'Understanding allusion isn't just about cultural capital; it's about literacy'

Being able to understand allusion is a tricky skill to master, but it can help to unlock texts and to improve students' writing, says this head of English

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LP Hartley’s The Go-Between is replete with biblical, cultural, and literary allusions. Nowhere in the novel is the power of a well-executed allusion clearer than when the protagonist falls foul of an allusion he does not understand. When the object of Leo Colston’s childish admiration calls him a "little Shylock", he is left crushed.

“Of all the insults she had heaped on me, the one that hurt me most was ‘Shylock’, because I didn't know what it meant and therefore couldn't deny it.”

Allusion, the process in which a writer directly or indirectly mentions a place, person, event or work of art outside of the text itself, is a powerful tool. We need to teach students how to read, understand, and deploy allusions effectively, because allusions are everywhere: Adam and Eve, Mecca, Cain and Abel, Achilles heel, Icarus, Trojan horse. These allusions crop up not only in literary classics but in newspapers and magazines also. Understanding allusion isn't just about cultural capital; it's about literacy. It's about ensuring that students can read texts without missing meaning.

Perfect allusions

Many schools, whether they are aware of it or not, are actually preparing kids for allusion right now. The recent proliferation of myths and legends schemes of work popping up on Year 7 curricula are useful in providing students with points of reference to draw upon in their own work. Whether it’s making sense of Shakespeare (who uses classical allusion all the time) or creating interesting creative texts of their own, allusions can help students to thrive in English.

While having knowledge of stories that are commonly alluded to can be useful in ensuring children can glean meaning that otherwise might be lost, an understanding of these stories can also improve students' own writing. A child who can use allusion cares about their reader. A child who uses an allusion credits the reader with the intellectual capacity to get it and, in doing so, allows them access to an exclusive club that gets it. And that makes a reader feel good. This child cares for his reader.

I like classical allusions. In a lesson, I might ask students to write down anything they can remember from studying myths and legends at primary school. I'll probably get a list like this: Hercules, Zeus, Hades, Poseidon, Medusa. Then, I get students to construct similes or metaphors using these. They can be very basic (“strong as Hercules”), slightly less basic (“one needed to be Hercules to lift him”), or relatively complex (“if someone ever decided to chuck a 13th labour in Hercules’ direction, then passing this maths test was surely the thing to do”). Of course, I’ll always provide models of my own examples, before encouraging kids to have a go themselves.

Tasks and training

So how do we get to a place where students are able to make the kind of literary allusions I’ve used above? The answer, of course, is reading. Reading can be slow in bearing its fruit, but allusion can change all that. Allusion is the perfect illustration of the symbiotic relationship between reading and writing. Spend an hour reading to kids. Read them 1984, Jane Eyre, or Oliver Twist. Then give them a creative writing task and ask them to allude to an aspect of the text you’ve read in the previous lesson. For example:

Write a description of a city and use the phrase "like Orwell’s Big Brother" in your opening paragraph.

Write a description of a person and use the phrase, "like Jane Eyre on a bad day" in your answer.

Write a description of how school makes you feel and use the phrase "that Dickens would be proud of" in your answer.

Allusion works. Try it!

Matt Pinkett is a head of English in the South-East of England. He tweets at @Positivteacha

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