Friday, January 14, 2011

Teaching the Language and the Historical Context for Shakespeare and Other Literature

In my previous post, I wrote about how wonderful my high school experience with English literature was and how I still find myself returning to books and plays I studied during that time. My college experience was equally bad.

One thing I discovered is that there does seem to be almost a fraternity approach by some to exploring English literature. Much as fraternity pledges are expected to suffer as previous generations have done, sadly many students experience the same approach to English literature. If others have suffered and survived, why should we make it easier for the next generation? Another equally harmful approach is the students are too stupid and therefore cannot handle the material. We will show them the movie and decide they are not intelligent enough to read the material for themselves. Perhaps they get the comic book versions if a teacher is feeling the students can handle the pictures.

Each approach is equally damaging. Students need appropriate tools to study English literature. We teach young children to decode and "break the code" so they can read Standard English. When we teach them foreign languages, we again go through the process of teaching them how to understand the structure and components of the language. Most foreign language programs even include some forms of cultural instruction to help students with comprehension, fluency, and interaction.

However, when it comes to understanding older forms of their own language we leave students to struggles as if it is some kind of coming of age ceremony. This is supposed to determine the children who can and cannot become English scholars.

I believe there are alternatives to what I call the fraternity approach. We do not need to force children to push their way through literature that might as well be a foreign language without a translation or teach them they are too stupid to handle it by not having them read the material.

First, teach the language. We give students Standard English dictionaries and foreign language dictionaries, but when it comes to older forms of our language we, somehow expect them to guess at the words and hope for the best. One of the things I was taught my special education trainers, as an elementary teacher was it was important to work on decoding skills and improve the comprehension skills of my struggling readers. So while my fourth grade student might only be able to decode at a second grade level it was important to work on their verbal comprehension skills which may be at a fourth grade level or higher. Teach the students where they are at and you will see improvements.

For older students this does mean teaching them to decode the literature you are expecting them to read. If you want them to spend all their time learning to decode what is essentially a new language, than you will get little comprehension, let alone high level thinking we expect of our older students. Stop watching them sink and teach the language. Provide them with a copy of Shakespeare's Words: A Glossary and Language Companion or something similar. Give them the tools for comprehension. Stop making them guess. Keep working on learning the vocabulary, but help them increase comprehension, too.

Whether it is Shakespeare or literature that is more modern, teach them the historical context when necessary. Even when teaching younger children I found that books that were categorized as realistic fiction have moved into historical fiction in the sense that the background material is no longer familiar to readers. There are technological, geographical, and historical contexts that my students needed education about to understand the stories assigned.

Understanding many pieces of English literature requires knowledge of the time period. The focus should not be on apologizing or demonstrating how much better things are today, but on what conditions were then. Students are capable of making the comparisons to modern life if given the chance. However, many of them may not understand the social orders, lifestyles, health issues, and other items written about in the books assigned to them to read. This lack of understanding can make comprehension questions impossible, especially ones at the higher level. If you do not understand a sacrifice was made, how do you discuss the sacrifice as a theme of the story?

I know I have been on a bit of a lecture tour today. However, it does bother me that we seem to have to polar extremes to teaching kids English literature. Neither respects the ability to challenge students with the demands of our language. We can provide opportunities for students to succeed if we give them the right tools to approach the learning exercise.

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