Classic Literature for Children – A Divisive Issue

This morning I embarked on one of my favourite termly tasks: choosing the books for next term’s book groups.  I have been facilitating book groups for eleven years for children ages 8-16, and my lists lean almost exclusively to classic texts.  As well as praise from parents on the books I include, I regularly get questioned on my choice to eschew the plethora of modern texts available.  Why do classics get such bad press? 

Among the objections I have heard, my three favourite are:

  • Classics are so sexist, racist, classist (insert your -ist here). Yes, they often are when viewed with our modern eyes.  However, they are also true to the time period in which they were written.  A wonderful fact that opens such rich discussion in my groups.  By placing the texts in context, we can help children understand how attitudes have changed over time.
  • They have such old fashioned and difficult language.  I will have to get back up onto my well-worn soap box for this one. Vocabulary is the cornerstone to so much of educational development.  Classic texts help to not only expand a child’s vocabulary of known words, but also their ability to understand unknown words in context.  Classic literature contains more of the “Oxford 3000” (Oxford University’s list of the 3000 most important words to learn in English) than modern texts. Classic children’s literature provides our students with one of the strongest foundations available to learn vocabulary.
  • The subject matter is so irrelevant to modern children. Is it really?  During my book groups, students are encouraged to discuss the wider themes that each book explores.  The themes they identify are the same fundamental human desires and conflicts that students face today.  There is comfort in knowing that people through the ages have experienced the same dilemmas, the same emotions and the same struggles.  

Am I suggesting children are fed a diet of only classic literature?  Of course not!  Reading widely through multiple genres should always be the aim for our students.  However, students will pick up modern texts to read themselves and are unlikely to need much encouragement to do so.  To ensure they also explore classic literature, parents and educators will need to play a part.  To do so, it might first be necessary to challenge your own views of classic literature.  

If, on reading this, you want to challenge your views, you might be wondering where to start.  Here are my top picks for classic literature, as well as some lesser known texts you might not have thought about.  

For young children: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)
For pre-teens: Little Women by  Louisa May Alcott (1868)
For older teens: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

Top pick for:
Romance: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
Science Fiction: The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster (1928)
Mystery: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868)
Gothic: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

Lesser known classics (in order of publishing date):
Evalina by Frances Burney (1778) 
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy (1905) 
Arsène Lupin: Gentleman Burglar by Maurice LeBlanc (Originally published in French 1907)
The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells (1897)
The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955)
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)

In Defence of Grammar

An article in the Guardian this week has caused quite a stir.  (Here in case you haven’t seen it https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/feb/20/im-a-maths-lecturer-and-i-had-to-get-my-children-to-teach-me)  In this article, a best-selling novelist who teaches creative writing observes how “joyless” children’s learning of writing has become as it focuses on grammar.  She states that as a writer, she has found “nothing of value” in it.  

As a writer and teacher, I could not disagree more.  I grew up in a school system that put English grammar at the heart of its teaching.  I clearly remember diagramming sentences.  This did not stifle my creativity or stop my flow of words.  I am of course a sample of one, which is not very convincing when discussing a whole country’s way of learning.  However, as an English teacher, I see again and again the negative effect of assuming that grammar knowledge will somehow just “happen” in daily life.  

For many people, understanding how to use grammar correctly in both writing and speaking does just happen naturally.  These people are usually avid readers.  If you ask them if a sentence is correct, they just know if it is or isn’t even if they can’t verbalise the grammar rules behind it.  And they don’t need to.  How many times in your adult life are you asked to diagram a sentence and its grammar?  Probably never.  You are just expected to use grammar correctly.  

However, if you are not one of these people for whom grammar rules are assimilated naturally, your writing can start to unravel quite quickly.  Over the years, I have taught teenagers that fall into this category.  They generally don’t like reading, have not been taught grammar in a formal way, and their writing is far behind where it should be for their age group.  No amount of teaching creative writing will improve their written work when they cannot tell you what an adverb is, the rules of comma usage, or how to punctuate direct speech. Why does it matter, I hear you cry?  My reply is: How can a student express their ideas clearly and creatively if they do not have the tools to do so?  If a student does not know what an adverb is, how can they communicate the nuanced differences in their character’s behaviour?  If a student does not know how to use a comma to add an adjective clause, how can they effectively detail the setting they are describing?  

