feel for the original. I also wanted to use extracts copied for the class.

My choice of which edition to buy was important. My first thought was to buy the cheapest edition, but thankfully I didn't. I bought a slightly more expensive edition which had the original sketches, an introduction, and extensive notes at the end of the book, including historical background. These helped a lot, later on in the course.

In the first lesson I set the historical context. I asked questions about the late 18th and early 19th century in Taiwan. Their knowledge was limited, but between them they could give a rough picture of life then. I had searched this online before the class. Then I moved to England and France, and talked about the hardships of the times.

Next, I used a true story from the historical notes at the back of the original novel. I used a technique for retelling stories (explained in full in ESL Stories) where I listed the main verbs of the story (in the present tense) on the board, as I told the story. The students used this list as an aid, when they retold the story in the past. The story was of a French boy of around 16 or 17 years of age. He had been near his village in Northern France, and had failed to bow to a procession of passing monks. For this he was executed.

My students were shocked that this could happen, and apart from the language practice gained by retelling the story, we had an active discussion about the lack of justice, and the times in which the story was set. I explained that the story was set before and during the French Revolution. When they had a feeling for the causes of the revolution, I introduced them to the opening paragraph of the original novel.

I had little hope that they would understand it without help, but I had their attention and interest. The first paragraph of the original novel is here:

Book the First - Recalled to Life. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

As I expected, the students knew many of the words, but couldn't make sense of the meaning without assistance - which I gave. After these introductory activities, we began the graded reader. I won't describe all of the activities I used, but they included setting tasks, which the students accomplished by silent reading. I also had the students read some of the more important paragraphs aloud for variety, and to draw attention to important details in the story. See ESL Reading Activities for details on the types of activity that work well when teaching reading.

As the course progressed, I continued to move forward with the reader, sometimes adding paragraphs from the original. If you are interested in teaching English literature, you can find most classic novels online - most have long been in the public domain. I also used all of the original sketches of scenes from the story to generate more discussion.

Once we had covered about half of the reader, I bought a copy of the old, 1935 black and white film, A Tale of Two Cities. None of my students had ever seen a black and white film before, and I was a little apprehensive as to how they would take to it. I didn't try to build it up in any way. I just told them they were going to watch extracts from the film (about 15 minutes a week).

The old film was a classic and very atmospheric. The students were, by now, familiar with the story and had a feeling of what life was like in England and France at that time. The film went down wonderfully. As much as possible, I avoided stopping the film, which can be irritating. I turned the Chinese subtitles off, and turned the English subtitles on. I did stop to explain one or two to the new words that appeared in the subtitles, but no more than that.

As the class was quite late in the evening, having the film to look forward to helped a lot. Some of the boys were interested in the military action taking place. Most of the students liked to comment on and follow the romances that took place in the story.

The story was rich with ideas and at the end the students were keen to discuss the sacrifice that Sydney Carton, the drunken barrister, made for love. Apart from the discussions, the story also generated plenty of opportunities for writing activities.

Teaching English Literature - 'The Vulture'

This was a much simpler approach to teaching English literature. It was also a much shorter activity than the one discussed above. While I taught the graded reader 'A Tale of Two Cities,' over about three months, this essay, I dealt with - in a very simplified form - in twenty minutes.

I told the story at the heart of Johnson's essay, 'The Vulture.' I listed the main verbs on the board, adding quick sketches (artistic skill irrelevant) to help aid the students memory. As I listed the verbs I told the story. I no longer remember the precise telling of the story, but it was something similar to this.

"A long time ago a mother vulture spoke to her child. She said many animals kill to eat, but humans kill humans, but do not eat them. Why? The young vulture asked. The mother vulture said, I don't know, but I once spoke to a wise vulture. This is what he said. Humans look like animals, but they are not. They are really vegetables that move. A wind moves them and they rush into each other and kill each other. This gives us vultures, our food. Other vultures say that among humans, there is one who gives directions to the others. This one likes to watch people die. This person is the true friend of the vultures."

The students then retold the story; first as a group, then individually, one sentence each. We then discussed the meaning of the story. Not a deep philosophical discussion, but, nevertheless, an honest one, on the reasons for war.

For those of you interested, here is an extract from the original essay. As you will see, if you read it, I have been free with my adaptation, but I believe I kept true to the heart of the story Johnson told. I also told the children that the story was written hundreds of years ago by a man named Samuel Johnson.

The Vulture - from The Idler 22

'Man,' said the mother, 'is the only beast who kills that which he does not devour, and this quality makes him so much a benefactor to our species.' 'If men kill our prey and lay it in our way,' said the young one, 'what need shall we have of labouring for ourselves?' 'Because man will, sometimes,' replied the mother, 'remain for a long time quiet in his den. The old vultures will tell you when you are to watch his motions. When you see men in great numbers moving close together, like a flock of storks, you may conclude that they are hunting, and that you will soon revel in human blood.' 'But still,' said the young one, 'I would gladly know the reason of this mutual slaughter. I could never kill what I could not eat.' 'My child,' said the mother, 'this is a question which I cannot answer, though I am reckoned the most subtle bird of the mountain. When I was young, I used frequently to visit the aerie of an old vulture, who dwelt upon the Carpathian rocks; he had made many observations; he knew the places that afforded prey round his habitation, as far in every direction as the strongest wing can fly between the rising and setting of the summer sun; he had fed year after year on the entrails of men. His opinion was, that men had only the appearance of animal life, being really vegetables with a power of motion; and that as the boughs of an oak are dashed together by the storm, that swine may fatten upon the falling acorns, so men are, by some unaccountable power, driven one against another, till they lose their motion, that vultures may be fed. Others think they have observed something of contrivance and policy among these mischievous beings; and those that hover more closely round them, pretend, that there is, in every herd, one that gives directions to the rest, and seems to be more eminently delighted with a wide carnage. What it is that entitles him to such pre-eminence we know not; he is seldom the biggest or the swiftest, but he shows by his eagerness and diligence that he is, more than any of the others, a friend to the vultures.'

There are, of course, many ways of teaching English literature. I have just given two examples of how having students with lower levels of English, needn't stop teachers from stimulating interest in literature. The classics have survived for a reason, if you can show your students those reasons, then teaching English literature can become a very rewarding activity.