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Teaching the Classics to Younger Students

By Ronda Bowen

This article introduces techniques on teaching the classics of literature to elementary-aged students. Topics covered will include finding kids' versions of the tales, discussing the works, and reading comprehension exercises.

Why Classics for Kids?

Everyone knows you should read the classics of literature. They demonstrate human nature at its finest (and worst). But not everyone believes that it is possible to teach the classics to children.

In my series on teaching children Shakespeare, I gave an argument as to why we should teach The Bard to elementary school children. One part of this argument focused on the idea that children will be less intimidated when they read the full Shakespeare texts if they've already become familiar with the story being told.

A similar argument could be made for teaching classic authors such as Hugo and Homer to children. But it's more than that. There are so many versions of classic stories available today. By teaching children the classics, rather than recent bestsellers, you can have the children enter thousands of years old cultural discussion about the themes of humanity.

How to Select Texts

Texts abound for children's versions of the classics. One very popular series of adaptations is Stepping Stones, put out by Random House. Titles include Les Miserables and Great Expectations. Another great series of adaptation is Classic Starts put out by Sterling. Titles in this series include Treasure Island and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

There are two ways to choose which classics you will teach. You can either randomly select the works, or you can select works that accompany the time period you are studying in history. For example, if your class is studying ancient Greece, you might find Mary Pope Osborne's retelling of the Odyssey an appropriate addition to your classroom.

What About Reading Comprehension?

"How will I know if my students understand the texts without a workbook?"

This is a common concern for teachers who are used to using a textbook for reading. It need not be a concern, however. With a little prep time on your part, you will know whether your students understand the text - and more immediately than if you have to correct an endless stack of worksheets.

Before your class begins, read through the text and prepare questions to ask after each chapter about important plot points and character developments. When you reach the end of a chapter, ask these questions. Then, ask students to come up with a summary of the chapter. If you have a large classroom, this activity is best done by breaking students into groups. Have each group share with the classroom their 2-4 sentence summaries. It is very likely that each group will have noticed different details. By engaging in this activity, the students will be more likely to retain the storyline.

Reading Journals

In addition to summarizing the story to the class, students should keep individual journals. For younger students, journals that include a place to draw a picture are a nice touch.

For each chapter, students will write the chapter title and two to four sentences (depending on the grade level) summarizing the chapter. They can also draw a picture of a scene in the chapter. These journals make a nice record for students of what has been read.


Finally, don't forget to have classroom discussions on themes of the works.

Is it right that Jean Valjean must steal to feed his family? What do the students think? What was the world like during the time of the French Revolution? What was the world like in the time of Tom Sawyer? All these are questions for discussion.

In addition to having reading comprehension questions for each chapter, it is very helpful if you also have prepared larger discussion questions. If in doubt, you can always ask the question, "Why do you think this story is still popular?" You're sure to get some interesting responses.