I am currently reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I am finding it really hard going. When I downloaded it a couple of weeks ago I was sure the biggest challenge would be wrestling with the eReader, but I really am struggling with the language, and it’s making me appreciate how hard persevering is for our emerging readers. I know the story – having read it as a set text in my Advanced English class in high school, but even then I found it quite hard to access. I remember my classmates being really excited when the teacher announced that we’d be studying it. For some reason it had never been mentioned in my household. I come from an Anglo, university educated, literature loving family and if we’d studied Tolkien or Steinbeck that year I’m sure I would have had an easier time of it.
My just turned 4-year-old daughter thinks she’s a big Harry Potter fan, though I’d like to point out she has never seen any of the movies. She’s seen the ads, looked at the covers of books and listened when myself and the older cousins discuss which spell we’d choose if we only got one, and I can just imagine how she’ll react when she’s finally allowed to read the books and watch the movies herself. In a sense she is already immersed in the world of Harry Potter and if she’s ever lucky enough to read it as a set text I’m sure she’ll be able to consider it on many levels.
But consider the child who has never heard of the text you’re exploring. Consider the child who has not grown up in a world where magic and dragons are taken for granted, for whom hours of repetitive drill and practise style studying is the norm rather than imaginative play in green cloaks. For these children it can seem quite odd to read a book for “pleasure”. They can be so interested in getting the answer right, as I was age 17 (not sarcastic, I was actually a TOTAL nerd), that it can take all the enjoyment out of the activity. Which is a real shame because now and then I understand enough of the language to think Jane Austin was writing for our pleasure.
I am torn between thinking maybe I was just not mature enough to understand the themes when I first read Austin, but then I think how wonderful it would have been for me to connect with Eliza Bennet all those years ago. I can really relate to Merike Hardy’s comment that it must have been groundbreaking in its day. And even now I can relate to Mrs Bennet and her concern for her daughters at the prospect of being left homeless and penniless unless well-wed.
So what can we do to make our set texts more accessible?
- Remember that our students do come from a culture, even if it’s different to our own. Listen and learn from them, and hope to show a connection between a universal theme of the text and something that is relevant to them.
- Present the story in various ways. Romeo and Juliet for example has an excellent soundtrack in the form of the Baz Luhrmann film. Have the students listen to songs which relate to the scenes in the story and discuss the emotions.
- Before reading, pose certain questions in everyday language. How would your mum feel if she had 5 daughters, no money and the only hope for their future was to marry a man with money? How would you feel if everyone in your family expect you to take up the same career as they did, but you really wanted to try something completely different? I think the girls of today would pretty much feel the same way as Lizzie.
- Let children read a summary, or watch the film before reading. Lots of teachers think this is spoiling it, but this is not so. Let’s take the example of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings again. Many of us do not realise how exposed we already were the story before we ever picked up the book and read it for ourselves. To even up the playing field it is only sensible to allow all the children to get a sense of what makes the story great before digging in and analysing it deeply.
- Use Fan-Fiction or fan made videos on You-Tube. I recently went to see One Man Lord of The Rings. The great thing about fan-created work is that they are all about interpretation, they are often more accessible and can be a lot of fun.