LDSHE East Article: Teaching Literature in Context, by Janice Campbell

Teaching Literature in Context

Written by Janice Campbell

“The sole substitute for an experience which we have not ourselves lived through is art and literature… Literature transmits incontrovertible condensed experience… from generation to generation. In this way literature becomes the living memory of a nation.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn

LDSHE Article: Teaching Literature in Context by Janice Campbell. Homeschool Advice.

As Solzhenitsyn points out, literature enlarges our experiences. Pick up a good book, and you are immediately transported into another life. Reading the great books allows us to learn from the greatest minds of all time, and to gain perspective on the ideas that have shaped our culture. Literature is the foundation of a classical education. Why not make great books the foundation of your high school humanities study?

Reading and teaching literature in context is a bit like studying a map before you set out for a walk in a strange city. Context helps you find significant intersections, decipher archaic language, and find a path through old-fashioned rhetoric. Great literature is worth is all the time and attention it takes to understand and enjoy it, so you need to present it in a way that keeps your student from feeling as if he or she is wandering in the dark.

How does it work? How should a student approach a complex work such as Shakespeare’s King Lear, or Homer’s Odyssey? What are the context keys that will unlock their understanding? As I have read, learned, and taught great literature through Excellence in Literature, I’ve discovered some basic truths.

First, most students will enjoy the great books, as long as they are presented in a way that makes them understandable. Second, the fastest way to put students to sleep is to do all the work for them, and tell them everything they need to know. They stand a better chance of staying awake and absorbing everything if they do guided research for themselves. Third, reading and thinking analytically about literature helps students become better thinkers and writers, which translates to success in other subjects. Finally, there’s nothing better than the moment when a student gets through a long and difficult work, and says, “That’s the best book I ever read!”

Present Great Books in Context

When you ask your son or daughter to study the great books, it’s important to present them with a road map and the tools for enjoyment. This includes an annotated version of the book, plus audio, and possibly even video versions of the text. You’ll need to point your student to study resources that will provide the basics of the literary, artistic, and historical contexts of the book, including poetry, music, and other relevant resources.

Most literature studies should begin with the creation of a brief author profile, and some context readings. When the student has the context of the work firmly in mind, it’s time to begin reading the book. If the student is an auditory learner, it’s perfectly acceptable to listen to an unabridged audio version of the book for the first “read-through.” By beginning with context and moving to the work in question, students are ready to exercise analytical thinking as they compose essays in response to carefully crafted writing prompts.

Guided Study Ensures Active Learning

This “literature in context” method has the virtue of providing for self-directed learning. Once students understand what it takes to enjoy the great books, and once they have mastered the process, they have the keys that will help them unlock any difficult subject in college. Guided research helps students learn deeply and independently, and encourages use of critical thinking as they evaluate not only elements of the literary work, but also the worldview of the author, and the validity of various resources. Students don’t have time to get bored, because they aren’t passively listening to long lectures– they are actively engaged in learning!

Literature Study Helps Students Become Better Thinkers and Writers

Literature not only presents deep ideas and encourages critical thinking; it also models excellent writing in many different styles. A student who studies full-length great literature in context has an almost insurmountable advantage in test-taking and vocabulary over a student who doesn’t study the great books. In order to encourage the development of analytical thinking, it’s important to provide writing prompts that engage the student at a “why” level. This is not the time for trivia questions, such as “What color was the dress Cosette wore when Marius first saw her?” (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo) This type of question belongs in Trivial Pursuit,® not in a high-school curriculum! Asking questions that relate to the overall theme of the book, motivations of the characters, the author’s intent, or the reliability of the narrator will always elicit more thoughtful essays than will trivia questions. The right question prompts higher level critical thinking, which is a skill that will help the student in college and in the future.

The Delight of Shared Literary Experience

Beyond the academic benefits of studying literature, there is one more very fundamental reason to read the great books. Solzhenitsyn had it right when he spoke of literature as “living memory.” When your student reads and writes about one of the classic literary works of Western civilization, he or she becomes part of a great conversation about ideas that has been carried on, generation after generation. It doesn’t matter where you are—a ranch in Montana, an apartment in Los Angeles, a cabin in Tennessee, or even a houseboat on the Yangtze River—your family can live with and learn from the greatest literature of the ages. And as you experience great literature in context, I’m sure you’ll never get tired of hearing, “That’s the best book I ever read!”

LDSHE East, Janice CampbellJanice Campbell, the graduated homeschool mom of four sons, writes and speaks nationwide on writing, homeschooling, and entrepreneurship (when she is not reading, that is). She is the author of the Excellence in Literature curriculum for grades 8-12, Transcripts Made Easy, and other resources.


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6 thoughts on “Teaching Literature in Context”

  1. This is so random of me to comment but I have to tell you that I just came across your blog and that I love it! Honestly, you have a lovely website here and I am so happy I have discovered it! I am going to follow you so I can keep up to date with all of your posts. Keep up the great work!


      1. Aww you are so welcome! You have a wonderful blog. Do you have Twitter or Instagram? I just made accounts and would love to follow you!


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