Teaching Literature

The roots of teaching literature in the United States date back to the 17th century, when The New England Primer textbook was introduced in Boston (1690), along with the invention of the ‘blue backed' Elementary Spelling Book of pioneer Noah Webster (1758 - 1843), which helped generations of American children learn to read.

One of the early inspirations for teachers of literature was Lydia Maria Child (1802 to 1880) who ranks among the most influential of 19th century American women writers. Child wrote articles on anti-slavery and short stories as part of her Liberty Bell tales. These books were popular with young people and widely read in the North in the 1840s. Child is best known as the author of the Thanksgiving-holiday poem Over the River and Through the Woods, an American classic dating to 1844, and went on to write about the plight of Native Americans.

In terms of methods, there are two main approaches to teaching literature to children. The first is the concept of the teacher-centered approach, which is based on the traditional view that knowledge is passed from teacher to children. The second is the child-centered approach, supported by the philosopher and educationalist John Dewey, who believed that the purpose of education is to cultivate individual differences and to develop their independence of character. This method is also influenced by psychologist Jean Piaget. It concentrates on the belief that children are all at different stages of psychological development and emphasises nurturing children's intelligence and independence.

In Teacher-centered and Child-centered Pedagogical Approaches in Teaching Children's Literature (1995) Katsuko Hara elaborates on the main principles of these two key methods of teaching literature. The teacher-centered approach derives from the writings of Charlotte Huck and Doris Kuhn, perhaps best known for their curriculum work Children's Literature in the Elementary School (1968).

Hara explains that from the viewpoint of Huck and Kuhn, the function of the curriculum is to "transmit facts, skills, and values through mastering knowledge. The curriculum focuses on learning the correct interpretation and understanding, and identifying a central theme and the author's intent. The teacher determines all teaching content and children are just the receivers of knowledge. This curriculum reduces the content into small components that are clearly definable and measurable." In this method, teacher's lectures and textbooks are used as the major instructional tools.

The second theory, the child-centered approach, is highlighted in the work of Bob Barton and David Booth in Stories in the Classroom (1990). As Hara explains, the authors believe that the importance of a curriculum is to develop children's own capacities and intelligence, rather than transmitting knowledge and facts, and that the function of the curriculum "is to nurture children's original thinking, to connect the learning of literature to children's individual needs, and to give children diverse experiences." This train of thinking also reflects the work of JP Miller, who wrote the influential book The Holistic Curriculum (1988).

In terms of what is taught in schools across the United States, Surveying the Vast Landscape of American Literature: Resources for the Classroom (2004) provides an indication of the wide variety of textbooks on offer. These resources include a four-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, which covers 400 years of writing and includes poems, novels, plays, journals, letters and memoirs. This invaluable resource collection includes major works such as the classics Moby Dick (Herman Melville) and Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller). Other great literary works listed include Song of Myself (Walt Whitman), Walden (Henry David Thoreau), The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), The Waste Land (TS Eliot) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston).

According to Sandra Stotsky, in Changes in America's Secondary School Literature Programs (1995), a major shift has taken place over the past few decades, with a number of studies suggesting that high school literature curricula has changed. Stotsky, citing Arthur Applebee, author of Literature in the Secondary School (1993), reported that out of the top 43 books being read in Grades 7 through 12, the majority were by American authors, with notable exceptions being George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm and William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

The Assembly on American Literature, a group within the National Council of Teachers of English, lists the work of some of the leading writers to be considered by teachers of literature. They include Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Eudora Welty, John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, Kate Chopin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Edgar Allan Poe and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Teaching Literature: Selected full-text books and articles

Teaching Language Arts in Middle Schools: Connecting and Communicating By Sharon Kingen Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000
Librarian's tip: Chap. 9 "Teaching Literature"
Starting English Teaching By Robert Jeffcoate Routledge, 1992
Librarian's tip: Chap. 7 "Teaching Literature"
Reader Response in Secondary and College Classrooms By Nicholas J. Karolides Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Connecting Students and Literature: What Do Teachers Do and Why Do They Do It?"
Crossing Over: Teaching Meaning-Centered Secondary English Language Arts By Harold M. Foster Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002 (2nd edition)
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