Enriching students' cultural capital

Author: Emma Granton and Simon Briggs
Published: 19/09/2019

Question Mark

The challenge:

Preparing students for their GCSE literature text without reading the exam text at key stage 3.

The answer:

Enrich students' cultural capital by exploring the themes/ideas/contexts from the set text (but with no reference to the set text). 

The example:

'The island' series of lessons – a pre-reading exploration of the themes/ideas/contexts of Golding's novel Lord of the Flies.  

In Lord of the Flies, behind the story of a group of boys who find themselves stranded on a desert island, lies a set of much wider ideas and contexts, only hinted at by allusion. The novel is a microcosm of society that is packed full of allusions to other novels, to politics, to world affairs, to social class, to religion and to philosophical questions about man’s innate nature. Allusions are a brief and indirect reference to a person, place, thing or idea of historical, cultural, literary or political significance. They do not describe in detail the person or thing to which they refer. They are just passing comments and the writer expects the reader to possess enough knowledge to spot the allusions and grasp their importance in a text.

First lesson 

This pre-teaching ideas approach is designed to teach and empower students to be able to recognise relevant allusions in advance of their reading of Lord of the Flies, to understand some wider meanings and contexts that lie behind these allusions and to acquire essential ‘cultural capital’ to enhance their appreciation of this seminal literary text.

In the first lesson students consider, imagine and discuss the positive and negative experiences of being stranded on an uninhabited desert island. This – after all – is an essential part of the imaginative appeal of the novel to young people. The idea of being in a ‘paradise’, cut off from civilization, rules, society and adults is naturally appealing to students who may wish to escape from their lives of school, work, cold winters and dull towns and cities. This concept is also part of the appeal of the ‘Robinsonade’ literary genre which can be traced back to perhaps the first novel in the English language, Robinson Crusoe (1719) which in turn may have its origins in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1612).

Using extracts 

Later in the lessons students are introduced to an extract from J.M. Ballantyne’s 1858 novel The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean. Golding and his wife Ann frequently read stories about islands to their children, David and Judy, and one night, Golding said to Ann: ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea if I wrote a book about children on an island, children who behave in the way children really would behave?’ Lord of the Flies then, represents Golding’s vision of the reality of boys left to their own devices and is a world away from the events of The Coral Island.  Golding went as far as to borrow Ballantyne’s character names for Lord of the Flies; the narrator in The Coral Island is Ralph and the mature leader of the three stranded boys is Jack. The Coral Island is directly referenced by Golding in Lord of the Flies. During the first assembly when Ralph is persuading the boys that they can have a ‘good time’ on the island, he says: ‘It’s like in a book’. The boys shout back excitedly: ‘Treasure Island … Swallows and Amazons … Coral Island’. When the Naval Officer arrives, and before he fully understands what has happened, he says, ‘Jolly good show. Like the Coral Island’.

These allusions are quite deliberate to show Golding’s subversion of Ballantyne’s fantastical tale. Ballantyne presents a romantic vision of three boys who, without the conventions of society, are still able to usefully work together for each other’s good and against the savage forces that threaten them. Golding shatters this illusion in Lord of the Flies. Without rules and without adult guidance, Golding’s boys demonstrate the evil within. As Simon says, ‘maybe there is a beast … maybe it’s only us’.

Key themes and concepts 

During the series of lessons, students are introduced to the idea of utopia and dystopia, using extracts from Ballantyne’s text and examples from other novels. This means that when they come to study Lord of the Flies they will have the contextual knowledge and understanding of these terms already. As a teacher, it is incredibly useful to be able to use terms like these in the safe knowledge that the students can understand what you mean by them by drawing on prior knowledge. It is the hope that using terminology like this becomes second nature to the students, rather than something that’s drilled into them to use in a specific exam.

When studying Lord of the Flies later in year 10, this prior knowledge will allow the students to recognise the irony in the Coral Island similarities at the start of the story, and the reference to it at the end of the novel.

This approach gives the students a rich store of cultural capital and will hopefully lead to a more enjoyable reading experience at GCSE.

Have a look at the lesson resources that support this approach.

Emma Granton and Simon Briggs

Emma Granton is a Lead English Expert for AQA and teaches in the north east in a mixed 11-16 comprehensive school. Simon Briggs (@SimonBr51197859) is also a Lead English Expert for AQA.