This post has been amended to include the little dots on top of the last letter of Emily Brontë’s surname – thanks to Erin of Bubbles and Beebots for telling me how to do this!
I’ve been thinking a lot about Wuthering Heights and English Literature generally in the last few days. 11YO has dipped into WH, having heard Heathcliff mentioned as an example of an antihero in a Year 7 English lesson. She read two or three chapters of it, which I was quite impressed by, before giving it up because of “too many long sentences” and then went back to Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Then at the weekend I read this article in the Guardian, giving a teenager’s perspective on having to study Wuthering Heights for GCSE. I can understand the writer’s claim that JB Priestley deals with issues that are more relevant to the modern world, but I’m genuinely baffled that anyone could find Wuthering Heights – you know, the Wuthering Heights that’s full of drunkeness, insanity, violence, death, kidnap and blackmail – boring.
This got me wondering how – if at all – 19th century and earlier texts are taught at school. The main thing that put my 11YO off Wuthering Heights and every other ‘classic’ I’ve dangled in front of her, is the old fashioned vocabulary and sentence structure, and I suspect the Guardian’s teen contributor felt the same. Mid-19th century written English is different. It’s difficult to follow for the modern reader, particularly younger readers who are much more accustomed to communicating by text message than reading a densely packed page of long and complex sentences. And I found it just as difficult myself, when I first read WH as a 10 year old. But I didn’t see this as a reason for giving up – and this is the key difference I think – I skipped over the bits I didn’t understand (namely everything Joseph ever said), and carried on reading the bits that looked more interesting.
I somehow don’t think that “skipping over the bits you don’t understand” is one of the reading techniques on an English teacher’s checklist, and there’s probably sound pedagogical reasons for that. But to my mind, it’s an underrated skill, and I certainly couldn’t have got through my English degree without my ability to skim read. And what’s more, whatever it was Joseph actually said in Wuthering Heights (and 33 years later, I’ve still never been bothered to find out) wouldn’t have contributed anything to my enjoyment or understanding of the book. He’s a sanctimonious bore, Emily Brontë knew that and that’s probably why she made his speeches so impenetrable.
Surely skipping over the bits we don’t understand, to return to them later once we’ve picked up a bit more information somewhere along the way, is actually a pretty useful skill. That’s kind of how very young children learn, ignoring all the written information around them until we start teaching them to read, and tuning out all their parents conversation apart from the occasional words and phrases which are of interest to them (and invariably catching us out when we realise that they can suddenly understand far more than they used to!).
But I don’t think the education establishment shares this view. 11YO told me recently about an English lesson spent tackling the opening page of some classic text by highlighting every unfamiliar word or phrase, then looking them up in a dictionary and writing the definition out. Is this really the best way to learn? Of course, kids need to know how to use dictionaries, but when they’re faced with looking up virtually every single word on a page they’re just going to zone out. I’m not a teacher, just a book lover reflecting on how I learned to read – and I can’t help thinking that we should teach kids to tackle challenging texts by looking at the constituent parts of unfamiliar words and guessing what they mean, scanning the entire sentence to get the gist of meaning, looking for clues in the context and just generally giving them the confidence to believe that they can figure some things out without a dictionary.
It’s not just the school system – I’m going to point an accusing finger straight at abridged versions of children’s classics. When I was little I read the original versions of Black Beauty, Heidi, The Secret Garden, Little Women and so many more – all books which my own daughters have rejected as too difficult because the originals have fewer pretty pictures and more big words than the dumbed down abridged versions which are everywhere these days. I’m sure reading the original texts was partly what gave me the confidence to pick up Wuthering Heights at the age of 10 and just give it a try. It makes me feel very sad to think that children are missing out on the depth and detail of some of these stories.
What do you think? If you’re a teacher, what do you think is the best way to get children past the ‘difficult words ‘ barrier and inspire them to enjoy older literature? If you’re a book lover, do you look up every new word you come across, or just guess and move on? And has anyone, honestly, ever read Joseph’s lines in Wuthering Heights?