Revisiting the text: Teaching the 19th Century Novel

As English teachers, we have always known how important it is to re-read the text. I always tell my students that three is truly the magic number, and they must read a text at least three times in order to be fully prepared for any exam question. However, never was this more important than for the 19th century novel in the new GCSE for English Literature.

If we all agree that a first reading for any text is simply a read-through to get the ‘gist of things’, then this is especially true of these dense texts, which can take a lot of de-coding before the ‘gist of things’ is even possible.

Mind you, relying on students to take the initiative and have the perseverance to read a novel three times off their own back, is nefarious, at best. I have found this year, that it pays dividends to revisit the text frequently throughout the year.

Here is how we did it:

1. We began by introducing the text before the summer holidays in year 9, helping students with identifying the main characters and themes and studying some of the relevant contextual background to the novel.

2. We then set a summer reading project for students to complete. They were asked to read the rest of the novel over the holidays and complete 2-3 creative tasks.

3. When we returned in September, we then studied the novel ‘proper’ for the first half-term. We held after-school reading sessions for those students, who had struggled to read the novel independently over the summer.

4. Students completed two timed exam answers on the novel in this half-term.

5. In the second half-term, we continued to set homework based on the novel, to help students keep it fresh in their minds.

6. Students were then set homework to re-read the novel over February half-term, in the run up to their year 10 exams.

7. We ran a week of revision lessons, including ‘lecture-style’ in the school theatre, in preparation for the exam.

One of the most significant break-throughs we found was the elimination of the ‘fear-factor’ for many students. In September, they were terrified of this novel with its complex, archaic vocabulary, but by March, having read it and re-read it, and dipped in and out of it, they were actually looking forward to that section of the exam the most. And of course the results. The difference between the marks in September and March were mind-boggling. With increased familiarity had grown increased confidence. I was amazed at how many of our students were quoting from multiple places in the novel, having previously told me they would never ever be able to understand it.

So, the plan is to keep doing the same next year. Dip in and out of each text each term, so that by June 2017, whether the students like it or not, they cannot help but know them!

Re-read the text


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