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Where do you start w/ a h.s. boy who has never read classic lit.....

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My son has not been a big reader and I am wonder where to start with a 17 yob who has not ever read anything very difficult. I gave him Tale of Two Cities the other day and he says he has no clue what he is reading. Normally he does an excellent job narrating back to me but he is truly clueless here.



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My advice is to read the book with him. Or listen to it together on audio. Then you can guide him in how to comprehend the more difficult language. Also it is good to give him some background on the story. Us cliffnotes or some such thing to give him the general background and summary and to ask questions that will help understand what is going on.

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1. Do it together
It is MUCH easier to "get" literature if you are doing it with someone else. I suggest either reading it aloud together and discussing as you go, or get it as a book on tape and listen while traveling in the car, or in the evenings, or whatever -- again, so you can hear it unfold at the same time and discuss as thoughts come to you.

2. Heavily make use of literature guides
Before you even crack the cover: Read a summary in advance so you know what the basic plot is, who the main characters are and their relationships with one another are, and learn the background information on the author and the times in which the work is set. All of these are crucial to "getting" the literature AS you read.

Then use the lit. guide AS you read to help you SEE AND UNDERSTAND themes, motivations, symbols, significant quotations, etc. There are several good FREE online lit. guides that we use:
- Penguin Teacher Guides = https://www.penguin.com/services-shared/teachersguides/
- Glencoe = http://www.glencoe.c...ure/litlibrary/
- Sparknotes = http://www.sparknotes.com/sparknotes/
- Cliffsnotes = http://www.cliffsnot.../id-305321.html
- Wikipedia articles on specific authors/works/literary movements = http://www.wikipedia.org/

3. Pick works that are more likely to connect
People often work harder to understand a difficult work if it is about something they enjoy, know about, or connect with.

- Does DS really like nature or adventure?
Call of the Wild, Treasure Island, The Odyssey, Huckleberry Finn

- Does DS enjoy sci-fi?
Farenheit 451, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, 1984, Brave New World

- Does DS connect with warriors or war?
Beowulf, Macbeth, The Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms

- Does DS like horror?
Frankenstein, Dracula, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, works by Edgar Allen Poe

4. Watch a (faithful) film version first
Especially if you're going to tackle a more difficult work thematically or language-wise, try watching a film version first, so you'll have a good idea of the plot and characters in advance. (And this can naturally lead to a compare/contrast paper!)

5. Start with easier classic literature
Charles Dickens is a bit steep as a first solo outing with classic literature -- pretty heavy on the vocabulary and lengthy Victorian sentence structures. Here are some classic lit ideas that most high school students cover, that are not so tough language-wise:

- To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Twain)
- The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway)
- Call of the Wild (London)
- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Carroll)
- Animal Farm (Orwell)

6. Start with shorter works -- short stories
Try gently and work your way up to harder and/or longer works by starting with short stories or novellas by classic authors:

- The Lady or the Tiger (Stockton)
- The Most Dangerous Game (Connell)
- Gift of the Magi (Henry)
- The Lottery (Jackson)
- Bride Comes to Yellow Sky (Crane)
- The Monkey's Paw (Jacobs)
- Thank You Ma'm (Hughes)
- a Sherlock Holmes short story (Doyle)
- The Open Window (Saki)
- Rip Van Winkle (Irving)

7. Practice by listening to classic works
Try listening to classic works on audio, but especially, start watching some classic plays to get used to the language:

- Much Ado About Nothing (1993 film with Kenneth Branaugh and Emma Thompson)
- Henry V (1989 film with Kenneth Branaugh)
- Julius Caesar (1953 film)
- The Taming of the Shrew (1980 BBC TV version with John Cleese)
- The Importance of Being Ernest (1952 film)
- Pygmalion ("My Fair Lady" is the musical version of this play)
- Our Town (1977 TV version with Hal Lindon)
- Death of a Salesman (1985 TV version with Dustin Hoffman)
- A Raisin in the Sun (1961 film -- OR -- 2008 TV version)

BEST of luck! And enjoy your literature journey with your DS! Warmest regards, Lori D.

Edited by Lori D.
corrected typos
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Lori, you should put all your literature posts together and publish them! Wonderful advice as always.


I want to give a big plug to audio books. I recently have been listening to Jane Austen on audio, and even though I've read those books before, I am appreciating them so much more now! The langauge and the writing don't seem old fashioned when listening to it, and the humor of the silly characters and the strength of the heroines just shines through with a good reader. My ds and I are currently enjoying listening together to The Iliad, which is being brought to life with another terrific reader.


Go to audible.com and listen to some of the samples of Tale of Two Cities to get a feel for different readers, then check your library system to see if they have it available. If you pick up the audio book, have your ds read along while listening, and you should listen along too so you can pause the book often to talk about what is happening. I also like the idea of watching a version first. Remember those old PBS Wishbone shows? I think there is a Tale of Two Cities one. And in the Star Trek movie, Wrath of Khan, the book is presented as a present to Captain Kirk, and there are several quotes from the book. That would be a great hook for my teen boys!

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Wow, Lori!


Jenn, I agree on the audios. And I just attended a Stobaugh workshop where he really was positive about audios. Stobaugh is major literature-crazy, just so you know. And he felt that audios help slower kids but they also help speedy kids -- to slow down and hear the language and get more out of the book, as well.


I was glad because we use audios about every-other-book sometimes.



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