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When you look back at what you were required to read in school, do you ever wonder why? Especially if you have continued to read as an adult?
The fact of the matter is, a lot of times what you actually read in school might have pretty much been left up to the teacher. Now, there are frequently more guidelines, but if your education ended 10 or 20 years ago, your teachers may have chosen what they thought was important, or what they had studied, what was in the textbook (or the resource room)…or sometimes what they liked or knew the students would like.
None of these reasons for teaching a text are terrible, but none of them are very organized either.
When I started teaching in the U.S., I had a very general curriculum from the school district, a textbook for writing/grammar and a textbook for literature. The writing/grammar books for each grade covered the same material; the idea was that the teacher was supposed to cover what the students needed, and the literature book, well, it had a lot of materials, but there wasn’t much organization other than by genre and some literary techniques. Looking back, what surprises me is that there was little direction for the teacher on what should be taught in one grade or another, so in the end, students might get one thing several times, and other important things, not at all.
In grades 11 and 12, there is usually more structure because college-bound students are expected to take courses in American and British literature (in the U.S.). The curriculum for these courses is usually a bit more stable because teachers tend to teach what they studies in high school and university, and they do have a reasonable idea of what students are expected to know.
For younger students, in the past, what the students really needed to know was unclear except that they usually study a range of genres each year, and as mentioned the “key texts” that sort of evolved over time. The idea behind studying American and English literature is that there is a certain amount of “cultural literacy” the students should have: they should know authors and literary periods and why they are important.
This idea has changed a little in recent years. Students who take “Advanced Placement” courses need to be familiarized with certain texts that are likely to appear on the exam in addition to having general literary analysis skills that are tested. The Common Core standards have changed the way high school English is taught mainly be requiring a heavy dose of nonfiction, which was frequently ignored in the past in favor of the “Big 3”: prose fiction, drama, and poetry.
Finally, recent growth in the use of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program in the United States might start to change the way English is taught. The IB programs are based on the British system, and teachers are required to choose texts based on a range of criteria, including time period, country of origin, and genre. There is also a much greater emphasis on oral communication in the IB, which formally, is almost nil in the United States given that it is not tested.
In short, if there are things that you studied in high school that make you wonder “Why?” now, as you can see, there are several possible reasons…and several reasons it may not actually make that much sense at all. If you are a reader now, it seems someone did something right, but this disorganized approach doesn’t give you much of a framework if you want to “improve yourself” through reading literature as an adult.
But don’t worry, there is hope…and it isn’t that difficult. There are lots of resources that provide you with reading lists, what will actually help have a more enriching reading life is understanding the major categories. Then you can more easily sort out what you like and what you don’t.
Once you have read a representative work from each group, you can go back and read more deeply in the ones that interest you.
What was with those big literature books we had?
Back in the day, the textbook was really the only thing teachers had. Having access to photocopiers made things easier, but even then, teachers usually had strict limits on the number of copies they could make. You might remember having to hand in photocopies of materials that you used in class to share with the teacher’s other classes.
While all textbooks have boards and committees of experts that contribute to putting them together, the final selections should not be seen as iconic. If you look at a lot of them, you will see the same stories, poems, etc. over and over. Partly this happens because these are the stories the publishers have released to be anthologized. Once a story, for example, has been used a lot, it starts to be included because the teachers want it. Teachers serve on textbook adoption committees, and for English, the teacher generally care the most about whether the literature they want to teach is in the book. So then those texts get included because the publisher wants to sell their textbooks.
So there is sort of a circle of life there. Or death, depending on your point of view.
How do I know when I am “well read”?
I’ve been an English Department Head for grades 7-12 and also a curriculum director for schools with ages 3-18, or U.S. Pre K-grade 12. Below is an overview of what I would try to get in across all grades of any school teaching primarily in English. This is the literature I consider it important to be familiar with regardless of location.
This list is not exhaustive. It is meant to outline a core literature program.
There needs to be room in the program for the school to teach literature associated with other subjects studied, contemporary or topical literature, literature associated with the location, and yes, there should be room for the occasional texts that are there because of teacher or student affection. It shouldn’t be the main criteria in the program, but studying a book where there’s a lot of passion can be an unforgettable experience!
When you self evaluate your reading, consider what you know about the following categories of literature.
Follow The Lois Level for future posts detailing the lists below!
Late 19th Century Realism and Naturalism
Modernist and Harlem Renaissance
(Prior to the 19th century, Americans mostly read imported British literature.)
British and American
Gothic (offshoot of Romantics)
Greek and Roman Mythology
European Fairy Tales
Smattering of the following: The Arabian Nights, Norse Mythology, African/African American trickster tales (these morphed into the Brier Rabbit tales in the US), Indigenous folk tales
Knowledge of The Bible (Old and New Testaments) is important for understanding literature written in English and the culture of English speaking countries.
The New International Version (NIV) is well researched and accessible to the modern reader. A good study version comes in handy for helping you understand what you’re reading.
Short Prose Fiction
Straight nonfiction (researched and usually non-narrative)
Experimental/Graphic literature (both of these genres cross with others)
Regions that publish original work in English (does not include literature in translation)
England & rest of the United Kingdom
The United States of America
In addition: Australia, Canada, Ireland*, New Zealand, Africa, India, Other parts of Asia
Canadian literature often gets mixed in with the United States. Australian and New Zealand literature have very limited availability in other regions of the world, including the U.S. and the U.K.
Note: Literature in English started in England. Literature in the United States and the Commonwealth countries developed later, but all English speaking countries teach English literature. Africa, India, and certain parts of Asia have an English language literature that mostly started during their colonial years and continue into the present day.
A good rule of thumb is that if the country was a British colony, there’s a good chance it has a body of literature written in English.
*The Republic of Ireland is independent of the U.K. Northern Ireland is part of the U.K.
Reading to make you a better reader:
No illustrations in this, but it is broken down into manageable articles.
I read this to prepare for my entrance exam to graduate school because I felt my knowledge of English history and literature was a bit shaky.
I like series 1001 Books you Must Read Before you Die as well, but this book, below, gives you a better sense of authors total contribution rather than breaking it down by books.
Cover photo: PCHS-NJROTC [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]