In Summary
  • Many learners worry about how they can make a good grade in English, especially in literature.
  • Thousands of high-schoolers resort to study guides for English literature to help them out of this problem.
  • Most of the guides simply offer ‘model answers’ to the likely exam questions and do not actually ‘guide’ the learner to appreciate literature on her own.

The new school year is here. The new study term just began in earnest this week. For the scholars going back to school the holidays are over. It is back to the classroom.

Classwork and homework are here to take away the idle time that has been spent watching TV or on social media or traipsing in the village. Although the schoolyard is everyone’s playground, it is in the classroom that the distinctions happen.

In the classroom the competition is about who will beat who in what subject at the end of the term and what will one score at the end of the year. All subjects of study tend to appear equal at the beginning of school term. But English – the language and literature – is the master of them all, if you set Kiswahili aside.

Which is why the returning schoolgirls and schoolboys must invest most of their time and energy in studying English. For those returning to join Forms Three and Four the end of the secondary school time is nigh. The Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exams are done in English. Often a pass or a fail in KCSE is simply due to good or mastery of English. It is as simple as that. One cannot expect to pass an exam when they are incompetent in the language in which the exam is tested.

Therefore, high school students have to master the language as a means of communication as well as a subject of study. It is important to pass in the subject because it is a basic requirement for admission to college education.

Yet evidence from the Kenya National Examination Council shows every year that the average performance in English is poor. Many learners worry about how they can make a good grade in English, especially in literature.

Thousands of high-schoolers resort to study guides for English literature to help them out of this problem. However, it is the study guides that are the original problem with performance in English. Most of the guides simply offer ‘model answers’ to the likely exam questions. They do not actually ‘guide’ the learner to appreciate literature on her own.

But there are ways to study literature on one’s own successfully. The candidate may consult the guidebooks but only for revision purposes. Here are a few simple approaches that will make the study of (English) literature most productive for high-schoolers.

READ READ AND READ

First, read, read and read. There is no rule that supersedes this one. In order to be a good speaker of the English language, read texts on grammar as well as literature – poetry, drama, prose (short stories, novels, auto/biographies etc).

The grammar books will teach you the basic rules of how English words are formed, how they are put together in sentences, how meaning is suggested or made, the types of sentences and where and when they are used.

Literature, on the other hand, will expose one to how language is used in different contexts. Literature reflects social, cultural, political, spiritual, economic, personal, communal, national, or global realities.

In other words, literature tells us how, for instance, a teacher, priest, lawyer or storyteller speaks, thinks, behaves, eats, feels etc, in the spaces they inhabit. The language will teach you why certain words are used in some places and time. Literature will educate you on how they are used in those places and at that time.

Thus, if you read Henry ole Kulet’s Blossoms of the Savannah, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, The Pearl by John Steinbeck or David Mulwa’s Inheritance – or the different Kiswahili texts – you will realise that there are variations in the Englishes (or Swahilis) of the texts.

The different kinds of English in the books tell us something about when the stories in the plays or prose were first imagined, drafted or published; and or the culture of the time; or the moral lessons that were/are common in the context of the story.

The point, therefore, is that one cannot just read the one prescribed book and acquire the language or knowledge of how stories are told. Different writers use language differently and have their own style of telling a story.

Remember, read, read and read. Read some other books by the author of the set-book if one wishes to understand the specific author’s narrative style and language use – which might eventually be quite useful in interpreting the story. After reading and rereading, make personal notes on the text/story.

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