Teaching and Learning the Literary Canon

In Uncategorized by Alex Quigley11 Comments

“To use books rightly, is to go to them for help; to appeal to them when our own knowledge and power fail; to be led by them into wider sight and purer conception than our own, and to receive from them the united sentence of the judges and councils of all time, against our solitary and unstable opinions.”

― John Ruskin

We should share great works of literature – the literary canon – with all of our students. We should ‘use books rightly‘ as John Ruskin advised.

This statement should appear self-evident. There should be little debate. But, of course, there is a great deal of debate. There is discord, political posturing and perennial arguments about the ‘literary canon‘. This battle of the books sparks ire about who decides upon the formation of the canon. The ‘who‘ is followed by the ‘why‘. The ‘why‘ is followed by the ‘how‘. It is a very public scrap. Michael Gove may pitch Stephanie Meyer against George Eliot as a tasty Oxford Union polemic. Teachers in English offices will argue about the merits of ‘The Hunger Games’ pitted against Homeric epics.

Only I’m tired of such either/or debates that stimulate much sound and fury, but signify pretty much nothing. I want the best reading in the best of all possible worlds. I want to foster a connection with reading in my students that is strong and long-lasting. Balls to the binary thinking of classic versus modern! In the words of E. M Forster:

“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted…”

I want to ensure my students love reading their canon and love great literature. I want to erase any divide. The question is how do we best leverage students into reading great literature for pleasure. Great literature by the measure of us all, but mainly by those who teach it.

The term canon derives from the Greek ‘kanon‘, meaning measuring stick. Since time immemorial we have gone about making such measures. Any such decisions are of course biased by the prevailing powers and opinions of the day. I have issues with the long-standing narrowness of the literary canon, but we do need a measuring stick. It should be flexible, but there can be a general consensus about great literature.

These past few weeks I have been planning to teach the great literature of what we consider the canon with my brilliant colleague, Nicole Fletcher (@NicoleFletcher0), for our new Year 8 SEN group. The group have a range of significant learning needs and they lack a host of literacy skills that many secondary school students take for granted. Traditional orthodoxy might claim that teaching any version of the literary canon simply wasn’t appropriate for such students. I feel this too often reflects a poverty of expectation and ambition. With teacherly craft knowledge and considered pedagogy, I am of the belief that pretty much no literary text is beyond any student (although I doubt ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ will be on the curriculum any time soon!). We have carefully chosen challenging adaptations of canonical texts to bridge what is too often seen as an insurmountable divide for young readers who lack reading fluency.

We first tackled the ‘what‘ question in our planning. With our Year 8 group this year the ambitious plan is to teach the entire chronological span of the literary canon (with a few gaps!). The ‘story’ is chronological in structure to help the students construct a sense-making narrative that connects our literary tradition (Christopher Booker’s ‘Seven Basic Plots‘ is very instructive in helping shape patterns that connect literature across centuries and genres). Term one will be ‘Myths and Monsters‘. Term two follows with ‘Star Crossed Shakespeare‘ – an immersive study of everything Shakespearean. The final term concludes with ‘Great Wars and Great Words‘ – the focus being Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Private Peaceful‘, classic World War One poetry and more.

The ‘why‘ was to provide these students with the ‘cultural currency‘ too often hidden from their view. To share with them the best of what has been thought, said and written. But mostly, it was to give them the power of stories. Giving them a ticket that can transport them into the rich depths of history, through breadths of time, back to the home of their heart. There really is little better I can share with them than the humble book.

Finally, the bit I am most interested in – the ‘how‘.

Trying not to Bewilder with Beowulf!

A selection of fiction and non-fiction from our ‘Myths and Monsters‘ scheme of learning.

At the heart of the learning about ‘Myths and Monsters‘ there is of course a significant amount of reading. We have selected ‘Beowolf: The Dragon Slayer‘, by Rosemary Sutcliff, as a core text in the first half-term. It is an excellent and accessible alternative version of the original Anglo-Saxon poetry, whilst still being highly challenging for the students in our group. We also plan to use it in conjunction with Seamus Heaney’s excellent translation of ‘Beowulf‘ so that the rough beauty of the poetry is not lost. The repeated cadences, alliteration and kenning may prove most memorable.

A crucial aspect in understanding challenging literary texts for students with weak literacy is to build their bank of knowledge. Therefore we have selected a range of non-fiction texts that explore a myriad of myths. We will have students undertake lots of non-fiction reading: skimming, scanning and summarising for nuggets of useful knowledge and marvellous monsters. We want to supplement this by exploring the geographical context of Denmark, Anglo-Saxon warriors and the life and times of Beowulf’s brethren. There will be lots of drawing and display making to help visualise this crucial knowledge. We can tease out the complexities of the subject specific language step by step. We will do all this before they even read the book, removing the barriers to their understanding so that they can revel in the gruesome story.

The second part of the term will focus around the excellent modern novel, ‘The Shadow of the Minotaur‘ by Alan Gibbons, in conjunction with the enduring legend of Homer’s ‘Odyssey‘. Gibbons’ modern adaptation of the Perseus Minotaur myth is a skilful modern reworking of the classic myth (with the best opening chapter in children’s fiction). It is an apt marrying of the classic and the modern.

