Reflections from an English Literature Tutor

February 24, 2022

One of the reasons I love tutoring English Literature is because it is a subject that reaches far beyond the confines of the classroom.

Students who struggle with this class often initially misunderstand its real-world applications, thinking that reading books is a fun past-time, or worse, simply something they are forced to do at school. Here at Scientia, we aim to show students how English Literature can be so much more than these narrow definitions. We want to help students engage with their texts, think critically, and write with clarity and purpose. We know that crafting persuasive and thoughtful essays is a skill which will ultimately benefit the student no matter which direction they pursue. Giving students the confidence to be creative and the analytical skills necessary to extract deeper meaning is what we strive for.

A few of my students’ stories highlight this specific goal:

Eliana started working with Scientia before she began IB and came to me for help with English Literature SL halfway through Year 12. A naturally creative, expressive and vivacious person, Eliana’s confidence had taken a significant knock in English class after barely scraping a 4 in her first semester. She was particularly struggling with how to write an unseen commentary, one of the cornerstones of IB English and the focus of the paper 1 exam. After discussing her fears and concerns with her, I realised that the thing holding Eliana back was not a lack of ideas, but rather how to pick which ones to concentrate on and then structure into a coherent essay. She was overwhelmed by all of the points she wanted to make, resulting in her commentaries looking like a series of lists rather than a close, careful analysis. We created a colour-coded structure for her, including the literal meaning of the text, its figurative or “deeper” meaning, and the three literary devices that she would choose to focus on, that she could use every time she approached an unseen passage, regardless of the genre. The more we practiced, using a range of texts from poetry, prose, non-fiction and drama, the more Eliana’s analytical abilities grew and her confidence flourished. When we first began our sessions, it would take her three quarters of an hour to unpack an extract; by the time we finished, she was able to do it in fifteen minutes and was achieving 5.5s and 6s in English. It was wonderful to watch Eliana rediscover her self-belief and learn how to organise her ideas without forgoing her creativity.

Alexander is in Year 10 and came to Scientia to boost his English grade which was significantly lower than the marks he was receiving in his other subjects. Alexander has a natural affinity for mathematics and the sciences. He likes the objective reliability of formulas and using logic to solve a problem, whereas English, with its emphasis on subjective interpretation and hidden meanings, felt like a completely different world to him. I realised that we just needed to present the subject to him in a way that did not feel quite as foreign. Using the texts he was studying in class, we practiced close-reading specific extracts, and treated finding the central theme almost like a problem-solving exercise, using dialogue, character development and literary techniques as “clues” to arrive at the deeper meaning. By practicing this technique, and breaking down chapters of novels into specific, linear plot points, I could see Alexander gradually become more comfortable with expressing his opinions and light up when the pieces of his literary puzzle finally came together. Today, his grades have improved, his writing has become more fluid and self-assured, and he’s successfully tackled texts by the likes of Owell and Steinbeck, and even the dreaded Shakespeare. Watching how he not only was improving in English, but was actually enjoying it too, intrigued by the machinations of An Inspector Calls, or laughing at the antics in Twelfth Night, was incredibly rewarding and is something I desire for all of my students.

This is exactly what being a tutor with Scientia is all about: tailoring lessons to suit specific students’ needs and providing them with the tools to blossom on their own. It is one thing to equip students with the skills to face their exams with calm, confidence and clarity, but it is another to give them the ability to open a book and see it in all its beauty, subtlety and complexity. At Scientia, we pride ourselves on providing both.