Teaching Literature: the staircase

January 20, 2016

I used to use a metaphor, the novel as a staircase, when I was teaching English Literature. It’s an idea I think students found helpful, and it works, with differing levels of sophistication, at all the stages of teaching. It’s a small staircase: it has only three stairs. The bottom step is labelled ‘plot‘, the second ‘character‘ and the top one ‘themes and ideas‘. If you’re an ex-student of mine, you can stop reading now and go get a cup of tea.

The staircase offers a sequence for exploring a novel (or indeed any work of literature that tells a story); it also offers a way of showing students how to develop their analytical skills and move from lower to higher marks and grades.

Plot is the bottom level; without it you can’t have a story. If you don’t know the plot, can’t understand it, sequence it and summarise it, you aren’t going to get very far in an examination. If you have plot secure in your mind, you will be able to write some sense and get some marks.

Character is the next step up: you need characters in a story, you need to know who they are and how they interact, and understand their personalities to an extent. Secure understanding here enables a student to access the next stages in a mark scheme, and consequently higher marks.

The top step is the themes and ideas: what the writer has to say and wants her/his readers to be thinking about, reflecting on as they are reading. As a reader, you can have an opinion about these ideas, and it doesn’t have to be the same as the writer’s. The more you can analyse at this level, the more chance you have of accessing the very highest grades on offer.

The idea isn’t rocket science, and I never claimed it was; it took a number of years to evolve into what I’ve presented above. It worked well with a lot of the texts I taught, particularly at GCSE, (although I introduced the concept in outline much earlier), such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth. Now I find myself unconsciously applying the model to other novels or plays I’m reading: it offers a useful scaffold or framework for exploring a text.

Lesson over. For those who would like more detail, I’ll write more fully in upcoming posts. Who knows, someone may find this stuff useful; in my retirement, I no longer use it.

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