Reading the classics in class

One of the best qualities of the classics is that we can always rely on them. As we keep reading and rereading them at different ages, they always give us something new and we experience their universal appeal. Italo Calvino writes in his essay ‘Why Read the Classics?’ (published in the New York Times in 1986) that ‘A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’. So why not take advantage of them in your ELT classroom then?

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Here are some suggestions on how you can get rid of the groan and get your students interested in classics to deal with difficulties and some activities you can try:

1 Set an example.

When I plan on reading a book with my students, I often ask myself why I would like to read it. I’m also interested in how teens or young adults interpret the same story from their perspective. The first step towards success is recommending the book with enthusiasm.

2 Find parallels NOT distances.

Classic novels have become classics because they deal with issues that are at our heart: love, friendship, loyalty, death, family, adventure, fear etc. The Helbling Readers Classics series draws on those parallels to encourage the readers to forge links between their lives and experiences and those of the characters in the book.

discussion box from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Discussion box from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

3 How shall we deal with distant language and setting?

The language of a classic novel can be challenging for our students. They might need assistance and guided reading sessions before they can deal with it independently. Reading aloud helps with comprehension both on sentence and paragraph levels. Graded readers with their well-calibrated language and illustrations that help visualisation work as a friendly introduction to the world of the classics.

4 What to do about lack of interest?

Sometimes we get disappointed if we do not see enthusiasm in our students’ eyes. However, l’art pour l’art reading might happen only after several successful and fun reading experiences. Reading for pleasure may begin with some hard work. We have to lure the students into reading the books, give them some time to get into them, and always show interest in their opinions. It is fascinating to hear why they do not like a story, as long as they can give their reasons.

5 Is it a good idea to use modern adaptations of classics?

Yes, and do take advantage of popular culture! Films adaptations, rewritings, musicals and computer games can inspire students to read, and it is also interesting to find out where some of the modern stories originate from. Projects that compare the film with the book are always fun, too.

Here are some activities:

1 Try project-based reading.

It is not enough to give a book to a student and tell him or her to read it. We need to set objectives, and ask them to do something creative with the book. They can write a review, make a poster, find parallels between the book and other works of art, explore the setting, analyse the characters, find other stories set in the same place or about a similar topic. Our role cards can give you ideas on more reading projects. Another fun activity is coming up with a slogan for each book.

2 Create reading groups within your class.

Offer various titles to choose from and tell your students that they can read them together in groups of three or four then make a presentation to the others. It also works well if you have students with different reading levels in the same class.

3 D.E.A.R. – Drop Everything And Read

Have a 15-minute D.E.A.R. session every week during a lesson. Do not tell your students when this will happen. After a while they will be looking forward to these sessions!

4 Develop a reward system.

Reward the students and groups that have read the most readers. If you invent a level system and prepare a chart for it, your students can follow it as they achieve higher levels. Do stop every other week to check their progress. At the end of the term don’t forget to reward them.

Would you like more resources?

For more classics, browse our Helbling Readers catalogue.

Download activities and worksheets for the classics here.

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