Of course, there are many films, like the animated fantasy of ‘Beowolf’, to the Percy Jackson films and ‘Wrath of the Titans’, that fit well with the reading to help bolster their understanding, building their prior knowledge and help them to visualise the challenging language. By tapping into the contemporary culture our students do understand – their ‘de facto canon‘ – we can leverage a passion for classic poetry, modern prose and more. With purposeful pedagogy, there are many ways in which you can enrich writing and elicit complex discussion and stimulate further reading from ‘reading‘ contemporary film.

The unit will build up to a narrative writing outcome. They will perform a story along the way, in the great oral tradition (sans harp!). It will synthesise the language they have analysed in the texts and and it will be an opportunity to craft and draft a piece of writing they are truly proud of in our classroom and beyond. The romantic in me has them reading their story to their parents by the fireside at Christmas like a true ‘Scop‘ (a travelling Anglo-Saxon story-teller and poet)!

In my experience of teaching students with weak literacy, developing strong learning habits is essential. Therefore we will both look to build weekly teaching and learning habits and routines, such as ending each week with a review of their weekly learning – giving some spaced repetition to the core knowledge we want them to remember. Repetition really is the golden rule. Rather than being some deadening routine, instead it builds consistency, confidence and helps forge a growing sense of themselves as readers and writers.

Each lesson will begin with a revisiting of the last, followed by dictionary and thesaurus games. So much of their literacy issues stem from a sheer dearth of vocabulary. We will exploit every chance we get to bolster their armoury of words. So much of the myths we will read provide the opportunity to explore the fascinating etymology of our complex language. Again, we shouldn’t shy away from such complexity, but instead, we should take on the challenge.

Ultimately, we want to make connections. Connecting the stories that they know with the touchstones of literary history: connecting the literary canon with their de facto canon. Connecting words and images; non-fiction and fiction; reading and writing. Ultimately, that is what great stories do. We should only connect the prose and their passion and both will be exalted.


  1. Being so near Jorvik can only help. Beowulf and many sagas would have been told and re-told at specific sites in the city. Hope it goes well!

  2. Love the fact that your scheme for ks3 practically mirrors our scheme ; a passion for great literature!

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  4. Hello,
    Really enjoy reading your blog. I’m in the U.S. — California. I’m wondering how old your students are.

  5. Alex – I have been meaning to get in touch to respond to your many very thought-provoking blogs –
    and have just much enjoyed your literary canon one (as a former research student of the great Frank Kermode, I like to revisit his profound thinking on the canon in his The Classic – and you’ve made me pull my Harold Bloom and George Steiner off my shelf).

    See also what Kermode writes in Forms of Attention (1985)- as quoted by Bloom The Western Canon
    page 4 (I am not normally a Bloom fan …)

    For me – and my colleagues in Tom’s KEGS English Department – it is always, as it is I am sure for you, a case of juxtaposition – the allegedly “great” with the yet-to-be-fully-appreciated, so, eg: Duffy’s Answering Back comes to mind – and any kind of reworking, later inter-textual response by a writer to a previous one. This is why compare contrast is, of course, central to Literature Teaching – as is work on Unseens. As an aside, we recently gladly said goodbye to the flaws and assessment inadequacies of A-Level (with far too many remarks with doubled raw scores – and so-called Examiners not giving credit to unusual answers from able students …). The CIE Pre-U in Literature has been so liberating so far – no CrASh and DASh to AS – time to grow with challenging Personal Investigations …. The Pre-U is not – nor should be – the preserve of certain types of school ….

    Back to the kanon –well done for bringing this to the attention of the blogosphere!

    Reading aloud – one of our current emphases here, allows students’ voices to merge with the voices of, say, a long dead, supposedly “canonical” male, with the voices of living writers – I / we do a lot of ad hoc experimentation with Reading Aloud…. I would be very interested in what you might think of our KEGS Learning Lessons Reading Aloud research and case studies with clips – enjoy the Milton “choric” reading?!

    Bakhtin is my headguruteacher for all forms of the dialogic …. So actual student voices can refashion the kanon – not only bringing the dead to some form of new life – but celebrating and enacting everything your wonderfully apposite quotation from Ruskin meant.

    I love “ tolle lege, tolle lege” (Augustine)!

    Greatly inspiring is the Daniel Pennac clarion call:

    “Silent texts for disembodied spirits? Give me Rabelais! Give me Flaubert, Dosto, Kafka! Give me Dickens! Come forth, great trumpeters of meaning! Come forth and breathe life into our books! Our words need making flesh! Our books need life!”

    (“Quoi? Des texts muets pour de purs espirits? A moi, Rabelais! A moi, Flaubert! Dosto!Kafka! Dickens, a moi! Gigantesques brailleurs de sens, ici tout de suite! Venez souffler dans nos livres! Nos mots ont besoin de corps! Nos livres ont besoin de vie!”)

    Hoping to hear from you soon,

    David Greenwood

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  7. Such an interesting and inspiring post! As a phd student of medieval (popular) literature, with no memories of covering even the most canonical of medieval texts at school, it is refreshing to hear such enthusiasm for the subject. The perceived (and sometimes very real) elitism of premodern literary studies is at odds with both the modern popular obsession with medievalism and the original nature of the lit… I also have a sibling with SEN so that aspect of the project struck a chord. I would love to know how it went?

  8. Hi Alex, i’m working on a similar unit for our Y8 curriculum. I wonder if you have any resources from these units that you’d be able to share. They would be gratefully received.



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