This article is written by our guest blogger Abby Spreadborough, who tutors English on MyTutor.
Being a tutor who has taught many hundreds of hours of GCSE and A-level English Literature and Language, it’s easy to get stuck in your ways. From the familiar canon of 19th-century novels to the frequently anthologised war poems which myself and students alike can almost recite, there are many familiar monoliths of English lessons. But these canonical texts need not be boring as, crucially, tutors can broaden student’s horizons beyond the curriculum.
I discovered this during lockdown; even though GCSEs and A-Levels had been cancelled, parents and students were still eager to keep up their academic progress. Whilst I stuck to the syllabus when required to, it did allow me the freedom to introduce more of the texts I loved. From lesser-studied Shakespearean tragedies to the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, I used this opportunity to spark students’ interests; and they took well to the exploratory approach.
Free to explore what sparked their interest, whether it was the historical background, experimental forms or gender politics, students’ eyes were opened to texts beyond just the mark scheme. It also made me realise as a tutor how narrow the curriculum is. For example, the largest GCSE examining board’s reading list does not include a single black author; this is simply unacceptable in 2020.
However, the reality is it’s not always possible for us to create a canon of our own. Nonetheless, you can stick to the curriculum and still broaden the horizons of your students. Many set texts from the 19th century such as Jane Eyre can act as springboards for all-important discussion of contexts such as colonialism and its legacy, while 20th century works like An Inspector Calls can lead students to reflect on the injustices of the class system. Context is more than just AO3 – the past impacts the present, so cannot be dismissed.
Alongside these vital discussions, I find that sharing reading recommendations is very helpful for a student’s progress outside of the lesson space. Sites like poetryfoundation.org have thousands of poems and accompanying articles and Gutenberg.org offers many more free to download classic novels. If students are more fond of paperbacks you can suggest they make a trip to their local charity shop – I have picked up many of my favourite books for less than a pound!
Another great skill tutors can mobilise is their interest and knowledge in other disciplines. Many tutors may be joint honours students or have taken modules outside of their main discipline. For instance, I have a keen interest and have studied History of Art during my first year of university, a subject rarely taught in schools. Often when discussing a period or movement in literary history the visual arts follow suit. Not only looking but analysing these notable artworks help students to understand the wider influence and implications of the wide-ranging period. When teaching Romanticism I am always sure to include a Turner painting and for postmodernism, I choose Andy Warhol.
And while expanding student’s horizons with online resources, and using an interdisciplinary approach is useful, above all tutors should remind their students of how the skills learnt in the lesson space will help them in the future when the national curriculum is a distant memory. Studying English Literature equips students with the ability to spot and interrogate ‘fake news’, recognise when rhetoric is being used to sway their point of view or just appreciate a really good book. Of course, we’re here to help our pupils get results – but there’s more to tutoring than just what exam boards prescribe!