Teaching 19th Century Literature

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Some of us absolutely love a period drama but trying to get a classroom of teenagers to share that same enthusiasm can sometimes be a struggle.

There are a broad range of topics when teaching 19th century prose, from revolution and rebellion to adventure and discovery, this makes it an exciting area of the curriculum to teach and presents teachers with a number of unique challenges and opportunities.

  1. Know your students

It is important to know what your students are interested in and the types of novels that they will respond well to. There is no point in picking a novel such as Pride and Prejudice if a majority of your class are likely to engage more with something more along the lines of Great Expectations. You could give students a blurb describing each novel and do a class vote to let them decide which text you will be studying together as a class.

Although, it is worth remembering that you need to be just as enthusiastic about the text as they are, whilst also having a good knowledge and understanding of the text. So bear this in mind when giving the students options to choose from. 

  1. Use visual aids

Different people learn in different ways, so visual aids can help those who are visual learners, plus a film or TV adaptation can enhance students’ understanding of a novel.

You can choose whether to watch a whole film or just a select few clips, but by having some form of visual content you will find that students will engage with it more and start to gain a better idea about the characters and attitudes within your chosen novel.  It also gives you and your students a break from reading for a bit and allows for discussion about the differences between written and visual versions. 

  1. Don’t always read full novels

This may be a surprising suggestion, but try reading important extracts only, rather than full novels. By reading specific extracts only from a variety of different texts, you are allowing students to delve in to different types of 19th century prose. By reading an extract several times, you can explore different ideas each time and have deeper discussions about the novel, including the language and form, the context, the characters and what may have influenced the writer.

If you have a class of mixed personalities and interests, this will also keep them all engaged in some way throughout this part of the curriculum. Your students will learn more about 19th century literature by reading a variety of extracts from different novels than they would by focusing on one novel alone.

Alternatively, if you know that they will need to have studied a whole novel to be able to score well in the exam, try to assign small groups a character, chapter or theme for them to report back and share with the rest of the class. 

  1. Keep lessons varied

Interactive activities are a great way to break up reading-heavy lessons. There are a whole load of online teaching resources that can help to guide your lessons and give you some tasks that are still focused around your chosen novel, without requiring you and your students to be sat constantly reading lesson after lesson.