Tips From an Irvine English Tutor: “Decoding Literature: Plain English Please!”
Students in High School literature classes (whether in Advanced Placement or a typical class) will eventually have to cope with various forms of the English language. This can be particularly difficult when a student is meant to demonstrate their critical thinking skills and determine the author’s point of view. There are two elements that make older forms of English (Middle English and Early Modern English) difficult to decode. First, the language itself is hard to understand for a Late Modern English speaker (that’s you). Second, the cultural and societal aspects of the time the novel or text was written can be incredibly different from our current cultural codes. There are a few ways students can learn to love, or at least live with, older forms of English and be successful in their literature classes – our highly educated English tutors are here to help.
1. The plain language version
The first thing every student should do is get a plain language version of the text if available. Plain language text can be available in multiple formats including a summary and analysis as part of an online study tool, a separate plain language version of the book, a page for page plain language text. Most students will find that the page for page version is most helpful. It will provide the Middle English or Early Modern English on the left and plain language version on the right. However, this study tool is not always available. If students cannot get a full plain language text, they will always be able to get a summary at the very least. This is the first step to understanding older dialects of literature (READ: “5 Reasons Students Should Blog”).
2. Interpret the text through a visual medium
This is a fancy way of saying rent the movie. However, students needs to be wary of which movie version they watch. Some versions are word for word or at least scene for scene while others are entirely updated and condensed to meet the needs of a modern audience. It’s essential students view the film that is as close to the book as possible. Always ask a teacher or tutor for a recommendation before spending two or three hours in front of the TV.
3. Consult an expert
Students who are struggling with older forms of English are encouraged to work with somebody who is familiar with this type of language. Students can work with a private tutor or visit their teacher during office hours to discuss ways they can overcome the difficulty of the language. English teachers are a fantastic resource but they can only help if the student asks (READ: “Five Tips For Success in English Class”).
4. Break it up into smaller parts
Attempting to read Romeo and Juliet or The Canterbury Tales in its entirety in one sitting will be incredibly overwhelming. It’s essential that students break up these texts into smaller parts. The brain will be working extra hard to attempt to translate from Late Modern English to Middle English and back and the student’s mind becomes exhausted much quicker. It’s a good idea to take these plays and poems one part at a time and make sure to take a mental break in between study sessions (READ: “5 Study Tips From A Private Irvine Academic Tutor”).
5. Read the cultural context prior to reading the book
If students are already struggling with the language, why add in and elusive cultural context? The place of men and women in society, socioeconomic boundaries, and family relationships we’re all different during these time periods. Students should read a little bit about the author’s biography as well as the cultural context of the period in order to help them understand the context of the story or text. Once they understand why characters are behaving in a certain way, students will better understand the particular language used to describe the characters as well as the words spoken by the characters themselves.
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