16 JULY 2014

Elizabeth Whittome

Elizabeth Whittome has taught English Literature to post-16 students for many years in a wide range of institutions. In addition to her previous work as a moderator and literature consultant, Elizabeth has trained teachers internationally.

Could you tell us a little about your background?

I taught English for most of my career, including English Language and English as a Foreign Language, but English Literature was always my specialism. My MPhil research was on the modern novel but my examining work has been on Shakespeare, poetry and prose of all ages. My 2003 book Cambridge International AS English Language and Literature, for which I wrote the Literature section and a colleague wrote the Language, has been a best seller for CUP and my new book Cambridge International AS and A level Literature in English will shortly be on the shelves, which is exciting. I particularly enjoy doing Inset for teachers, and have done so all over the world.

What first interested you in Literature in English?

I always loved reading from a very young age and used to enjoy involving myself in the imaginary worlds created by stories, poems and plays. I never saw English as hard work at school – it was just a pleasure, and I really wanted to spend my working life discussing Literature in all its forms and helping young people to enjoy it as I do, to realise its significance and relevance to their lives. As a school subject, only Literature is able to engage all students with the big issues of life.

What’s your favourite poem and why?

I knew you’d ask me that! It’s the hardest question of all, because I love so many for different reasons. A top ten would have been easier. However, when I was 13 years old I had to learn by heart one of John Keats’s Odes – Ode to a Nightingale and I can still recite it after all these years. I have to pick this because it is extraordinary in the way it conjures up through words the beauty of the bird’s song and the summer flowers in the dark and the moon in the sky, for example. But despite this evocation of beauty, it’s all about the way we are living human beings who can only appreciate the beauty of nature through our senses of sound, sight, touch, taste and smell, and know that these, with ourselves, like the natural world around us, are doomed to die. Only art and music will remain immortal, spanning the centuries and the different cultures. Not many poems have this range, expressed so unforgettably. It’s also very poignant because Keats knew he was ill and wouldn’t live long himself.

Do you have any tips for teaching 'Cambridge International AS and A level Literature in English'?

Yes. The syllabus consists of set texts and the most important thing is for students to know and enjoy the texts, discussing their use of language and then exploring their form and structure. Classes must work together looking at the language in great detail and talking about its effects, working from micro to macro if you want to put it like that. Students will have different views and they need to listen to each other. The teacher helps them to find textual support for their ideas and reminds them that this is not a subject with simple right answers. They are going to be writing about their set texts as well, so they must practise arranging their ideas and examples into coherent structures to form essays in answer to specific questions on their set texts. Many students find it more difficult to write about a book than to talk about it, so this is important development work.

How does ‘Cambridge International AS and A level Literature in English’ help learners?

It deals clearly with basic principles of poetry, prose and drama and works up to the more complex issues which arise in more advanced work. It uses a very wide range of material, both set texts and other works which have been or will be set one day. There are numerous exercises and discussion points and a whole section on writing better essays in answer to common types of exam questions. Many useful technical terms are defined and used. By the time they’ve finished the book they will have learned a great deal about how to approach any work of Literature in English and feel confident about understanding, appreciating and writing successfully about it.


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