Improving engagement with pre-1900 texts

Author: Victoria Walker
Published: 05/12/2022

Reading pre-1900 texts

Studying pre-20th century texts is both one of the greatest joys and challenges of English literature. Reading texts from the past gives students not just an understanding of how our world has changed, but enables them to see how many things have stayed the same, and to ask important questions about the state of our society.

However, the challenges involved in processing archaic vocabulary and unfamiliar contexts can often get in the way of developing this deeper understanding. Here is a selection of resources to help break down barriers to understanding across key stage 3-4.

At KS3, when looking at literature from the past, it’s helpful to have a sense of how language itself has changed over time. The brilliant PowerPoint resource, A (brief) history of the English language, takes students from Old English up to Modern English and beyond, and is a useful starting point for any student who wants to understand where the text they are studying ‘fits in’.

Once students have an established understanding of language differences and context, they can then begin to analyse meaning. Activities like this quick Reading comprehension on Oliver Twist encourage learners to identify key points and then begin to develop their own interpretations of literary texts as a stepping stone to GCSE. Another useful KS3-4 transition resource is Analysing word choices in 'The Sea-Raiders', which focuses on a dramatic and engaging extract from H.G Wells' short story, and encourages different interpretations of the text.    

At KS4, the focus is more on preparing learners for their GCSE English Literature texts, whichever specification you are teaching. For The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Context bingo is a readymade resource to help students to understand the literary and social context of the novel, perfect for assessment objective 3, while Create a comprehension teaches students how to write questions of their own on A Christmas Carol — a useful skill that can be applied to other texts they are studying. 

Reading a whole 19th-century text can also be a useful springboard into the pre-1900 unseen prose texts or non-fiction extract that students will meet in their GCSE English Language exam. Unseen 19th-century fiction: tasks and exam style questions focuses on an extract from The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, and encourages learners to analyse language, develop their own point of view and respond creatively. In comparison, Understanding a 19th-century text offers targeted decoding and comprehension work on an extract from Georg Ebers’ Victorian-era autobiography.

If you’re looking for support with pre-1900 poetry texts, two unseen resources for older poems include An unseen poem: ‘The Crow’ by John Clare and The Sunne Rising – approaching an unseen poem, with ideas you could use for teaching unseen poetry texts more generally.

See our Unseen fiction collection for more classroom resources. 

See all our GCSE English Literature set text resources. 

This article was first published as an Editor's pick newsletter. 

Victoria Walker

Victoria Walker has taught English for over 15 years in schools across the country, and is the author of Teachit’s popular KS3 Gothic teaching pack. She is currently Deputy Headteacher at a Catholic comprehensive in Kent.