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Steps to Success » Classic Literature

Classics and Vocabulary Building

As the key developer of Overseas Education materials for 11+ and 13+ examinations, I have spent a lot of time thinking of strategies for students to expand their vocabularies. A strong and broad vocabulary is the best weapon you can have in a Verbal Reasoning, Literary Analysis, Reading Comprehension, or Writing assessment; not only because of the words at your fingertips, but also the worlds of meaning these words open up.

Extracts from classic literature feature heavily in these examinations and also in overseas curriculums. Through them, we are given windows into many different historical periods. We can learn ancient morals through Aesop’s fables, find out about medieval robbers in Robin Hood, or discover secret worlds in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 20th century novel The Secret Garden. Each of these historical periods comes with unique vocabulary and contextual references.

For example, archaic words used in character names in Robin Hood could help students with profession vocabulary and feminine and masculine nouns (great for Verbal Reasoning preparation):

Friar Tuck = (arc.) meaning a religious brother, or medieval monk → coming from the Latin frater, or French frere for brother.
Maid Marion = (arc.) meaning an unmarried girl or young woman → more recent historical maid servants who were usually unmarried.
Sheriff of Nottingham = (arc.) meaning a senior officer in an English county responsible for law and order → modern day sheriffs in the US who are chief police officers.

And in The Secret Garden, there are many wonderful adjectives used to describe the personality of the rude and sometimes unpleasant Mary Lennox. Try working out the definitions of these adjectives and using them in your creative writing.

contrary imperious
grave solemn

But how can you use these great works of literature to effectively increase vocabulary? 

  • Read attentively – don’t skip over unknown words or things you don’t understand. Pause and use your strategies for decoding complex vocabulary.
  • Use a dictionary – use a dictionary to find definitions to words you are unsure of. Keep a reading dictionary to keep a track of new words and remind you to use them in your own writing.
  • Read with others – find a friend to be your reading buddy and read the novel at the same time. After each chapter, test each other’s knowledge by asking comprehension questions or about the plot. Discuss the new vocabulary you have learned.
  • Start with abridged versions – if you feel intimidated by the length and complexity of a classic novel, start with an abridged version levelled for your reading ability. i-Learner has some ideal books in our Key to Classics series (L1-2, L3-4, L5-6). Start with these to understand the plot and gradually begin to expand your vocabulary.