Cross-curricular resources: 200 years since the birth of Charles Dickens

20th January 2012 at 00:00
The author's bicentenary is a great excuse to explore ways of introducing children to classic texts, says J.D. Sharpe
  • 200 years since the birth of Charles Dickens, 7 February
    • It seems that you cannot turn on the radio, switch on a television or open a newspaper without encountering Charles Dickens - not surprising, perhaps, given that the bicentenary of his birth is now just a couple of weeks away.

      But why is Dickens still so appealing? Why do we have countless adaptations of his work and why have his stories survived when those of so many of his contemporaries have been lost?

      The answer lies in the fact that Dickens is not only an honest documenter of our history, helping us to understand societies of the past, but also that he holds a mirror up to the unchanging human condition. His themes are universal and he fearlessly turns them inside out so that no element is left hidden. And despite the physical differences between his time and ours, the lives that play out across the pages of his novels could easily be our own in both their glories and their failures.

      A Christmas Carol is set in a period of economic uncertainty, such as we are experiencing today, and highlights human greed. Little Dorrit, written between 1855 and 57, deals with social justice, the concept of individual responsibility, and governmental bureaucracy and accountability. Through reading Dickens, we can grasp what has changed and what has not in the past 200 years. His writing also offers an opportunity for readers to test their own moral compass against some of the adversities faced by his characters.

      But how do we make Dickens more appealing to young readers, and how do we make them realise his continued relevance today?

      One thing to focus on, perhaps, is that children are not invisible in Dickens' novels, unlike in many other books of the age. From Oliver Twist to Pip in Great Expectations and Esther and Jo in Bleak House, we are plunged into the world of Victorian children, providing the perfect opportunity to discuss what it meant to be a child then and how different it is now.

      And it is important for the young reader to understand that Dickens wrote about the mistreatment of children from his own experience. In 1824, when Dickens was 12, his father was imprisoned, along with the rest of his family, because of debt. Young Charles was sent to work in London at a blacking factory - a warehouse for the manufacture and packaging of shoe polish.

      Working 12-hour days, he received only a slice of pudding for his labour and an equally lean "salary" of six shillings a week, which he used to support his family. It was a life lesson he never forgot and this period plays a material role in many of his novels.

      But Dickens also explores the fact that many children were deprived of education due to their social status. Oliver, Pip and Jo all receive no education in the early stages of their lives.

      It is true that the size of a Dickens novel can be a barrier for some young readers, but there are real opportunities to use imagination and reinvention as a way into the heart of classic texts.

      In my own small way, I hope I have added to that legacy as an author who has taken Oliver Twist and added dark elements such as demons, warlocks and werewolves to create a new work called Oliver Twisted. It is not a new tactic, but it can assist in drawing children to his stories.

      Such combinations often highlight the themes that exist in the original text and can provide a useful framework to discuss these themes in a fresh way. They grab the reader's attention and provide an entry point that might be funny or terrifying, but will ultimately be unique and thought- provoking. Young people are exposed to this reworking of material every day: such videos often go viral on YouTube and, in music, genres collide to create huge hits.

      If then, by reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or indeed Oliver Twisted, a student is inspired to read the source text, we have created a path into these important stories that also opens the possibility for debate. Students can read both versions and look at what the modern author has changed, what they have retained and why they did so. Students can then take the original text and inject their own element, or perhaps play the genre game where you take a well-known story, choose a genre and discuss which elements you would change and why. They could even rewrite the synopsis of a classic book, putting it in a modern setting, or create a profile for characters from these novels. If a classic character lived now, for example, what music would they listen to? What would their Facebook profile look like? Would Dickens tweet?

      Ideas for activities around such texts can sometimes be found in the author's biographical details. Dickens was a great walker and often plotted his novels as he roamed through London. Get children to walk physically in the shoes of characters from novels. Use Google Street View to look at locations now and compare them to old maps of the area.

      I am sure that Dickens would approve. As a man who wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible, if he lived today he would probably be publishing his novels in instalments, even tweets - 140 characters posted on the hour every day. Looking at modern technologies and discussing how classic authors would have used them is great material for a lesson.

      Dickens was a great inventor, creating incredible characters, ingenious plots and even new words. There is no reason that we cannot encourage young readers to not only discover Dickens but also to use their imagination to follow in his footsteps.

      J.D. Sharpe is the pen name of Jasmine Richards, a London-born editor at Oxford University Press. After graduating from Oxford, and following a brief stint at New Scotland Yard, Jasmine chose publishing over being the next Sherlock Holmes

      WHAT ELSE?

      TES partner National Schools Partnership has created a resource pack called "What the Dickens?"

      Celebrate Dickens' birthday with a collection of videos from BBC Learning Zone Class Clips.

      Visit A Hankering After Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the supernatural, an exhibition at the British Library that runs until 4 March. It is free and there are lectures for students throughout February.

      Key stage 1: Victorian children and the birth of Barnardo's

      Learn about the real workhouse experience and how the fate of the young and poor has changed since Victorian London with resources from Barnardo's.

      Key stage 2: Dickens' London

      Try a fun Widgit quiz on Charles Dickens' life to introduce pupils to the Victorian era.

      Key stage 3: PowerPoint essays on Great Expectations

      Check out TES English's resource for point, evidence, explanation (PEE) practice with Great Expectations.

      Key stage 4: analysing A Christmas Carol

      rwootton's thorough PowerPoint covers context, themes and essay writing to prepare students for exams.

      Key stage 5: Dickens in context

      To accompany its lecture series, BritishLibrary has provided a range of resources for the A-level classroom.

      Find all links and resources at

      Original headline: Who the Dickens was he?


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