Don’t Fear Shakespeare!

English Literature

Image of Shakespeare

Should children still be made to study the classics, or should the curriculum focus on modern, accessible English literature to engage our learners and encourage reading? By Jane Bradley, Oxford Open Learning tutor.

One of the most ironic statements made to me in class was by a petulant 14-year-old boy, incensed by my persistent attempts at, you know, trying to get him to learn stuff. “Romeo and Juliet?!” he blustered, after being informed of the subject of our new scheme of learning, “that’s WELL gay!”

Now aside from his questionable usage of the word ‘gay’ as an insult, and his complete lack of understanding at the ridiculous nature of his statement given the theme of strictly heterosexual love that runs throughout the play, it saddened me to think that yet again I’d have to battle to get a student to even begin to engage with the text. Despite being emotionally and socially relevant, genuinely dramatic, beautifully crafted and one of my all-time favourites, because it was written prior to 2000 – the date the ‘olden days’ ended, according to Year 9 – a fair proportion of my students had written it off before they had got to the prologue.

And it is not just Shakespeare. Dickens, Bronte, Austen, Conan Doyle… all regarded as stunning writers by the academics, but I’d bet your average inner city teenager would rather opt for a mid-winter cross country jaunt with extra rain, than spend the next six weeks exploring pre-1914 English Literature.

But does this mean we should give in? Should we accept that delivering a curriculum to modern young people means resigning our most glorious writers to relics from the past and nothing more? Not at all. With targeted lessons plans, imaginative teaching, appropriate learning outcomes and a creative approach young people can and almost certainly will enjoy these works, albeit on their own terms.

The most reluctant of readers can be enthralled by the tale of bloody gang warfare that sets the scene for the doomed romance of Romeo and Juliet. Similarly, the poverty gap and issues of social mobility raised so cleverly in Great Expectations can be discussed with painful relevance and remarkable insight by today’s GCSE and A level students. And if Jane Eyre’s feminist struggle doesn’t grip the students, her abusive childhood, horrific schooling and religious brainwashing will.

Of course, even the most studious and open minded teenager may baulk at the idea of having to study one of these weighty tomes (and it is worth remembering that Dickens’s original audience read his novel in instalments), but approaching it from an angle that permits young people to see the text’s relevance to them can make a significant difference.

Using film and television adaptations can help students to make sense of a complex plot and seeing live performances can be a marvellous way to engage reluctant readers. And of course making time to simply enjoy the story, to discuss it, act it out, translate it into a modern scenario or debate it can help those who find the texts intimidating to gain an understanding of it regardless of reading skill.

It might take a little creative thinking and a bit of tailoring to suit individual learners, but I wouldn’t ever want to see pre-1914 novels abandoned simply because they can be tricky (for reader and teacher alike). Finding an approach that suits everyone may not be easy, but it is possible and by creating opportunities for young people to study these texts we are giving them an insight into their own literary heritage and that is truly something to treasure.

Jane Bradley


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