2016: Space for the Odyssey?

James Clements 2

Last month, I was lucky enough to speak at OUP’s For the Love of Reading: Passing on the Passion conference. It was a wonderful occasion that brought teachers, authors and researchers together to talk about reading. I left with my brain fizzing with ideas, inspired to try the raft of new things I’d learnt from the day.

My session, called 2016: Space for the Odyssey? was about introducing primary children to classic texts. I wrote a previous blog about the role these texts can play in helping children to become lifelong readers and here’s the follow-up- some things to bear in mind when introducing ‘the classics’ to children:

1. Don’t put them on a pedestal.

If we introduce these books as being ‘better’ or ‘more worthy’ than some of the wonderful contemporary books that are written for children today, we’re unlikely to generate much enthusiasm for them. While introducing primary children to Shakespeare or great poetry can be hugely beneficial for their reading and use of spoken and written English, perhaps the most useful thing we can do is to help children to be excited, enthusiastic and fearless when confronted with challenging texts. If they can start secondary school with this as their default way of thinking, there’s a good chance they’ll go on to embrace the opportunities waiting for them.

It’s often argued that we should introduce children to classic texts for reasons of cultural capital. Many great works of literature have a cultural resonance- they exist outside of the books themselves- and we meet the ideas, narrative structures and characters again and again in other books, in films and on television. But first and foremost, they’re great stories. Fairy stories, myths and legends, classic poetry and great novels are constantly being retold and adapted and that’s a good reason for sharing them with children. Sometimes time really is the best critic.

2. Accept that they can be challenging (and plan for it).

Very often classic texts can be quite tricky for children. It might be that the language is dense or the vocabulary difficult. It could be that the ideas are complex too. Sometimes classic texts are dismissed as not being relevant to today’s children, that somehow they don’t reflect their experiences. While these could be reasons not to teach these books, I’d argue that this is exactly why we should be sharing classic texts. The opportunity to read something challenging and to engage with new ideas or be taken out of your sphere of experience is precisely why we read wonderful books.

As teachers, we just need to think ahead and plan how we can help children to make meaning from a challenging text. Every teacher will have his or her own way of doing this, but it might include:

Pre-teaching – if there’s something that we know will be really useful for children to know about, it’s a good idea to introduce it to children first. If we’re sharing the story of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, then having some knowledge about how the Romans drove out their last king and established the senate to rule over Rome. Knowing that the king’s bodyguard, Brutus, played an important part in this revolution helps children to understand the dilemma his ancestor faces when we meet him in the story.

Discussion – time to stop, think, and talk about the text. This might be thinking about key terms, discussing themes or ideas or just sharing options. One of the benefits of great texts is that there is always ambiguity. If children are discussing a poem, we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of right and wrong answers, we should think about what we take from the text as a reader.

Drama – the chance to bring a text to life and explore it with the class is priceless. Drama can sometimes feel like a luxury in today’s packed curriculum, pushed out in favour of the English language demands of the 2014 National Curriculum, but as vehicle for teaching English and as an art form in itself, it should be central to the primary curriculum.

3. Draw out a few themes and ideas to explore.

If we’re planning to introduce children to a complex text, it is important to think about the particular strands that we want to draw out from the text. Just as any performance of a Shakespeare play is an interpretation of the written text, with the director and company focusing on certain themes, so is a unit of work in the primary classroom. If we’re introducing KS2 to The Tempest, then we could focus on magic, the relationship between parents and children, the nature of power, to whom the island belongs, or one of many other aspects. If we try to do too much, then we lose the things that are likely to resonate with children- the story and the characters.

That said, don’t be afraid to remain flexible. If the class are particularly interested in a specific aspect then make the most of it; adapt your plans and go with it- a class engaged, excited and opinionated is a fantastic thing.

4. Plan for variety across the curriculum.

English lessons, guided reading, independent reading, sharing a class novel: there are many opportunities for children to encounter classic texts at school. As a teacher, one of the most useful things we can do is aim for variety across the curriculum, planning carefully the texts we share with children and ensuring there are plenty of opportunities for children to choose their own reading material. English lessons and guided reading are great places to share classic texts, giving you an opportunity to scaffold children’s learning and discuss them as you go. Above all children need variety – a balance between reading books they already enjoy and being introduced to other texts they might not pick up independently but may come to love in time.

5. Share the books you love.

If you have a school curriculum that allows you to choose the books you share, go for the ones you love. Hopefully your enthusiasm will be infectious and that’s what we need if we’re going to help a generation of children become lifelong readers. Don’t worry too much about the age group, even if the text seems very challenging a good teacher can scaffold and support children to understand it and take something from the text.

My favourite book to teach is The Wind in the Willows. I’ve managed to sneak it onto the curriculum with every class I’ve ever taught – from writing new adventures based on drama in Y1, to analysing how Kenneth Grahame creates suspense through his control of language with Y4, to discussion about whether the weasels and stoats are engaged in a legitimate act of revolution with Y8. Mostly, I just love reading it aloud and I like to think that there’s a whole batch of inner-city London children who can close their eyes and picture the riverbank in all its beauty thanks to those lessons. And if that’s all I achieved in my time as a teacher, I’m secretly quite happy.

James Clements is a member of the Advisory Board for Oxford Owl, Oxford Primary’s online school improvement service. He has worked as a teacher and senior leader in an outstanding inner city primary school, as a Local Authority Lead Teacher, and was consulted on the New National Curriculum for English. James is now an English adviser and the creative director of Shakespeare and More, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes effective English teaching.
Follow James on Twitter @James_ShMore

If you missed the Passing on the Passion Conference, you can find a selection of resources and videos from the day on our website!


One thought on “2016: Space for the Odyssey?

  1. Helen Doron says:

    Hello James,
    I can’t agree more with you. For the past 3 years I’ve been working for a publishing house. It happens from now and then to sell the publisher’s books to direct clients too. And very often I have the bad experience of being a witness to a parent-child argument on what book they should buy for the child. The kid wants to read new books, something humorous and illustrated (talking about 7-12 y.o. kid) and the parent refuses it and offers either an encyclopedia or demands his own favourite book which is almost not understandable for the kid because of the very different lifestyle they both have. As a result they buy the parent’s choise which is surely never opened by the kid. That way parents learn their own children that reading is something unpleasant, uninteresting and done by force. And it most definitely should NOT be this way!

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