The writing of Charles Dickens, the bi-centenary of whose birth is celebrated this year, often explores troubling themes and brings us face to face with harsh times and some unsavoury characters. And yet his stories are so hugely captivating and so imagination stretching that even the youngest children can enjoy an introduction to his work. Margaret Mallett suggests some of the ways in which teachers of the under 11s might approach this interesting and worthwhile challenge.
We do not expect children under 11 years to read or listen to a complete Dickens novel. But we can provide well written shortened versions of the stories and then develop interesting activities to help explore the themes and characters. The Dickens stories in Usborne’s Young Reading series, for example Little Dorrit, are organised in short chapters, have copious bright pictures and suggest Internet links for more information on Dickens’ life and times. Illustrated Stories From Dickens, richly illustrated by Barry Ablett, brings the clothes, artefacts and Victorian surroundings of the characters alive on the page. And Real Reads has published adaptations for children of about age eight and over of a large number of Dickens’ novels including Gill Tavner and Karen Donnelly’s retelling of Great Expectations . All the above are amongst those retellings that are lively enough to encourage children to tackle the full length novels when they are older.
Reading aloud and drama
Reading aloud and drama can help involve children in Dickens’ stories in a more than superficial way. The secret is, I think, to get the children’s feelings engaged and to make them care about what happens to the people they meet in the stories. After hearing a shortened version of a story- Oliver Twist, David Copperfield or Great Expectations perhaps- children can be helped to act out some of the scenes. And I know from experience that children greatly appreciate the teacher becoming a character and answering questions ‘in role’. Teachers who use drama as a way of involving children in literature often find their young pupils bring new energy and purpose to their learning and imagining. It also makes possible a special kind of collaboration and sharing. A book which is an excellent starting point for drama based on Dickens’ stories is Charles Dickens: Scenes From An Extraordinary Life by Mick Manning and Brita Granström – described by Simon Callow as ‘a wonderful, enduring introduction for young readers’ (New York Times, 2012.) They manage to grab children’s interest with graphic style introductions to some of the stories. A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, Martin Chuzzlewit, Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist are all here in comic strip form with a narration below each illustration and speech bubbles. Picking out a key scene often encourages children to want to read more and perhaps, later on, turn to the original text. The teacher or a confident child could read the main narration while others take on the speech in the bubbles. This could develop later into short plays with some basic scenery and costumes which could be shown to another class. To encourage empathy and involvement, ask the children – how do you think the characters feel? Some of Dickens’ actual words can be used to expose children to the language of a powerful writer.
Discussion and projects
Lively discussion arises when a good link is made between the stories and what the children are likely to understand. A scene that nearly always gives rise to lively discussion, even with the youngest children, is in Oliver Twist -I am thinking, of course, of the episode in which Oliver asks for more gruel. Before reading the scene there could be shared anecdotes about what it is like to feel really hungry. One teacher of seven-year-olds told them about her experience of a very long delay on a train journey and having to go without dinner. Children then shared their memories about feeling empty and longing for food. But, asked the teacher, what would it be like to feel really hungry all the time? Dickens’ dialogue between Oliver and Mr Bumble was then acted out and followed by comments and questions. These young children made a start in understanding why people feared going into workhouses so much. Older children are able to carry out more advanced projects on social conditions in Dickens’ times. Catherine Wells-Cole’s book Charles Dickens: A Lifetime of Storytelling; a Legacy of Change provides helpful background information about workhouses, prisons and the fate of orphans. The book is illustrated with photographs, drawings and book covers of first editions of Dickens’ novels. Each double spread is alive with pop-ups and pull outs. The themes here could lead to involved discussion about the realities in parts of the world today where the gulf between rich and poor is still great. These days children read on screen as well as using print resources and can choose from many different media to share what they have learnt. Interactive white boards lend themselves to video film and power point presentations. Sharing with others keeps up interest and commitment and children love to show their work to another class or to parents.
Images and artwork
An image can often intrigue children and lead to questions and research. There is a wonderful picture of a nervous Oliver Twist confronting Mr Bumble in Marcia William’s Oliver Twist and Other Great Dickens Stories. This image was used as the logo for the ‘More Dickens’ competition run jointly by The Dickens Fellowship and The English Association which invited primary schools to submit projects round Dickens’ stories. This book and Manning and Granström’s Charles Dickens: Scenes From An Extraordinary Life shows the power of the visual to awaken the imagination. Dickens’ characters come ‘alive’ on the page and many illustrators have used his descriptions to draw and paint them. Children can be inspired to do this too. Manning and Granström make a strong and interesting link between events in Dickens’ life and his stories. There is a telling picture of Charles as a young boy of twelve years visiting his father in Marshalsea debtor’s prison and a speech bubble contains the famous utterance of Mr Micawber about the dangers of owing money in Great Expectations. Children can re-savour the stories by creating their own drawings, perhaps with annotations. Another idea is to make a ‘Dickens Box’ in which children, in pairs perhaps, could place artefacts, pictures and documents, and then explain the contents of their boxes to the class. This is a satisfying way of using the information about Dickens’ life and times from books and websites.
