Back Monday 22 May 2017 5:18 pm

Preparing students for the 19th century novel – what to do at KS3?

As many Year 9 students embark on their first experience of the 19th-century novel, Kate Oliver wonders whether some really wide reading at KS3 might be a better way of helping them to tackle what can be a challenging aspect of the GCSE literature exam.
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Many of the teachers we talk to on our GCSE courses say they are caught in a conundrum. Of course they want their students to be well-prepared for their literature exam, and starting on the 19th-century novel as early as possible seems a logical way to achieve that. However, they recognise that the unintended consequence can be that the text has gone stale by year 11, and that this does not lead to the best exam responses.

A recent EMC twilight led by Julia Sutherland sparked an idea that may help. Julia presented her current research on ‘A Faster, Immersive Read’ in which pupils experienced two class readers back-to-back. Apart from careful intervention to ensure that pupils were developing essential inference and deduction skills, the emphasis was on minimising interruptions and maintaining the flow of the reading process. The results so far, on pupils’ reading skills, as well as their enjoyment and their motivation to read more, are impressive. (Like to find out more? Julia will be running a session on 'A faster, Immersive Read on our 'Differentiation in the Context of Progress 8' course on 30th November.)

We are familiar with the virtuous circle which has been well-established by robust research: read more – read better – read more. ‘A Faster, Immersive Read’ is training teachers how to intervene for pupils who are circling in the opposite direction: read less – lack of reading confidence – read less.

This got us thinking about all the ways in which reading widely helps us to tackle new texts. What helps an experienced adult reader take on something like Jekyll and Hyde with confidence? Well, we probably have experience of reading other pre-20th-century novels, a wide vocabulary, contextual knowledge, perhaps a memory of a film of the book. The fiction we have read might help us here, perhaps modern novels set in the 19th-century as well as the classics.

However, just as importantly, we bring a wealth of relevant knowledge from a much wider field of reading. We will have come across other books with the theme of double identity, or the nature of evil, or which are told through documents or letters, or which have multiple narrators or unreliable narrators, or which play with chronology. We might have read some Gothic, or crime fiction, or science fiction dealing with the idea of ‘playing God’.

The relevant social and historical knowledge for something like Jekyll and Hyde can be taught in a fairly short space of time. On the other hand, the rich experience of how novels work, and what they can do, really requires wide reading over a longer period.

A working theory… Might an enjoyable experience of reading books which are relevant in the broadest sense be a great way to prepare KS3 for their GCSE novel?

With this in mind, we have put together a booklist which could be used to guide students towards some independent reading. The list starts with suggestions focused on the two most commonly taught 19th-century novels (A Christmas Carol and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). This is followed by a short list of modern books set in Victorian times to help with contextual knowledge as well as suggestions for good ‘first classics’ to get students used to Victorian style and vocabulary, or have a first taste of the author they will study later.

We’d love to hear what you think.


I've sent a tweet saying how exciting this looks! Like the EMC, we won an ERA award this year. With 'Opening Doors' we are working around the UK, often with primaries, supporting quality text approaches which include all learners. Please read the pupils' incredible work inspired by literature on the Crown House site via Bob Cox and follow the link at the foot of ''Opening Doors to Quality Writing'. See also
I love your thinking on key stage 3 and it will help to support a vision for English, not just ticking boxes; but it is starting earlier and the need for KS3 rigour is therefore greater or ground is lost. Thanks. Bob
By Bob on 30th May 2017

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