Context makes reading more interesting and lessons more interactive


Over the course of a long career in teaching – sometimes in schools and universities – I have never ceased to be amazed at teachers forcing classics from English and American literature down the throats of students whose ages and linguistic levels mean they can’t possibly enjoy them. As an avid reader myself, I feel sorry not only for the classrooms of bored students who are forced to stammer through Herman Melville or John Keats, understanding little or nothing of what they are supposed to be ‘appreciating’, but also for the authors themselves who, surely, would be horrified if they could see how their work is being tortured in school and even university curricula by those who should know better.

All too often, students are launched into a work without any introduction to its context. It’s easy for those of us from the West to assume that Auschwitz, say, is a name that will never – should never – be forgotten.

However, in Bangladesh, where I was living for a couple of years recently, very few school-going kids and not many more university students had ever heard of it. I was shocked but I shouldn’t have been. What do I, who pass as an educated man, know of Japanese poetry or Dreamtime, the Australian Aboriginal form of storytelling, not to mention the major events in the history of the Far East or Latin America?  Just about zilch.

It stands to reason, therefore, that we as teachers need to create a context in which stories can be appreciated. And the ready availability not only of books but search engines means that we can encourage our learners to explore for themselves, rather than lecture them on these subjects. A story at upper-intermediate level on my website, ‘The Sheriff’s Children’ by a little-known author, Charles Chesnutt, might serve as an example.

Chesnutt himself was an interesting man, a black man whose fair complexion meant he could have pretended to be white and so lived a more comfortable life but chose never to do so. The story he wrote concerns racial inequality in the southern states of America in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Rather than teach this, we as teachers could use project work for our students to prepare lessons and presentations themselves on the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. These days, we sometimes call this approach ‘the flipped classroom’, where traditional roles are reversed and students teach each other while the teacher listens. All they need to do this is a few prompts: ‘Strange Fruit’, (the song made famous by Billy Holliday), the film of Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and some useful phrases for Google: lynching, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, segregated schools and slavery – just this brief selection would provide a very rich source of film, music, articles and stories that would give real insight into why the Civil War was fought. And this helps create an intellectual and emotional environment which allows a story like ‘The Sheriff’s Children’ really to be appreciated. And, hopefully, Charles Chesnutt too!

It doesn’t take much imagination to link this to modern racism. Just this month, the 2015 US murderer, Dylann Roof, was sentenced to death for killing Afro-Americans at a church Bible reading, an atrocity that led to the Confederate flag being banned in South Carolina!

This blog post is taken from Mark Bartholomew's recently published LinkedIn Pulse article - which you can read here

Read Listen Learn contains over 150 stories and articles for English learners and is free to use

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