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Distance Learning During Covid-19: Teaching Classic Literature to your Teen

Back to school this year looks a lot different for many students with parents having to step into roles traditionally filled by their kid’s teachers and support staff. If you are struggling with a teen who has to tackle classic literature in their English class, here are 5 tips to support them:

A stack of books that appear on the school curriculum sit on an old fashioned wooden desk.

1. It is absolutely ok to use SparkNotes, Wikipedia, etc.

Of course, the caveat here is to never use these sites as sources, but they can help provide some clarity around what is going on in the literary work as well as identify themes and symbols. If writing an essay is a requirement, your teen can take a look at the works cited or bibliographies on these sites to discover more academic sources.

2. Clarify unknown words

One of the major frustrations with classic literature can be the vocabulary that has either changed in meaning (so it doesn’t make sense to modern readers) or seems unnecessarily complex. While sitting with a dictionary is helpful, it may seem old-school to your teen. A quick Google of the word followed by “meaning” will provide a definition in seconds from Oxford Languages—Yup, the ones who publish Oxford English dictionaries. Annotated editions of a work can also be a great help!

3. Discuss the “why”

It is absolutely ok for a student not to like a text; they don’t have to like it just because it is on the curriculum and/or considered canon. But ask them to defend why they don’t like the text. It can’t just be because it is “old”, ask them what in the text supports their opinion(s)? How does the reading experience compare to more contemporary works—or things like blog posts, emails, etc.—they read more regularly?

BONUS: If their complaint is that they don’t see themselves in the book, ask them to reimagine the plot from a different perspective. What if it was told by someone of a different race, class, or time period? How are marginalized characters depicted? How has this changed over time?

4. Link literature to their interests

Some teachers allow students to create their own reading list. If this is the case, try and associate a classic book with their individual interests. For example, if your teen is: always following modern politics, try Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532); wanting to go into STEM, try reading science fiction like Bloodchild (1984); interested in all things spooky, try The Haunting of Hill House (1959); wanting to read the anti-Jane Austen, try the darker Wuthering Heights (1847). The possibilities are endless!

5. Add interest with historical and/or biographical information

Reading the context around a novel can help fill in interest gaps your teen may be experiencing. Frankenstein may not appeal to your feminist teen, but Mary Shelley’s life story and beliefs certainly would. Shakespeare’s play may seem like an iambic pentameter nightmare but examining his life during the plague may resound with your teen’s experience over the last few months. This can interest them in the work by understanding the context in which it was written.


And to answer the inevitable question “why do I have to read such old stuff anyway?”, here are a few canned responses for you:

  • “It shows the evolution of the English language, punctuation, style, and structure. Oh, how far we’ve come!”

  • “Once you read classic texts you can see how themes are reoccurring in contemporary literature. Are there any new ideas left?!”

  • “It expands your understanding beyond your own individual experience. Reading lets you to see through the eyes of another gender, race, location, time period, etc.”

  • “It’s the only travel we can get during lockdown!”

Let me know if you try any of these out or which one helped your teen get into their reading!

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