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Teaching Classical Literature


A female student reads a book.It’s difficult to overstate the importance of reading. People who enjoy a book, especially classical literature, develop stronger empathy and critical-thinking skills. They also discover gripping stories with complex thematic threads that take on social class, moral dilemmas, the nature of civilized society, justice, revenge, greed, love, betrayal – and that’s just “Wuthering Heights” by Charlotte Brontë.

The school library also makes science fiction real every day. Students can take any book from the shelf and time travel into the middle of historical events or read the thoughts of someone who lived decades, even centuries ago.

As if that’s not enough value for words printed on a page, reading is also an immersive experience that gives the brain a workout. Research cited by the Open Education Database found that reading literature prompts multiple complex cognitive functions while reading for pleasure increases blood flow to different sections of the brain. The researchers concluded that “reading a novel closely for literary study and thinking about its value is an effective brain exercise.”

Given the importance of reading, including teaching classical literature, Fresno Pacific University offers a wide variety of professional development courses about reading for educators.

Why Read Classic Literature?

Even people who read constantly may shy away from literature at times. But readers should challenge themselves with good books, according to the teaching-focused website Gift Guru. Students who delve into classic literature enjoy many benefits.

Thought-provoking situations. Literature often tackles social issues, ethical dilemmas and moral choices, examining the ramifications of tough decisions and how they impact character development.

Understanding allusions. A common tactic in writing of all genres is to reference classic works. Readers won’t get the reference if they haven’t read the original. According to Gifted Guru, this experience “will lower dopamine levels, thus making you think you don’t like the book you’re reading.”

Cathartic reading. By following the lives of characters in classical literature as they struggle with difficult situations, readers can better persevere through their own struggles and learn from the mistakes of those characters.

Windows and mirrors. Books that give readers a look into the life of someone completely different from themselves are considered windows, while books about similar people are considered mirrors. A mirror book can give readers insight into themselves and also help them make decisions in their own life by reading about what someone they relate to did in a similar situation. A window book builds empathy for others by understanding the thoughts and motives of people completely unlike the reader. In both cases, classical literature effectively bridges the gaps between different cultures, races, geographies, ethnic origins and religions.

They stay with you. Ask a person who has read enough classical literature, and they will name the one (or more) novels that changed their lives. Teaching classical literature increases the chances of this happening for a student.

Tips For Teaching Classical Literature

In many cases, classical literature speaks for itself. Simply reading the novel and having lively discussions about the character’s actions benefit students.  Nonetheless, teachers can support students by keeping certain tips in mind.

Give Context to the Novel

It’s impossible to reap the benefits of classical literature without having some context for the time in which they are set (especially historical novels such as “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo) or the time the writer lived. The latter is especially true if the time and location play such a large part of the author’s writing (such as English society in the early 19th century for Jane Austen novels or Harlem in the 1960s for James Baldwin).

Provide Additional Resources

Especially for longer novels with complex events and a large cast of characters, providing students with character lists, plot summaries and insightful writing about themes and symbols can support a better understanding of the text.

Teach Annotation

Annotation involves making a note on the text, typically written in the margins. It’s helpful for going back and re-reading important sections and in class discussions about the book. By actively thinking about and annotating what they are reading, students retain more and move through the text more efficiently.

Add Different Media

High-quality movies or television series based on literature can help students engage better with the story’s characters and themes, particularly for difficult novels. Even showing small clips in class of certain scenes can support student engagement.

Also, for teachers deciding what books to teach, Penguin maintains a list of the 100 “must-read” classics.

Fresno Pacific University Reading Courses

Fresno Pacific University offers almost two dozen online courses for educators that can improve their ability to teach students about reading while also earning professional development credits. These courses encompass many topics related to reading and writing, including improving vocabulary, developing adolescent readers and writers and expanding content literacy.

These courses include Content Comprehension: Helping Students Read & Understand, which is ideal for teachers who work with ESL, special needs or low-level reading students.

All these courses help teachers support students in expanding their ability to enjoy and learn from reading. Those are important steps toward the day when they are ready to take on classic literature, widening their worldview while enjoying some of the finest novels ever written.

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