Enriching the Teaching of Literature

Article excerpt

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Earlier this year, the out-going Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, aired his concerns (in a Guardian interview) about the emptiness of many students' cultural 'kit bag', which hindered them from a comprehensive experience of literature. His comments were backed up by the findings of the Biblical Literacy Survey (reviewed in the Independent).

Why is this noteworthy? Because, according to exam boards and university English departments, one of the key factors determining success in studying literature is the comprehension of the world in which it was created and initially received. This is particularly highlighted at Advanced Level literary study. Context is enshrined in the fourth Assessment Objective and permeates all the new syllabuses.

The problem is, many students, and even teachers, don't know what they're missing. While we can confidently talk about a 'post 9/11 society' and know that everyone understands the shorthand, we may be blind to the allusions used by almost every author encountered during A Level study and beyond--references to the Bible and classical literature, to historical events and ideas. How many of us realise that the mention of things like the drawing of lots, a cup of wine, dust, grass and doves taps into what was a universal cultural worldview in Western Europe?

Furthermore, given the pressures of KS5, few teachers have the time to gather all the background information which illuminates set texts, whilst many students may struggle to read up on all the various sources. For them, the lure of the dreaded 'Google essay' can seem much the easier option.

This is why the www.crossref-it.info English website has been designed, by teachers, for busy colleagues and stressed students who want to succeed at A Level/Pre U etc. It is a free resource which has steadily gained in popularity over the last year.

After scouring the bookshops and web for resources, it became clear that most still expect too much familiarity with a Western European/Christianised worldview, or ignore such references altogether. www.crossrefit. info assumes no prior knowledge or belief but has succinct pop-ups to explain terms from parish to purgatory, while mini essays unpack the connotations of bread, salt and vines for example. It's not just Bible stuff either; explanations cover classical myths and historical events, alongside all the usual literary technical terms, from alliteration to zeugma.

The site is usefully arranged under four subject areas:

* Writers in context

A range of articles illuminating 'The world of' various writers or eras, which cover the historical, social and political context, as well as the religious and philosophical worldview which affected writers and their works, all under girded by an interactive timeline

* Aspects of literature

Articles covering developments in English literature and language and other key areas of subject knowledge, such as the cultural impact of classical literature and the Bible. …