Principles of Teaching Literature and English Skills

English Skills must include Grammar, Composition, Spelling, and Vocabulary. I am an English teacher who hates Grammar, at least the way it is usually taught. Rather than drill on sentence diagramming and parts of speech in isolated sentences, I taught Grammar from Tom Sawyer. The student finds parts of speech in realistic speech, regional, standard and non-standard dialects, and many other grammatical and ungrammatical principles that represent real life situations. Our students learned Composition from Alice in Wonderland, a collection that introduces students to social and political commentary essays in a way second to none. Spelling and Vocabulary came courtesy of Around the World in Eighty Days, a work rich in travel words, technology terms, and especially context clues to help a student learn to read for meaning without a dictionary always at his elbow.

We also included Literary Criticism. We made use of Bullfinch’s Mythology for comparison studies between mythologies and the truth of the Scriptures to examine and understand their similarities and differences. We taught figurative language (special uses of words and phrases in Literature, like metaphors and similes). These English study techniques have important applications in studying the Scriptures, in the instances where secularists will claim that the Scriptures had their origin in more ancient writings. The flawed echoes of Greek, Roman and Norse myths don’t uphold the standard of truth, morality or consistency that the Scriptures present.

Sometimes critics claim the “plain literal sense” interpretation doesn’t fit a Scripture passage. For example, when Revelation 1:16 says Jesus had a sharp, two-edged sword coming out of his mouth, we should say, “Aha! That’s a figure of speech, a metaphor. The Bible uses the same figure, but as a simile, in Hebrews 4:12!”¬† The Scripture frequently explains its figurative language, and saying there is figurative language does not make an argument for the Scriptures containing errors or not being inspired and authoritative.

In a Christian school, I taught The Merchant of Venice, and we put on a one-hour performance version for which I cut down the play, preserving Shakespeare’s wording and the essence of his story, just cutting extras and combining some characters. A homeschool group could produce a “Shakespeare in an Hour” play, using the exercise of cutting as part of the study. The Faerie Queene Part One is an epic poem, a forgotten treasure of English lit. It is the Christian allegory that inspired Pilgrim’s Progress, C.S. Lewis and Tolkien in their writings. We have a video summary and study of the literary devices used in it on YouTube of this great poem.

The main focus of our literature studies included analysis of various kinds of works, ancient to modern, TV shows, movies, even Video Games and Graphic Novels, with an eye to learning what is good and bad in literature. Do not make the mistake of thinking that you have to put in modern stuff to be relevant or to keep students interested. Use modern stuff because it is relevant to show your students what is good and bad in what they see every day. Our children got tired of analyzing every movie or TV show we watched, but they couldn’t miss the message that nothing is just entertainment for a Christian.

Here’s just one example: Make a study of what makes a true hero. Start back with the superheroes Nimrod, Gilgamesh, and Hercules. Check out Joseph, David, Daniel. Take a look at Hector versus Achilles in the Trojan War. Jump forward to Beowulf, Galahad, Siegfried. Go all around the world, all through the ages, and learn what characteristics God values in a hero as opposed to what man values. Then compare them to modern heroes, the characters John Wayne plays, crimefighters in comic books and movies, ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances and how they respond.

Have students read a lot, and have them write a lot. Millions of works are available free on sites like Gutenberg.org. You will find collections of short stories, poems, speeches, biographies and religious writings. Have students read a little of everything, as long as you have a good idea of what it is and that it’s not seriously harmful to read. Don’t think they have to read great long things to be literate. The example project above can be done by reading relatively short excerpts. I had a college English teacher who used to say, in her southern drawl, “I am appalled by what some people have not read!” Well, there’s a lot I haven’t read that “English people” are supposed to have read.

I “Go with my gut” (usually the Holy Spirit’s leading, I hope and pray) when it comes to reading. I haven’t read Clockwork Orange, or Catcher In the Rye, or Lord of the Flies, for example. I’ve educated myself about them, but that’s all that’s needed. I’ve read nothing but excerpts by Cervantes, Dumas, Hugo. I have trouble reading very long works. (I have read Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, which is really long, and really worth it.) Some authors of longer works have short stories and I’ve read them. Tolstoy is an example. School situations don’t really allow for reading very long works anyway. Keep things moving and encourage the students to read longer stuff on their own time.

Writing for a student assignment should be an exercise in self-editing, and figuring out what’s important and unimportant, what’s good and bad in his own writing and in what he’s read, morally and structurally. Can he tell that writers like Dickens got paid by the word? (Yes, he did, whatever people claim. He wrote serials, had to have a cliffhanger of sorts at the end of ever magazine issue, and had to justify what he was getting paid by filling the space allotted. He also loved words and didn’t edit himself for length much.) Have you considered that the translators of the KJV wanted variety in the vocabulary at least as much as they wanted accuracy? (This doesn’t mean the KJV is inaccurate. It just means that it’s a literary translation, striving to elevate the beauty of the Scriptures and the English tongue. Consider doing a study of how many times a different English word was used to translate the same Greek word in the New Testament.)

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Principles of Teaching Literature and English Skills

  1. Pingback: List of Blog Entries by Subject (The same blog post may appear under multiple categories) | Elk Jerky for the Soul

  2. What will literature in English help me in especially when I finish doing its course?

    • The curriculum we are working on is designed for homeschoolers. It will help students understand English better. It includes grammar and composition, and it’s taught in English though it includes translations of great works from around the world, lime The Epic of Gilgamesh, Augustine’s City of God, and others.

  3. Literature in English is very interesting and I do not know if I would do it upto university.

  4. This is lovely and practical! Thank you for posting this. As a Christian studying to become a teacher, I’ve often wondered how to practically integrate faith and learning. What level do you teach?

    Caroline

    • I homeschooled our three children at various ages, and my husband and I taught mostly Junior and Senior High in Christian schools. Thank you for your kind words. We are working on curriculum targeted at homeschoolers, and have been posting a series of articles on our philosophy and principles. Hope many of them are a help to you!.

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