Am I advocating that students are just taught grammar day in and day out?  No, of course not.  Research by Exeter University (Myhill et al., 2013) demonstrated the benefits of relevant grammar when taught explicitly and in context. Teachers who contextualised the study of grammar within the reading of literature and discussed real life texts reported a positive impact on pupils’ writing and a deeper knowledge and understanding of language.

It is clear that teaching grammar needs to be integrated into both reading and writing activities so that children learn about grammar in context.  Here are some techniques I use when integrating grammar rules into English lessons:

  • Think about why.  Use text extracts to look at a particular grammar rule and ask why the author has used it.  For example, I might highlight every comma in a descriptive passage and then discuss why each one has been used.  We talk about the rules as well as the effect the usage has on meaning and enjoyment of the passage.  
  • Model grammar usage in your own writing.  In the above example, after discussion of the comma usage in the passage, I would then write a couple of sentences while the student is watching in which I model comma usage.
  • Put it into practice.  Finally, the student would write their own sentences in which they apply the rules they have learned.  This should of course be followed by a discussion of the effect that their writing had on the reader (me!).

In an article (2013) on the Telegraph’s website entitled ‘It’s cruel not to teach children grammar’,  the author concludes in a way that says it best: 

At its worst, educational theory that rejects grammar does so because of a mad idea that children are noble savages better left to authenticity and the composition of rap lyrics…  Grammar sets them free. No one would think it a kindness to give a teenager a car without teaching her to drive, and that includes the rules of the road. 

Public Speaking – Why Are We So Scared?

I really enjoy public speaking.  I never realised I was actually in the minority in feeling this way until I was well into middle age.  I just assumed that everyone enjoyed sharing their opinions as much as I did!  As I became aware of how many adults fear standing up and speaking in front of others, I looked back over my experiences and tried to pinpoint why I did not fear it.  Thinking back, I realised that growing up in other countries and school systems where standing up in front of the class to speak was a regular occurrence, public speaking was the norm and not something to be feared.  
 
I had cause to think about this issue again recently when one London school, as part of their assessment process for entry into year three, asked prospective students to prepare a one minute talk on a subject of their choice to deliver in front of a group.  The shock and dismay this caused among parents surprised me.  While the general consensus was that this was too much pressure to place on such young children, I saw it as a great opportunity.
 
So why don’t we embrace public speaking in the UK and make it a normal part of every child’s day? Certainly, some secondary schools are placing a greater emphasis on activities such as debate to improve oracy skills.  Other programmes do reach down into primary age groups.  Of note is First Lego League, a STEM programme that I had the privilege of being involved in for many years.  Presenting the team’s ideas to judges is an integral part of this competition.  As a coach, I had the joy of watching shy children who felt they would be unable to stand up and speak become confident speakers, proud to share their ideas.  
 
However, while there are some excellent initiatives such as First LEGO League out there, not all children will have access to these types of programmes and nor should they have to take part in them to be able to develop these skills.  Focusing instead on developing oracy skills in all students from an early age so that they never have a chance to fear public speaking is a much more effective strategy.  
 
Public speaking is all about finding one’s voice and having the confidence to share it.  As an adult that feels this confidence, I can easily model and encourage this in children.  However, if you are an educator that fears public speaking, you may well avoid asking your students to find their voice as you imagine they share the same fears.  Instead, I urge you to find daily activities in your setting that encourage, normalise and give voice to your students, helping them to develop a life skill that will empower them where ever their future takes them. 

Reading Aloud to Older Children: a Lost Art

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” 
― Albert Einstein

In the course of my work with families, I am often asked by parents to provide book lists for their children.  I leap gladly at the opportunity to share my passion for reading and recommend books that I know will ignite their children’s imagination. Eleven years of facilitating book clubs for children has given me extensive insights into the spark that can be created when a student enjoys a book for the first time.

Despite my inward leap of joy when parents ask me for book lists, I am all too aware that the books I recommend are ones that they will give to the child to read on their own.  While of course we should be encouraging children to read in their spare time, parents rarely consider the lists I send as something they can share with their child by reading aloud.  