Writing and multimodal and multimedia responses
Dickens’ stories and the social conditions of Victorian times which is their backdrop can inspire a huge range of interesting written responses. The vivid characters, and particularly child characters- Oliver, Pip, Little Dorrit, David, Estelle, Tiny Tim- cry out for some writing ‘in role’, perhaps in diary format. And even reluctant writers can sometimes be enthused by writing part of a story in comic style, using narrative under each picture and speech bubbles. These multimodal responses give children the opportunity to combine design, writing and illustrations. You just need to look at Marcia Williams’ Oliver Twist and Other Great Dickens Stories to find that even sad events can be effectively communicated through comic strip. Drama can energise writing in role and lead to lively script writing with stage directions and annotated set designs. Dickens would, I think, be the last person to turn from popular culture. So don’t rule out the modern or the digital: texting, email and tweeting could all be used to explore characters and events.
Dickens’ work and times provide a strong context for children’s non-fiction writing; the privations of the workhouses, the conditions in Victorian prisons and the grinding poverty of the disadvantaged are all themes which can awaken children’s feelings as well as their thinking. Particularly useful for older primary children are the Victorian sections of Dickens’ A Child’s History of England, edited by Kate Agnew. After research in this book and other sources including websites, for example kidsfreesouls which has a short biography of Charles Dickens, writing tasks might include newspaper reports and interviews with characters, letters of complaint from social reformers to magazines and advertisements for Victorian jobs. Children could record and illustrate key points in Dickens’ life using Charles Dickens: Scenes From An Extraordinary Life or an on-line website like Shmoops .The whole class might make a timeline of events in Dickens’ life and dates when his books were written for display. The teacher’s skilled mediation between children and sources is of great importance. Teresa Cremin and her colleagues make the case for teachers broadening their knowledge of literature of all kinds (Cremin et al, 2009). And so teachers’ own knowledge of Dickens’ books and the times in which he lived helps them talk to children and enthuse them. Reading their writing aloud to another class or to the whole school during assembly or helping to put up displays or to arrange writing in class books, newspapers or magazines on-line all help keep up interest.
The aim of all these suggested activities is to engage children’s empathy with the privations in Victorian times and awaken their feelings about the fates of the characters in Dickens’ books. It is Dickens’ humanity, the fact that he is alive to problems in the Victorian world as shown through the convincing characters and events, that will move children and encourage lifelong enjoyment of his work.
Cremin, T, Mottram, M, Collins, F, Powell, S and Safford, K (2009) Teachers as readers: building communities of readers. Literacy 43 (1): 11-19.
Dickens, Charles and Agnew, Kate, adapter (2009) A Child’s History of England. Wizard Books, 10: 1840468394. £6.99.hbk.
Dickens, Charles & Ablett, Barry (ill.)(2009) Illustrated Stories from Dickens. Usborne’s Illustrated Classics. 978-1409508670. £9.99 hbk.
Dickens, Charles, Sebag-Montefiore, Mary (adapter) and Ablett, Barry (ill.). Little Dorrit . Usborne Publishing. 10-1409506797. £4.99.
Dickens, Charles, Tavner, Gill (adapter) and Donnelly, Karen (ill.) Great Expectations. Real Reads. 10: 1906230013. £4.99
Manning, Mick & Granström, Brita (2011) Charles Dickens: Scenes from an Extraordinary Life. Frances Lincoln. 978-1-84780-187-6. £12.99 hbk.
Wells-Cole, Catherine (2011) Charles Dickens: A Lifetime of Storytelling; A Legacy of Change. Templar Publishing. 978 1 84877 117 8. £14.99 hbk.
Williams, Marcia (2007 edition) Oliver Twist and Other Great Dickens Stories. Walker Books. 10:1406305634. £6.99 pbk.
Dickens World shows scenes from the books and times at Chatham Maritime: dickensworld.co.uk
Margaret Mallett is an independent writer and researcher into all aspects of the primary English curriculum.