19th century non-fiction at KS3

Our Year 10 classes are now embarking on the new GCSE English Language and Literature syllabi. As we can never know what the government will do to English next, we cannot possibly know what kind of shelf life the current new specifications will have but we might have five years if we’re lucky (I feel like David Bowie angrily screeching out those words: “5 years what a surprise / 5 years my brain hurts a lot / 5 years that’s all we got”).  So, what does this mean for our incoming Year 7s?  Let’s put the ‘IGCSE’ aside and consider their needs in the light of home board requirements.

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Nineteenth century non-fiction is the Language ‘biggie’. As KS3 teachers, we need to accustom students to tackling the complex language, punctuation and grammatical constructions involved in these kinds of texts.  We have to find relevant, engaging and accessible 19th century articles and then find ways to teach students to analyse them effectively. Educational publishers are already beginning to produce invaluable materials.

Once we have found these texts though, how do we teach them?  It’s possible that the net is already swamped with resources and advice but sometimes I daren’t even look because I know I will go off on tangents and end up more confused than when I started.

Place the text in front of you and imagine you are eleven.  Now imagine you don’t like reading.  You particularly dislike reading non-fiction.  You hate long sentences and you feel like an idiot when you have to ask what a word means.  Now you should have some idea what we are asking of some of our students.  You could try the following ideas:

  • Give students a choice of topics or ask them to contribute topics they are interested in then research for 19th century writing on their areas of interest.
  • Start with short extracts or single paragraph pieces. Make sure fonts are large enough and spacing is generous.
  • Create an 11 year old’s glossary of the words in the passage they might not know (rather than a teacher’s).
  • As they gain confidence in working with unfamiliar vocabulary, mix up the words and their definitions and ask them to match them correctly according to their understanding of the passage.
  • Challenge students to rewrite long, complex sentences into shorter sentences. To increase this challenge, ask them to reconstruct longer sentences with the phrases or clauses arranged differently.
  • Explore outdated grammatical forms and have some fun incorporating them into contemporary English.

I have not yet tried them myself but I do feel excited about tackling a whole new area of non-fiction alongside the wealth of 20th and 21st non-fiction that is available.  In terms of comparison, it will narrow the focus by availability – we will have to start with what we can find in the 19th century bracket and work from there.  With any luck, by the fifth year, we will be able to predict what will be on the exam paper before it all changes again!

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