When you’re preparing to teach over 2,000 years’ worth of British literature to high schoolers, you’re going to have to make some tough decisions about how to do it. Sometimes, the choices are made for you (i.e. a prescribed curriculum or a textbook). On the other hand, you might have absolute free rein to the point you don’t know where to begin.
No matter your situation, there are some instructional decisions that you can make to increase engagement, learning outcomes, and overall success. I always start with a Backward Design approach to curriculum design. You can start by reading this post about the cornerstones of any curriculum I create. I used these foundations when creating my own British Literature Curriculum.
In this post, I’ll explain how to teach British Literature in a way that can be applied to any high school ELA curriculum expectations.
British Literature Time Period Foundations
One of the first decisions you’ll make, or perhaps will be made for you, is thematic or survey (timeline) organization for your content. Either way, discussing the historical and cultural context of the time periods can help students make connections while reading.
In a survey course, this discussion can come naturally at the beginning of the unit. This time period workbook includes short background descriptions and engaging learning tasks that can be completed in stations at the beginning of the unit or as journal tasks throughout the unit.
One of the problems with the survey approach to teaching British literature is that for at least a major part of the year, students will be studying singular points of view. One way to include diverse points of view is to include a postcolonial author highlight during your time period introductions. Some of my favorite authors to study are Andrea Levy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Salman Rushdie. This is one way to diversify your survey study course.
Another very successful way to provide diverse perspectives is to study these works from a variety of literary lenses. You can read more about how I use literary lenses in the ELA classroom by clicking here. Specifically, feminist lens and post colonial lens are important perspectives to generate thinking about representation and bias.
Even if you’re teaching British literature thematically, using multiple perspectives to study the texts related to a theme can enrich students’ perspectives and interpretations.
You can apply literary lenses analysis to individual works, like this Macbeth unit or this Importance of Being Earnest workbook, or you can use them within an entire unit of different pieces of literature, like this Victorian Poetry Unit.
Again, with so many content choices, it’s impossible to cover all of the wonderful works of literature from the long history of British literature. Therefore, one of my favorite approaches to teaching British literature is providing a choice reading novel study unit or literature circles.
Choice Reading Novel Study Unit
A choice reading novel study unit is a stand alone unit focusing on student choice. I’ve already written extensively about how I facilitate choice reading units and assess them, so you can read more about it here and here. To summarize, students choose a novel, either from an extensive list, time period, or other standard, and read a novel of their choice. Then, they complete a creative thinking project related to a theme in the novel. Students present these projects, and the class has an opportunity to ask questions.
You can check out my choice reading novel study unit here.
Literature circles are another fun way to give controlled choice. You can read all about how I plan literature circles by clicking here. For a quick summary, I choose several novels and ask students to sign up for the one they are most interested in. Then, students meet in groups throughout the unit to share an analysis task they had to complete.
You can check out my literature circle resource here.
Since the novel form wasn’t popularized until the Victorian era, I chose to save the choice reading unit and literature circles for the modern era. (In my curriculum, this is the end of the school year.) This gives students so many options for diverse authors and works. This is always one of the highlights of my British literature curriculum.
Some works in British literature may feel pretty far removed from students. The truth is they are! Macbeth? Beowulf? The Canterbury Tales? Most students would have a hard time making real-world (or at least modern) connections to these works. But, if you can create an activity or situation that emphasizes these connections, students will find relevance and hopefully interest in these classic works. Here are some examples I use in my Canterbury Tales unit in my British literature curriculum:
- The Canterbury Tales Prologue: Each student picks a character and completes a character resume. This resume is good practice for college and career readiness skills. Then, students participate in a character interview panel to guess who had which character. This is yet another way to practice for interviews.
- The Pardoner’s Tale: We listen to Episode 2 of the Happiness Lab podcast, The Unhappy Millionaire. This episode is explains the science behind money and happiness. It also explains why humans have a hard time predicting what will make them happy. It’s a great real-world connection to a very dated text.
You can check out my Canterbury Tales Unit here.
Universal Design and Active Learning
My experience with British literature in my college classes was a lecture-style learning experience. Our instructor was the “sage on the stage,” and we mostly listened (and the most studious took notes). Because this is what many English teachers learned in college, it’s easy to see how this method is often adapted to secondary ELA classes. But, is this really the best method?
Certainly, lecture has a place in the classroom. However, ideally, it will be balanced with active learning opportunities. Active learning is a process that shifts the focus from the teacher to the student. In this case, active learning means that students are active and engaged in their own learning.
Active Learning Strategies for British Literature
Paired with Universal Design for Learning, active learning strategies in your British literature class should provide multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression & action. This means students should have multiple means to access the content (video, audio, lecture, discussion, reading, etc.), engage in the class, and show what they know.
Here are some UDL active learning strategies for your British Literature curriculum:
- Project-based assessments: Design engaging projects that connect to your learning goals. Read this blog post about how I use mini art projects to teach Romantic poetry.
- Guided note-taking: I love using visual notes as a way to improve accessibility for students who prefer visual learning. Here is an example of a visual notes guide (and a mock-protest).
- Dramatizations: Create an activity that is a dramatization from a situation from your story. A mock-trial for the Canterbury Tales is a great example of a classroom dramatization.
- Escape Room: I created an end of the year British Literature escape room that my students love. Check out the escape room here.
- Act It Out: Ask students to act out a scene from Hamlet.
- Choice reading: Described above.
- Discussions: Socratic seminar, panel discussions, silent discussions, and fishbowl discussions are just a few of the many examples.
- Learning Stations: Learning stations are a great way to get students out of their seats and completing learning tasks. Here is an example of an engaging station activity that I use on the first day of my British Literature class. (This can be done digitally too!)
Through my own research, I found that students are able to master the standards through contextualized vocabulary and incidental study (meaning they learn vocabulary by studying words in context and through incidental means, like reading and discussion). However, in order to coincide with research that suggests using different modes of vocabulary instruction is key, I use several formal vocabulary studies embedded in my British literature curriculum.
Ideally, even these formal studies can be used as contextualized vocabulary experiences. In addition, for a bit more structure, I use bookmark vocabulary. This resource is my “go-to” vocabulary program that is more flexible and aligns to contextualized vocabulary study. Here is a great research synthesis for more reading on vocabulary instruction.
Full-Year British Literature Curriculum
If you’re looking for a structured full-year British Literature curriculum that follows these standards, check out my curriculum here. This curriculum is fully aligned to the Common Core Standards, and includes over 35 resources including units, seasonal resources, flex resources, writing resources, poetry resources, and more.