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Five Good Reasons for Reading Classic Texts

Five Good Reasons for Reading Classic Texts

By Bob Cox

  • Flood the Mind with Magic
  • Reading famous literature from the past floods the mind with a legacy of narratives, wonder and culture. It’s going to be a journey for life, like visiting a gallery of art which twists and winds its way on, taking many potential routes. Piece by piece, a jigsaw of understanding can emerge. Mine is very incomplete still. It can start with teachers feeding snippets, samples and exciting passages; accelerate via visuals, graphic novels; be enhanced by questions and film versions. A full appreciative reading of a challenging text may come as appropriate for each child but, without early confidence building at school, it may not come at all. I get feedback from across the UK about the engagement with learning felt by pupils experiencing the introduction to the woman in ‘The Woman in White’ or the grotesque description of the hairs on Dracula’s palms in ‘Dracula’. What about De La Mare’s masterful short story ‘The Riddle’ where orphaned children are told never to climb into an old oak chest or first experiences of poetry via Rossetti’s ‘What is Pink’? The magic can continue with Jack London’s ‘That Spot’ or the mysterious ‘K’ in Kafka’s ‘The Castle’ and the eccentric scientist in Amelia B. Edwards’ ‘The Phantom Coach’? Have you heard of all of those? I hadn’t before I wrote the ‘Opening Doors’ series. There is more magic out there than we know and from around the world too. I discovered ‘Lonely Street’ by the Argentinian Francisco Lopez Merino and re-discovered ‘High Flight’ by the Canadian John Magee. It’s limiting to think of ‘classics’ as a fixed canon. We can all extend that canon and today’s writers’ stories can become ‘classics’ of tomorrow. In 100 years time, will it be JK Rowling or perhaps SF Said or Karen Millward-Hargrave who will be recommended? The magic continues if we keep exploiting the rich potential built over centuries.

Flood the Mind with Learning

With the right access, deeper learning is possible with a literary text. That combination of curiosity building, language acquisition and experiencing of ranges of styles is far more likely to happen. A short poem like ‘The Eagle’ by Tennyson prompts so many questions about exhilaration, power or majesty! Then it’s natural to notice some of the technique – figures of speech or the ending. Challenging texts should be a norm not an exception in English lessons and the literacy can be taught in context. There is much debate about teaching comprehension but a diet of exciting, classic texts taking their place amidst quality picture books and quality modern children’s fiction gives the best kind of comprehension practice – reading challenging texts for pleasure! Schools are reporting very innovative work with extracts from classic texts and quality poetry originally written for adults. Actually, this is nothing new. If I quote ‘The Lady of Shallot’ or ‘The Highwayman’ or a scene from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ it does not seem too much of a challenge to teachers. They have used these texts for years. If I talk about Charlotte Mew or James Reeves or Emily Dickinson it often needs a case study to demonstrate that access is possible. So, we all need to be prepared to discover new authors and texts; as usage of newly discovered classic texts becomes a regular routine, so confidence will grow. We need to maintain the access to quality texts by extending our own reading experiences as recommended by the UKLA/OU project on teachers as readers inspired by the research of Professor Theresa Cremin:

Flood the Mind with an Understanding of the Past

Teachers often respond favourably when I mention ‘Cultural Capital’. It should be the right of every child in every school to be introduced to a world famous literary heritage. The only reason we know about Jane Austen is because someone told us about her! I think it’s a more powerful argument than this though. It’s not just about entitlement to knowledge it’s about access to the kind of confidence and articulation that comes with a deeper cultural background. Otherwise, by secondary age, some pupils may be making decisions that literature, art or music or the wonders of science are for others. In ‘Reading Reconsidered’, Doug Lemov writes about ‘pre-complex’ texts as being vital in the kind of foundation knowledge needed before being presented with a higher level of challenge as older students. I think appreciation of the past makes literary encounters later on exciting and full of curiosity instead of ‘highbrow’ or out of reach. Appreciation of art too can grow more profound but that’s helped by early visits to galleries. I’ve seen great teachers helping pupils to access big ideas in texts which build a foundation of understanding of history as well as stylistic variation. Think of ‘The Secret Garden’ or ‘The Wizard of Oz’. These stories work on many levels of understanding and have been a big influence on writers who have followed. Dip into the description of Miss Havisham in ‘Great Expectations’ at an early age and Dickens becomes a writer to explore rather than a writer to feel intimidated by. An appreciation of the history of literature can begin. See how Churchfields Junior School have devised a Reading Express tube map for their pupils, including quality reading from the past and the present across themes and genres and with in-built choice! There is an expectation of involvement right through the school which levers up quality reading. It’s just one example from so many schools now developing continuity and progression in reading – with huge amounts of pleasure en  go to ‘Reading Express’

Flood the Mind with Writing Opportunities

I am working with schools across the UK making quality text to quality writing links. It’s very exciting. Teachers are being more explicit about how a great writer crafts his or her work and then this inspires imitation and originality. There is so much depth, so much to understand and say, in the challenging texts that this releases fresh writing opportunities. Take a look at the Crown House publishers’ sites and track the many quality text to quality writing journeys schools have sent us. This will get you started and link through to the other two books:  Visual literacy approaches will support access. Try using the illustration by Vicky Cox, below, in conjunction with the Harold Monro poem listed in section 5!

Flood the Mind with Ideas and Philosophy

Let’s take some of the great themes of all our lives: love, death, betrayal, friendship, fear, beauty, truth, laughter. They are all there in classic texts and in the best picture books and children’s fiction too; but the language level in classic texts is more advanced and therefore has potential to be either a hurdle or a satisfying learning journey. Where teachers apply access strategies effectively, I have witnessed the most profound discussions and philosophy, debates in which adults might be shy to engage. The nature of the text provides that extra stimulus. Look up ‘Overheard on a Saltmarsh’ by Harold Monro: has led to ideas about images and associations we have with goblins and nymphs; derivation routes; whether we would be tempted by beautiful jewellery. Of course, learning about the structure and dialogue in the poem becomes a natural process in the context of the dialogic talk. The potential for a richer, deeper English curriculum is huge; but the improvement in comprehension, oracy and writing is dependent on the text being challenging enough to give scope for learning. Classic texts – taught with access strategies – can be at the core of this process. These quotes from the February 2017 ‘Shanahan on Literacy’ blog by Timothy Shanahan linger in the mind: ‘the studies are pretty clear that from a second grade reading level on (ages 7/8), kids can learn plenty when taught with more challenging texts’. ‘start kids out with complex texts that they cannot read successfully; then teach them to read those texts well.’ Author of the ‘Opening Doors’

Impact of Literary Texts in Schools: Winner, Educational Resource Award, 2017 in the ‘educational book’ category.

Bob Cox