Of course, most parents recognise the importance of reading aloud to their child and do so from an early age.  However, once a child gets older and is spending more time reading to themselves, this practice often declines in frequency.  Yet there are so many benefits to continuing:

  • Access to wider range of texts: Reading aloud is the perfect opportunity to introduce children to books they would not pick up themselves.  
  • Modelling vocabulary:  Secondary reading requirements are vocabulary rich. This is great for children, but it can also be a challenge: “Secondary students encounter 10,000 or more new words per year in their content area texts” (Hougen, 2014). By reading aloud to children, we give them access to a wider range of vocabulary, and the opportunity to discuss its meaning.  
  • Improves comprehension:  As children engage with the text being read to them, they gain a greater understanding than they would if they read it on their own.  The opportunity to discuss the texts enhances this comprehension.
  • Encourages further independent reading: Children can be inspired to read the remaining books of a series on their own.
  • Children enjoy it!  A study by Susan Ledger of Murdoch University which was published in the Australian Journal of Teacher Education (2018) found that children had a positive attitude toward being read to, reading aloud and reading independently. Reading aloud was generally considered a luxury or reward and a break from other curriculum areas or ‘real school work’. 

Albert Einstein certainly recognised the importance of continued reading aloud and its link with intelligence.  As teachers, I see it as a vital part of our role to shout the benefits loudly from roof tops, helping parents to see the value of continuing to read aloud to their child.  

Online Lessons: Preparation is Key

Funniest online teaching moment of young children during lockdown? Child disappearing mid-lesson only to hear “Dad, I need you to wipe me!” over the still connected sound.  We can laugh at such online moments but on a more serious note, how many times have you got to the end of an online session feeling frustration over time wasted or lack of focus?  

There are some simple steps that can be taken by both the teacher and the parents to ensure online lessons with young children run smoothly.  

Teacher:

  • Take a moment to connect with your student before work begins.  Connections are more difficult via a screen, and are not automatic.  Draw the student in by asking them about their day/week, relaying a funny anecdote or connecting over a shared experience (snow in London anyone?)  
  • If you have an expectation of materials being to hand, ensure you have communicated this with the parent in plenty of time before the lesson.  Will the student need lined paper, coloured highlighters, a ruler, a printout of any text you are working through? 
  • Ask the student at the beginning of the session if they have their homework, materials, etc ready.  Even if you have communicated to the parent ahead of time, check the materials are there and ready.  It is better to have a disrupted start to the lesson than have to stop part way through.  

Parent:

  • Allow preparation and transition time before a lesson begins.  It is not fair or realistic to expect a young child who is pulled from the midst of an activity they are enjoying to be able to transition smoothly to an online lesson.  Ensure they know the lesson is coming up and that they have time to finish what they are doing.  
  • Set up their work area with all of the materials the teacher has asked for and ensure there is space for them to work and see the computer/tablet at the same time.  
  • Ask them to use the toilet before the lesson begins!
  • Have a workspace that is free from distractions (kitchens are not ideal!)

Remember that this is a two way relationship between you as the teacher and the family you are working with.  Take some steps yourself, and ensure to help parents by communicating the ideas above to them.  After all, both teacher and parent have the same aim – smooth running, focused lessons in which the child is able to progress! 

Assessments: Inform Practice or Determine Outcomes?

This week, as offers are being received for entry into schools in September, I had cause to stop and reflect on two students in particular.  Both students have received offers from highly selective schools.  But more than a year ago, when I carried out assessments on these students, my judgement that they were capable of receiving offers from their schools of choice was met with a degree of doubt by other professionals.  
 
In my work as an educational consultant, I have often come across the view that the purpose of an assessment is to determine school suitability and the future trajectory of a student’s education.  I find this such a limiting concept.  I like to think of students as having limitless potential that can be unlocked by those who work with them.  
 
Research supports the idea that the idea children can and do change with the right support and encouragement.  Assessment should be used as a tool to determine current attainment levels against goals, and then used to guide and inform the learning process.  This requires designing assessments that go beyond simply gauging whether a correct or incorrect answer has been achieved.
 
For my two students more than a year ago, if I had accepted the view that they were too far behind compared to their peers to have success on the 7+ exams, I would have closed that door for them and limited their potential.  Instead, these students were nurtured through a learning journey that allowed then not only to succeed but to thrive.