Why classic authors are dead to pupils

16th May 2014 at 01:00
Children fail to see them as real people, Jacqueline Wilson says

Children are so accustomed to school visits from modern authors that they can struggle to see classic writers as real people, according to Jacqueline Wilson.

The best-selling children's author said: "Modern authors have become well-known because they do so many school and library visits." Her novels, which include The Story of Tracy Beaker, are regularly among the most-borrowed from British libraries.

"The problem is that classic authors like Noel Streatfeild, Robert Louis Stevenson and Louisa May Alcott can't really strut their stuff around the schools," she added.

Ms Wilson was speaking to TES in response to a survey published this week, which shows that 82 per cent of English teachers see pupils struggling to identify with classic authors such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bront.

The British Library survey of 520 teachers also reveals that 76 per cent of English teachers believe that their students find it difficult to think of classic authors as real people.

"Pupils just think of poets as dead white males," said Bethan Marshall, senior lecturer in English education at King's College London. "They think they're completely irrelevant. Authors now seem more real than those who wrote hundreds of years ago."

To tackle this problem, the British Library is launching a new website, Discovering Literature, showcasing images of more than a thousand of its exhibits. These include original manuscripts of works by Dickens, Austen, the Bront sisters and several Romantic poets.

Among the teachers surveyed, 82 per cent said students would be inspired by seeing authors' original manuscripts. This was certainly true of Ms Wilson when she was at school: "For me, the first time I saw the manuscript of Jane Eyre - to see that, in Charlotte Bront's neat handwriting. And Jane Austen, it's all scratched out and corrected. That was a surprise, because her prose is so precise."

Dr Marshall agreed that it could be invaluable for students to see that the author of Pride and Prejudice revised her work. "She redrafted things considerably," she said. "The sentences that pupils often find complex - they can see that she deliberately crafted them to be like that. When we're trying to teach kids to write creatively, that's a very valuable lesson."

The Discovering Literature website includes an 1809 dictionary of criminal slang, used by Dickens when he wrote Oliver Twist, and a lock of Percy Bysshe Shelley's hair. It also features a newspaper review of Wuthering Heights, printed a week after the book was published in 1847. "This is a strange book," the reviewer wrote. "It is wild, confused, disjointed and improbable."

Roger Walshe, head of learning at the British Library, said: "You get a real sense of just how revolutionary and radical this novel was. That's something we want students to understand. Emily Bront was the equivalent of Irvine Welsh."

But it is not only students who have something to gain from thinking of classic authors as real people. "Teachers may have been teaching the same works for many, many years," he said. "Seeing the original manuscripts helps to reignite their passion."

According to Ms Wilson, "the problem is that we're living in a much more immediate age now. If children read even half a page of something that's a bit challenging, they will put it aside and say, `That's not for me'.

"When I was 13, we used to have conversations with our teacher: would you prefer Mr Rochester or Mr Darcy? I don't know how you do that now. I take my hat off to teachers."

What else?

Find a way into teaching Jane Eyre with these engaging ideas.

These tasks will help students get to grips with Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Explore Charles Dickens' life with this detailed information sheet.

This pack puts Victorian literature in context for A-level students.

An extensive booklet on Thomas Hardy examines the poet's work and contains a timeline of his life.


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