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Reading and Studying the "classics" of English Literature

By Sue Smith

Reading a book

The joys of reading:  These days, when I ask  students what they like to read, they look at me as if I’m a bit mad. “Do you mean books?” they often ask, with a note of incredulity in their voices.

It’s true that in today’s world, the average teenager reads a lot less than in the past. Reading now has become a task which has been set and prescribed, often by a parent, in the case of a younger child, or a teacher in the case of an older one.

When I was a child, entertainments options were pretty limited.  I can easily understand why I spent so many hours of my childhood absorbed in books.  Yet I feel sorry for today’s young people. The vast array of entertainment options competing for their time usually means that reading is relegated to a homework task, generally one not relished.

If a young person does read, it is often books which have been commercially successful, linked to a high profile movie or received a lot of publicity. Books like Twilight and Harry Potter might have done much to sell the joys of reading to the younger generation but once those books are finished, it is often the case that the reader is finished with books.

So what is the current view and trend on the idea of reading and studying the ‘classics’ of Literature? My view is that those classic stories deal with themes and issues which are universal and enduring, and therefore, the reading and studying of them provides an excellent opportunity for young people to be exposed to valuable ideas. However, I do think that the relevance of those books needs to be ‘sold’ to the student, as it is not always obvious how the student might relate to materials written in such a different context.

An excellent example of this can be seen with a recent book, which was short-listed for the Booker prize a few years ago.  Lloyd Jones’ novel Mister Pip was a book about reading Dickens’s Great Expectations to a group of Pacific Island children in the 1990s.  The novel suggests that Dickens’s theme of wanting to escape and better oneself  was a universal one, since the children who were listening to the story found it fascinating and not at all difficult to relate to, despite the vast differences in geographical as well as chronological context.

I have recently read Great Expectations (a book I love) with a student in Hong Kong and to be honest, I found much of the language as well as a number of the details about Victorian England, quite obscure, requiring a great deal of explanation from me. So I remain unconvinced how easy it would be for children from such a different background to fully appreciate it.

But this doesn’t mean to say that context cannot be given in order to make a book or work of literature relevant and fulfilling to read.  A book like To Kill a Mocking Bird with its message of fairness and the lessons learnt about racism is as relevant to the modern world as when the book was written.

A story such as Lord of the Flies with its musings about the true nature of the human condition is also very relevant in a world where there are child soldiers and children facing the realities of war each day.

So I think that there is much to be gained from recommending the classics to children. Studying and reading some of the great works of literature, which have stood the test of time and which have messages for the modern reader, should be encouraged.

There are people all over the world who have, like me, gained many hours of pleasure from the simple act of reading.  A reader is always able to fill in a spare hour or entertain themselves.  This is a very important skill and one which I would hope to install in as many of my students as possible.

Dulwich College Singapore

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

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