Books that teach

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A couple of weeks’ ago, I came across an inspirational blog post by English teacher Andrew Tharby who advocated using a text, in his case Jack London’s ‘White Fang’ as a benchmark of brilliant writing, which pupils could learn from and refer back to. His students evaluated how the author used tone, sentence structure and description to produce truly engaging prose. Then he asked them to emulate this in their own writing.

Examples of students’ pieces are posted on the blog and the results are very impressive. Andrew proudly writes that almost all of the pupils, “worked slowly, diligently and, in many cases, with the care and attention of artists.”

I realised that this was a very clever way to teach a particular skill with the use of literature. Of course, English is the obvious subject choice, but it got me thinking about how far the use of literary fiction could be stretched to support learning in different subjects.

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Today I finished reading Anne Booth’s incredible ‘Girl with a white dog,’ which links the life of a teenage girl, Jessie, in a modern-day English village to that of her grandmother during the Second World War. Told in a voice to which all young people could relate, it tracks Jessie’s concerns about history not repeating itself. From the notes at the end of the book, I could tell that Anne did extensive research into her novel to ensure its historical accuracy.

‘Girl with a white dog’ would be a great book for students to read whilst studying the Second World War, as it brings the subject to life in an accessible manner – something which many textbooks fail to do. Moreover, it highlights the ongoing relevance of the subject to modern life.

Exploring the idea further, how better to learn about different countries than by reading some great travel fiction? For younger readers, the ‘This is…’ series by Miroslav Sasek is a great way of learning about the world.

I think it’s important for parents and teachers to encourage children to learn in different ways. Those who are already avid readers will definitely take to Andrew’s methods, but even those who aren’t might find that they learn better through the literary route…

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