How I teach - When a novel seems like a dense jungle

19th December 2014 at 00:00
Turn the challenging language of classic literature into a word game

There were mixed reactions to the department meeting's first agenda item. The less experienced looked keen. The more experienced went into eye-rolling mode. A nervous giggle escaped from our head of department's mouth: yet more changes to the curriculum were on the way.

Our younger students, nourished on a diet of Morpurgo, Blackman and Pratchett, were to be subjected to a "challenging", "rigorous" programme of Dickens, Eliot and Austen. How on earth would we motivate our classes to appreciate the classics when for them the language was denser, more alien and more forbidding than the Amazon rainforest? After much wailing and hand-wringing, a solution presented itself in the form of Charles Dickens and layers of sugar paper.

The idea couldn't be simpler. Year 8 were to be our unwitting test bunnies. With its familiar plot and anticipation of Christmas (it was October), A Christmas Carol was selected as the perfect story. But how would we help our young readers to navigate through undergrowth thick with polysyllabic words and seemingly impenetrable complex sentences?

Say it again

Like intrepid botanists, our students started by identifying unfamiliar words. Lists grew long: "misanthropic", "impropriety", "impenetrable". With desperate looks, they rushed towards the previously unexplored territory of Dictionary Corner.

But it didn't end there. We were eager that pupils did more than simply collect words and pin their meanings to exercise books, like butterflies in dusty display cases. We wanted them to make use of this newly discovered vocabulary. So we set them a challenge: use your words in conversation with adults (parents, teachers, assistants, the caretaker) and receive a reward (sweet and wrapped in cellophane). Classes seized the opportunity. Colleagues were mobbed while a gleeful English department sat back and dished out the confectionery.

We tracked the words used, and who had used them, by asking each child to write the words and definitions on pieces of card that were then glued on to sugar paper; these gradually formed a word wall.

The plan worked well. The majority of students took part, with some individuals driving their teachers to distraction. At one point, a precocious 12-year-old artfully blended nine words into a single paragraph delivered to her besieged maths teacher. Another, usually cheerful, pre-teen loped in to see his tutor one Monday morning to "bemoan" his "burgeoning" fit of "melancholy".

Love of language

Once Scrooge's conversion was complete and the dictionaries returned to the shelves, it became clear that some students had not taken part. When asked why not, most said that they were afraid they would embarrass themselves by using their words incorrectly. Next time, therefore, we plan to encourage more experimentation in class before letting the pupils loose on some unwitting adults.

Word walls turned out to be a fun way to break down what had appeared to students as unconquerable language barriers. They enjoyed exploring the jungle of words and their previously unsure teachers breathed huge sighs of relief. Cracking the language of the classics was not impossible.

Tobias Fish is an English teacher in Cambridgeshire

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